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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Times, They Are A Changin'....

The Power to Tax Involves the Power to Destroy
Chief Justice John Marshall, McCulloch vs. Maryland, 1819

It looks like Charlie Crowell is going to be a very lonely hero.

At the Dennis Selectmen’s Meeting, he was the lone holdout voting against seeking special legislation to require those who rent out time shares or their private residences to charge state rooms tax when renting out their house during the summer. ''We have enough taxes,'' he said at the board meeting. ''We don't need any more.''

This new effort was begun in Brewster, where Ed Lewis of the Brewster Board enthused, “'I don't know of any town on the Cape that can't use more revenue.'' Especially on something like summer rentals, the epitome of the old saying by Sen. Russell Long, ‘Don’t Tax You, Don’t Tax Me – Tax That Fellow Behind The Tree!’ Dennis now joins Provincetown (which only paused to curse that they hadn’t done so first), Harwich, Orleans, Falmouth and Brewster which have already passed such resolutions, unanimously. Yarmouth is cautiously studying it. Yarmouth already has a lion’s share of the hotel rooms on Cape, and is perhaps worried about the impact on that industry.

Why this sudden stampede of tax happy selectmen? When Sen. O’Leary filed a bill in the last Legislative session to do the same thing, the interest was lukewarm at best. How would it be collected – was every John and Jane to become a tax collector for the state and town? Wouldn’t it just drive rentals – especially those which were undeclared on income tax forms – underground, and deprive towns of the revenue derived from the registration certificates they already sold, and create a new nod-and-wink economy, to join the uncollected sales tax at flea markets? What would it do to the realtors who specialized in handling rentals – would they be expected to collect and transmit the taxes too or would they just lose the bookings to the Internet and classified ads? The bill died a swift death, and the Senator didn’t even bother to refile it when he was reelected.

Why the change? Whence the sudden appetite for a brand-new, fresh from the bandbox tax, never charged before? Especially now, when the worst of the fiscal crisis is over, and the towns can actually expect more in local aid than they received in the last few years?

Is Mr. Lewis’ enthusiasm a symptom of something else?

More and more people are buying and living here, and they are coming from places where taxes are high and services are higher. A house observed by Porcupine was recently sold to a man who hails from MetroWest, who trimmed his branches and shrubs over the weekend, and left the sticks and leaves neatly piled where the gutter would be back in Brookline, confident that the trash truck would pick them up. Porcupine will enjoy seeing his face when he returns for the Fourth of July, and finds his mess right where he left it – because there IS no trash pickup here. His tax rate back home approaches $30, but his every need is catered to. It is a jolt when these folk realize that must haul their own trash, pump their own septic systems, and in some cases, arrange for their streets to be plowed, here in the land of no public transportation and rugged individualism. It is a shock when they realize that ‘private road’ doesn’t mean they can ban traffic, it only means they are responsible for paving and upkeep. Increasingly, the appetite to keep a tight rein on town spending is diminishing, as more and more retirees want services, and prefer to pay for them with taxes – and damn the less affluent.

The only comforting note in this saga is that since Sen. O’Leary did not file the bill on time, it will probably die the slow death of a late-filed bill, despite the requests of the towns which have suddenly decided that it is too, too twentieth century to try to live within their means when a fresh glint of uncollected money beckons.

“We already have enough taxes”. Spoken like a true Cape Codder, a rock-ribbed Republican, a Crowell of the Clan. The Dennis tax rate will not soar into double digits on his watch. Even if he did have the misfortune to be born in New Jersey, Charlie Crowell is a True Native Selectman.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Greek Tragedy?

Golf is an open exhibition of overweening ambition, courage deflated by stupidity, skill soured by a whiff of arrogance.
Alistair Cooke, Inside Golf Atheneum, 1985

In the legend, Daedelus built wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son, and warned young Icarus to be discreet and not fly too close to the sun lest his wings melt and he fall. Icarus ignored the sage warning and plunged to his death. Our local Greek God may soon be heading for the same fate.

Ask anyone in Barnstable why they voted for the then-young Demetrius Atsalis and you stand an excellent chance of getting one answer – his mother and father are so nice. The substantial popularity of John Atsalis is the major reason young Demetrius won elective office as his first full time job outside the bosom of his family, but now an older and more cynical Demetrius shows every sign of ignoring his father’s good reputation, and beginning to fly straight for the sun.

