Places change. And sometimes you may be able to catch a key moment in the process.
In September a large contingent of Wellfleet’s non-resident taxpayers, people who live most of the year elsewhere, converged on a selectmen’s meeting to weigh in on a controversial issue.
The issue was a proposal by two selectmen to give locals a break by taxing residents and nonresidents at a different rate. Doing this is allowed by law. Many towns around the country and the state do it. Some of our nonresidents benefit from such a break in the towns where they are the locals. But one after another they took to the microphone to express their anger and hurt feelings: this idea is an insult to our affection for this town, makes us feel like second-class citizens; not all non-residents are rich (and not all residents are poor). And much more along the same lines.
A few speakers made the point that second-home owners loyally support local businesses and community projects. Treat us this way, some said, and we might just consider withdrawing that support. Second home owners now own more than two-thirds of the houses in town and pay most of the taxes. A lot more money gets spent when they are in town. The message was clear: you don’t want to mess with us.
A half hour of such sentiments had a chilling effect, to put it mildly.
No vote was taken by the selectmen but also no decision made about when or whether to revisit the proposal. One of the proposers admitted afterward that this may not be the time for this idea. The non-residents left en masse, no doubt with a satisfied feeling of “mission accomplished.”
The law is clear that only fulltime residents get to vote on town affairs. The logic of that law would seem to be that only fulltime experience in and commitment to a town qualifies you to help run it.
But economic pressure may be more effective than a vote. A selectman has suggested that local store owners who might otherwise be in favor of the measure would be afraid to go against second-home owners.
When second-home owners organized themselves as the Wellfleet Non-resident Taxpayers Association (WNRTA) in 2000 they were at great pains to reassure locals that they were not ambitious for the vote, they just wanted to express their fondness for the town by being kept informed about issues and making helpful contributions.
It’s worth wondering why it took non-residents so long to organize themselves. After all, we’ve had second-home owners back as far as the early 20th century, and increasingly since the 1960s and 70s. It’s my impression—and personal experience — that the reason there was no WNRTA back then that was that there was no felt need for it. Until fairly recently it simply did not occur to non-residents to want to play a role in town affairs, even an advisory one. Part of the typical part-timer’s romance of the town included being charmed by the difference between summer people and year-rounders (which included a higher percentage of natives) and how they chose to run the town. Second-home ownership up to a certain point was not the self-conscious constituency it was to become.
Probably the increased interest in organizing has something to do with a growing awareness that, Hey, in terms of tax revenue we are more than two-thirds of this town. It rankles, perhaps, more than it used to, to be in one sense such a dominant constituency and yet not have a say in town governance.
Of course the tax relief proposal is an obvious sort of issue for nonresidents to get upset about. It remains to be seen whether the successful packing of that selectmen’s meeting established a precedent or was a one time thing.
But we may have entered an era in which people who don’t live here in fact have an increasing influence in running the town.