With an expensive sewer construction project in the pipeline for Spring Town Meeting, the Town of Mashpee will hire a communications consultant to help relay information on the project to the public.
The board of selectmen in a unanimous vote during its meeting on Monday, February 8, approved the request by Town Manager Rodney C. Collins to hire a consultant.
“What I would like to do is retain the services of somebody that has some journalistic background, somebody that has some written and communications skill sets that is able to coordinate this on behalf of the town,” Mr. Collins said.
The selectmen last week held a joint meeting with the sewer commission to determine that the two boards would together draft a Town Meeting article for the construction of a wastewater treatment plant and adjoined sewer system.
The sewer commission told the selectmen that the final price tag on the project, which is expected to cost more than $50 million, would not be available until 75 percent designs were completed by the engineering team in mid-March. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a date or time for Town Meeting has yet to be confirmed, though the selectmen have suggested the meeting will be held sometime in May or June.
“There are a lot of things that we need to find out, and we don’t have a lot of answers yet, but they’re going to come really fast,” selectmen chairman John J. Cotton said on Monday during a joint meeting with the finance committee.
Mr. Cotton has sought to get the sewer commission, finance committee and board of selectmen on the same page, as the town plans to ask the voters to approve the first phase of the five-phase sewering project this spring.
“This has got to be a total team effort on the town’s behalf,” Mr. Cotton said. “We want to make sure that come Town Meeting, whenever and wherever that is held, that we’re transparent as possible to everyone in the community.”
The wastewater treatment plant, which would be constructed adjacent to the town’s transfer station, and the sewer system, which would stretch north toward town hall and south toward Popponesset Bay, together comprise the first phase of the town’s Comprehensive Watershed Nitrogen Management Plan.
A final draft of the five-phase plan, which aims to remediate nitrogen pollution in the town’s embayments, was completed for the town in 2015, after almost a decade of research. After years of delay, Town Meeting last June narrowly approved a $2.48 million debt exclusion for the design of the sewer system and wastewater treatment plant.
Nitrogen pollution, which causes harmful algae blooms that damage the town’s saltwater embayments, prompted the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental law firm, to announce plans last fall to sue the Town of Mashpee for continuing to permit septic systems, which are the primary source of the pollution.
The first phase of the sewer project would replace septic systems in the vicinity of the Mashpee River watershed with sewer connections. Mr. Cotton has pointed to the approval of the design of the first phase and the pending vote on construction this spring as evidence that the town is serious about addressing nutrient pollution.
With the finance committee on Monday, the selectmen discussed the lingering questions—many of which remain unanswered as design work continues—about the project.
“We’ve learned in the past with other expensive projects with the town, they turn more favorably when the voters are fully informed on both the broad level and the detailed level on what to expect,” finance committee member John Miller said. “I think the kinds of questions that a communications consultant would be asking are similar to the kinds of questions that the average voter and taxpayer in town is asking.”
From who will pay for grinder pumps that some properties may need to connect to the sewer system to which households will be required to hook up to the system, the selectmen and finance committee batted around questions that will need to be answered in the coming months.
With so many questions to be answered in such a short period of time, the town manager cast the option of hiring a communications consultant as a short-term expense that would help the town coordinate quickly.
“The timeline is tight, so I think it makes all the more reason to be not only transparent but to make sure that there is a coordinated effort in getting this information out in a timely manner,” Mr. Collins said. “There are many points of interest that we need to hit rather than miss.”
The communications consultant would work with the the town manager, the director of public works, the chairman of the sewer commission and the chairman of the selectmen to help disseminate information through email, mail, Mashpee TV and other means, Mr. Collins said.
Mr. Cotton suggested that the communications consultant might have “a little bit more credence” if he or she were a resident of Mashpee.
Mr. Collins replied that he always likes to recruit Mashpee residents whenever possible but that his main focus is to hire someone with the necessary level of communications expertise to help make the sewer project successful.