His has been a troubled legislative career. In his first term, he was embroiled in a shoving match during the infamous ‘Toga Budget’ session, at a late night drinking session in the Judiciary Committee over some young ladies present, but the Cape Cod Times decided not to cover the story the way the Herald and the Lowell Sun did, as the lad was obviously unused to strong drink and had fallen in with a fast crowd in the wicked city. It was an exception, an unfortunate incident – nothing like it would happen again.

Except it did. Over and over. Demetrius took to bragging that he had the Ear of the Speaker, and announced that those lesser mortals should fear him – hardly the behaviour of his father’s son. He challenged respected committee chairs, and earned a reputation for thinking that the rules were for other, littler, people. Fiddling while Barnstable’s budget burned, he delivered his maiden speech in the House on the compelling subject of school dress codes.

Demetrius showed his strain of arrogance again whn he was embroiled in a shouting match at a golf course later, playing the ‘Do you know who I am’ card so hard that the police were summoned to the course. The Times chose to reluctantly cover the story only after it ran in the Herald and the Barnstable Patriot, and was scathingly written about by local reporter Paul Gauvin. Just another flap – of his waxen wings, carrying him higher yet again.

When the legislative pay raise became an issue, he pledged to donate his to a peculiar charity – he would pay a $1.30 prescription surcharge for his constituents who gave him their druggist receipts. Of course, the surcharge was repealed and the money refunded to the drug store customers. There is no evidence that he ever donated his salary at all. Perhaps this is where his interest in unusual charities began.

Now, it has been discovered that for the last six years his annual ‘charity’ golf tournament has been raking in money, and was not even legally registered with the Commonwealth. Last week, he claimed to have taken in a little over $4,000, and he might $2,900 to give away. Eventually. Maybe. He has had high flyers at these tournaments – this year, Majority Leader John Rogers, Chairman David Torrissi, Rep. James Fagan (D-Taunton), Rep. Anthony Petrucelli (D-East Boston), Rep. David Flynn (D-Bridgewater) the ‘Dean’ of the House, and Rep. Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport), Rep. Michael Rush (D-West Roxbury), Rep. Thomas Stanley (D-Waltham) and Rep. Frank Smizik (D-Brookline). It is to be hoped that these Representatives used personal checks, as those from campaign accounts can only be given to an organized charity. Perhaps a flurry of amended campaign reports is in the offing.

The smoked cigars, they drank beer from the coolers in the golf carts – all on a bright blue Tuesday afternoon, while those lesser beings whose taxes subsidized their sport worked to support them. Perhaps the most loutish aspect of Demetrius’ behaviour is that fact that while he was chomping his stogie and playing BMOC with his elders and betters, Senator O’Leary, Rep. Gomes, the head of Massachusetts Fisheries and the Commissioner of the Division of Fisheries, Wildlife and the Environment were holding an informational press briefing in his district on Scudder Avenue to stress that the oceans were safe to swim in, and that the seafood for sale was safe to eat. The Representative was notable once again for his absence at this event. It has been suggested that he thinks red tide is the unscented detergent, but the danger to the Cape’s delicate tourist economy must have penetrated even his self absorption. Perhaps.

The state Republican Party, curious as to where the money has gone all these years, is filing an Ethics Committee complaint against him, as the spatter of wax falls to the ground ever more rapidly. Demetrius Atsalis is a few feathers shy of a full wing, and with eyes fixed on the sun, he may not notice that his elevation is beginning to dip.

The sneer is the last thing to go before the final plunge.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Freedom of the Press Belongs to Him Who Owns One

"...Without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep..."

Rosa Luxemburg (1870–1919), German revolutionary. Prison notes, 1918.

Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of england, is nervous. Ha! I knew my return would ruffle them!

The Times (when you are the original, you don’t need to sully your name with a mere location – but THIS Times is in London) reports in a story titled ‘Archbishop hits out at web-based media 'nonsense' that
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has criticized the new web-based media for “paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry”. He described the atmosphere on the world wide web as a free-for-all that was “close to that of unpoliced conversation”. Good heavens! When we fail to police a conversation, who knows what we may hear?

