At Large : Heads up
At a recent public inquiry into the fitness of four Democrat contestants to replace Eric Turkington as our representative to the Great and General Court, the question was how can the Vineyard cadge more money from the non-Vineyard taxpayers of Massachusetts to finance its already handsomely funded public fleet of five town K-8 facilities, one 9-12 high school, and one charter school, all to serve the needs of 2,200 students. The hope behind the questions was that the low income taxpayers of, say North Adams, or Chicopee, or Brockton, Fall River, and New Bedford might be imposed upon to help foot the bill for Vineyard education.
Not one of the aspirants suggested, not even in a nervous whisper, that a community such as ours, half or more of whose school bill is paid by property owners who contribute no kids to the student population, is unlikely to get more funding. Not one suggested that perhaps this school system of ours is funded well enough, especially when one considers that many other Massachusetts towns badly need the help of taxpayers elsewhere in the state. Such towns are needier. Not one of the hopeful four suggested that the Island towns may need to find a way to fund education in a better organized, more efficient, and perhaps less expensive way.
In a way, the parsimony of state taxpayers, when asked to contribute to education funding on Martha's Vineyard, may be understandable. They may feel stung by other state programs and reluctant to go along with subsidies for six towns whose per capita real estate value is, well, splendid. State programs to help towns with targeted funding can produce perverse and unintended results, which adversely affect some poorer communities. For instance, an examination of the Community Preservation Act's performance, written by Bruce Mohl and published in Commonwealth magazine's summer, 2008, issue, discovers several perversities associated with the CPA program.
First, it has been the wealthier cities and towns of the Commonwealth that have benefited most handsomely from the state's 50 percent match of taxpayer-contributed surcharges. Cambridge, Newton, Barnstable, Weston, Nantucket, Westford, North Andover, Sudbury, Duxbury, and Plymouth are among the top ten beneficiaries, according to Mr. Mohl. "The average median household income of the top 10 CPA communities is $83,166 - or 65 percent higher than the statewide average," he writes. These towns join up, because their property taxpayers can afford the one- to three-percent add-on. The state funding comes from fees added to real estate transactions.
Next, although affordable housing has been a high priority for CPA participant communities, recreation facilities, on which the smallest share of CPA funds has been spent, is the fastest growing category among the permitted four uses - open space, historic preservation, affordable housing, and recreation, according to the Commonwealth article.
Third, a legislator for wealthy Newton, whose recreation-related proposal for its CPA treasure chest was rejected by a state court, is pressing the legislature to add more money to the state's CPA pot and permit more flexibility - read, the application of more money to recreational facilities - in municipal decisions on how the money will be used.
Finally, Mr. Mohl warns that the slump in real estate sales will sharply reduce state funds available for matching town CPA funds, generated from real estate tax surcharges.
Taken altogether, the CPA story is cautionary for Island communities, who must take great care in anticipating, and even greater care in counting on, state largess.
Many of you will remember Charlie Parton, former West Tisbury resident - two stints, separated by a dalliance off-Island. With his wife Teena, he was the owner and proprietor of Alley's General Store during the 1980s. That experience was the subject of Charlie's first book, From Sanderson's to Alleys - A Biography of the West Tisbury General Store.
But apart from his retail enterprise, Charlie was also a physician, hospital executive, medical school teacher, an associate director of the Peace Corps in British North Borneo, a shepherd, and a public-spirited and much involved neighbor. Charlie, who now lives in New Marlborough, near Great Barrington, called the other day to say he's written a second book.
The new book describes his experiences, observations, and impressions of North Borneo, during its transformation from colony to the federated state of Sabah, East Malaysia. Mr. Parton explains, "I wrote this as a collection of memories - vignettes - of an experience that took place 42 years ago - between 1963 and 1965. It is about a place, its flora, fauna and peoples - their lives and customs; and a time of political change. I was 38 years old in 1963, and although I am now 83, the intensity of the memories is still strong, and they are bolstered by the feeling of failure of international sociological leadership I believe to be the measure of national success. My hope is that through these vignettes one can learn that there were virtues that might be restored to our proud nation."
The Fork Once Taken is available from PublishAmerica (publishamerica.com)