UMass study suggests regionalization of some services, in the interest of efficiency


Real estate and other taxes paid by year-round and summer residents of the six Island towns support regional, municipal, and educational services to the tune of $68 million. And, some of these services, structured over decades to reflect a town by town approach to services that are common to all six communities, may not be delivered as efficiently or as economically as possible.

That is a finding, couched as a suggestion, of a report prepared for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the Dukes County government and entitled “Analysis of the Delivery of Public Services on Martha’s Vineyard,” by researchers from the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies of the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

“The Island’s six towns each reflect a distinct character, not only physically in their buildings and environment, but also in the ways they are administered,” the researchers find, using fiscal 2008 and 2009 expense figures as the base data for their study.

But, despite its six separate, sovereign governments — seven if you include the county — the researchers document ways in which the towns work together. “At the same time, the Island has many Islandwide or other shared arrangements for providing services or dealing with issues. In many cases, these reflect particular Vineyard solutions to such Islandwide issues as land development (Martha’s Vineyard Commission), protection of open space (MV Land Bank), gaps in health care services (Dukes County Health Council), solid waste disposal (MV Refuse District), public transportation (Vineyard Transit Authority), and affordable housing (Dukes County Regional Housing Authority).”

Then there is the suggestion of a need for some change. “There is some concern that the multiple layers of six towns and Islandwide governance may in some cases be inefficient, possibly fractious, and make it more difficult to come together to adequately address regional/multi-town issues, some of which are exacerbated during difficult economic times. At the same time, there is a broad understanding that the character of each town should be maintained, that the diversity of the six towns contributes to quality of life and helps make the Vineyard a desirable destination, and that the towns want to maintain local control.”

Of the $68 million spent in fiscal 2009, 51 percent went to education, the majority of that for elementary schools. Forty-three percent went to municipal services other than education, and six percent to county government. Overall, for the 15,444 members of the Island population used in these calculations, it’s a $4,398 charge for each. The per capita cost is highest in the two smallest towns, $7,808 in Aquinnah and $5,754 in Chilmark. And, as the Martha’s Vineyard Commission staff, which compiled some of the data included in the Collins Center report, noted, “The cost per capita does not reflect two important factors related to seasonality. Most non-educational services are provided to seasonal residents, the percentage of which varies considerably by town. Seasonal residents pay the majority of property taxes.”

The Collins Center study finds that about 830 full-time equivalent employees work in the delivery of municipal and regional or shared services, about 516 for the municipal share of the services, the rest for the regional or shared services.

The researchers found that delivery of these services has been under budget and staffing pressure during the economic downturn of the last three years, and that the health of the Vineyard economy will affect judgments about regional cooperation. “Based on interviews with municipal staff,” the researchers write, “both appropriations and staff have realized continued reductions since these fiscal periods [FY08 and 09] and have been exacerbated by the recent economic recession. Any further analysis of service level optimization should consider the current and projected future economic conditions on Martha’s Vineyard, particularly in view of its geography, seasonal population, and demand for a high level of service to its seasonal visitors.”

In the interest of efficiency and economy, the researchers suggest attention should be paid to the possible “inter-municipal or regional” organization of financial, inspection, public safety, and elementary education services.

“Priority should first be given to the financial functions,” the researchers suggest, “especially Assessing, given preliminary criteria ranking and interest expressed by municipal officials. Inspectional function review will need to examine, among other factors, the level of service necessary. This is due to the relative part-time nature of the secondary inspectors (electric, plumbing, and gas) and some of the primary building inspectors and health agents. The Public Safety and Elementary Education functions should be elevated to a more thorough, comprehensive, and accountability-based discussion Island-wide using the factors. …

“The Collins Center recommends the towns further study the feasibility of expanded and more formal inter-municipal cooperation for these services…. This recommended review should further consider the changing nature of municipal funding for each of these services and project alternative financing options to continue certain services in their present or alternative forms. A feasibility study should further consider governance, allocation of costs, and accountability of staff.”