According to the Good Doctor, “There are undoubtedly facts which would be of huge interest to a certain sort of public, but are not by any stretch of the imagination matters of public interest in the sense that not knowing them creates or prolongs a seriously unjust situation.” This attitude may sound odd in this land of free speech, but remember, in Britain, there is no First Amendment (or any rights at all, except those granted in 1066 in the Magna Charta), and the Official Secrets Act, designed to keep secret anything that might embarrass an official, is alive and well.

Here we are on Cape Cod, pandering in the blogosphere to that ‘certain sort of public’, a segment that doesn’t sound like one in which you would wish to be included. Yet here is the new frontier, as certainly as I was on the cutting edge almost 200 years ago. My Porcupine’s Gazette and
Political Register were despised as cheap tuppenny dreadfuls, but in my pages were the first stirrings towards a more egalitarian society, roundly condemned by the Lambeth Palace inhabitants at the time. Not many writers could be tried for sedition on two separate continents and then later be elected to Parliament as I was, but I like to think your Matt Drudge is such a writer.

Yes, the internet is messy and unpoliced. Praise be! Going backwards, we had television, newspapers, pamphlets, scrolls, stone tablets, and gossip – and each of them began as wild territory, and were rapidly carried away by a sense of their own importance to tedium and predictability. ‘Blogeto, ergo sum’, wrote the cyber-editor of Cape Cod Today not long ago, and he is more correct than he realizes. The blogosphere keeps more traditional media honest, by routinely scooping them and by publishing stories that would never make it through the vetting that traditional media has. One has only to think of CBS chewing its corporate lip while contemplating Ms. Lewinsky’s dress until Matt Drudge spoke clear, or the CapeCod Times preventing a reporter from viewing the story he was covering at first hand, to realize how many major stories would never have been published without the untrammeled atmosphere of the blog. Here on Cape Cod, in our little corner, we have Cape Media Watch, the Wind Farm Blog, Cape Cod Works,
Cape Seneca, and my Humble Self, all speaking truth to power and circulating ideas. It is indeed a free-for-all – free to speak, free to ignore, and free to publish. The old truism of never fighting anyone who buys in by the barrel is rapidly sinking away, as free electronic ink gains greater currency every day.

Is probity a casualty of the blogosphere? Of course it is, sometimes – but Jayson Blair and Dan Rather showed that traditional media and the blog both have no corner on chicanery or on truth. Franklin Roosevelt once said, "Freedom of the press is essential to the preservation of a democracy; but there is a difference between freedom and license. Editorialists who tell downright lies in order to advance their own agendas do more to discredit the press than all the censors in the world. " This is still true - a blog, a newsmagazine or a daily paper that routinely supresses or distorts facts because they are unwelcome or disagreeable will soon lose all credibility, and the withering of their influence is a form of perverse self-censorship.

Caveat Reader – let the ideas circulate, and let us achieve the level of Unpoliced Conversation!

Sunday, June 12, 2005

....Where You Eat, As the Saying Goes.

The sea is the universal sewer.
Jacques Cousteau, to House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Jan. 28, 1971

Why had the red tide struck? Here is an explanation from the Providence Journal –

First, there's too much fresh water in some of our bays, lowering the level of salt in the water and providing a happier home life for the newly born red-tide cells. [BEAR THIS IN MIND – WE’LL BE RETURNING TO THIS – PP]. WHOI scientist Dennis McGillicuddy says that red-tide cells lying on the ocean bottom wake up each spring. When they find lots of fresh water, a perfect ocean temperature, and much nourishment to eat -- they go to town. So, why are there so many nutrients in the waters? And why is there so much fresh water in our oceans?

For an answer to that mystery, time to move from talking to the scientists to talking to New England housing developers and all those people who have built McMansions on our shorelines. Time to talk to the shoreline homeowners who run their fertilizer-greedy grass lawns down to the shoreline. Chopping down all the vegetation that nature has grown as a buffer for our rivers, ponds and coasts, and building huge houses with rich-looking green grass running down to the water is a recipe for algae blooms. Add to those ingredients that many New England sewage plants emit not clean water but only partly purified "gray" water (it's cheaper that way), and it's not hard to figure out why our coastal waters are a mess. So we know where the nutrients came from, but how did all that fresh water suddenly get here? Scientists aren't certain, but a growing number believe that rising global temperatures resulting in melting polar ice caps may be shifting global ocean currents.”

Porcupine rather sighs when he reads ‘explanations’ like this; so much easier to blame global consumption or those bad rich newcomers than a more intractable source for the problem. Or perhaps the solution is a great deal closer than the North Pole?

The Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) has a very complete web site describing the salutary affect that the construction of the sewage Outfall Pipe from Boston’s sewers into Massachusetts Bay has had on the Harbor Cleanup. One paragraph from the web site explains:

The opening of the new 9.5-mile ocean outfall on September 6, 2000 relocated effluent away from Boston Harbor to Massachusetts Bay. MWRA scientists have already noted a number of changes in harbor water quality that appear to be related to the relocation. The most dramatic changes have occurred near the former harbor outfalls (inside Boston Harbor), especially changes in bacteria, ammonium concentrations, and water clarity. This section describes observations during the first four months after the DITP discharges to the harbor ended. Now, the major sources of contaminants—especially nutrients—are from the rivers and storm water runoff. …During the first weeks after the bay outfall started up and all harbor discharges ended, water quality improved greatly near the former harbor outfalls. During subsequent months, improvements were seen harbor-wide.”

This is all very nice for Boston – but what about the enormous amounts of fresh water pumped into Cape Cod Bay? The site is a potpourri of charts and maps, showing the projected and actual impact of the gray water outfall – and one of the most damning shows that while the MWRA thought the fresh water outfall would hug the coastline, the maps show the dilution of salt water actually reaching to Provincetown. What the charts also show is that while the measuring of coliform and lead are scrupulous, the ‘Flow, in Conduit’ is simply labeled ‘Continuous’. Also, the last map showing Chlorophyll sampling on the site is dated 2000 – and it showed a spike of over 200% at that time. The site also announces that in 2005 – five years after the plant was brought on line, the MWRA will BEGIN to measure the impact on Massachusetts (a.k.a. Cape Cod) Bay, and is requesting bids now to do the studies.

I advise all Cape Codders to visit
www.mwra.state.ma.us, and read the story of the Harbor Cleanup, and look at the maps, with a different question in mind, rather than the story of the success being touted. Especially, remember that the tax dollars of Cape Cod pay for the debt service for the bonds that built the pipe.

Is all that red-tide inducing fresh water really coming from global warming, or from Boston?

HOWEVER! I told you we would be returning to this!

Never let it be said that the Porcupine is a mere cavailler, a carper without solution. If, in fact, a deficiency in ocean salinity is the Problem, the Porcupine has the solution.

Provincetown has no water, and tremendous demand. They now purchase their water from neighboring Truro, and are driving Truro to snitch Wellfleet water. Why not build a desalinization plant at the National Seashore to serve Provincetown with fresh water, and take the left over sea salt and minerals, and feed them back into the fresh water as it is released from Deer Island, correcting the salinity?

Rather than have to turn off the Outfall spigot altogether, perhaps the MWRA can pay for it!

Monday, June 06, 2005

Shall Honor Outlive Honesty?

This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues,
Was once thought honest; you have lov’d him well."

William Shakespere, The Tragedy of Macbeth

“It's very hard to stop people who have no shame about what they're doing. It is very hard to tell people that they are making decisions that will undermine our checks and balances and constitutional system of government who don't care. It is very hard to stop people who have never been acquainted with the truth."

Federal Prosecutor Michael Sullivan on the Massachusetts Democrat Party? No, Hillary Clinton on the GOP in Manhattan earlier today.

I direct you to my essay of May 6, Upon my Oath as a Gentleman… in which I predicted that Mr. Finneran, part-time Eastham resident, would face Federal charges, and be utterly oblivious as to why. (As a side note - Eastham should put their residents, the Speaker and former Assistant Minority Leader Ron Gauch, to work together - perhaps on the Finance Committee...just watch the tax rate tumble!)

His statement today – “"Twenty-six years of unblemished public service and unquestioned integrity speaks volumes…So do the calls, cards and comments from state and federal prosecutors, past and present, judges, attorneys, business leaders and citizens of all stripes regarding the questionable motives and machinations of the United States Attorney's Office." – would have sounded nobler coming out of another’s mouth. Already, the motive for investigating, not the deed itself, is being called into questions.

Finneran will be arraigned in Tuesday, June 14 at 3 pm before US Magistrate Judge Joyce London Alexander. Didn’t she used to date Mitt Romney?

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