Last week, Edgartown selectmen learned of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s (MVC) $1.2 million draft budget for fiscal 2012, and they did not like what they heard. The first draft showed the regional agency’s budget was set to increase by 3.9 percent, and Edgartown would pay the lion’s share.
In the intervening week MVC members revised the budget. On Tuesday, the MVC proposed what it describes as options one and two of a revised draft budget. In each, the MVC dropped the 4.5 percent salary hike that it first proposed.
The major difference in the two budgets is a $20,000 contribution to the MVC’s post-employment benefits account, which funds the health insurance costs for retired employees. If the agency trims that cost, the town assessments would remain flat.
What disturbed Edgartown selectmen and James Joyce, the town’s appointed representative to the MVC, is that in the first draft MVC budget that Mr. Joyce described for the selectmen, Edgartown taxpayers would pay $302,674 of the total $837,995 levied for FY 2012 on the seven Dukes County towns. The 2012 fiscal year begins on July 1, 2011.
However the budget gets sliced, Edgartown would continue to pay the largest portion by far of any of the towns. Mr. Joyce told selectmen at their weekly Monday meeting on November 1 that he is not happy about the apportionment of costs.
The $1,212,995 October 22 draft budget included a 4.5 percent salary increase composed of a two percent cost of living adjustment and 2.5 percent adjustment for experience, another sore point for Mr. Joyce. The salary line item, which does not include benefits, rose by $31,248, from $694,404 to $725,652.
“I’m a real estate broker here, so I know how tough times can be and how tough they are, and that just seems to be a little bit excessive to me,” Mr. Joyce said.
The newly revised budgets include a 1.1 percent increase in the salary line. That figure reflects a 2.5 percent “experience” raise for some employees, the equivalent of step and grade raises provided at the town level, according to the MVC.
The bulk of the MVC’s income comes from Dukes County taxpayers through town assessments based on property tax valuation. All seven towns in Dukes County, which includes Gosnold, share the cost of planning, according to their relative property valuation. Because Edgartown is the Island’s largest town in terms of real estate value, it ends up with the biggest bill.
In his presentation to selectmen, Mr. Joyce said he had discussed his unhappiness with his fellow commissioners and they were sympathetic, but he had little faith the other Island towns would willingly agree to share more of the burden.
He suggested the town consider withdrawing from the commission, a lengthy and complicated process, to force the issue.
In a telephone conversation yesterday with The Times, Mr. Joyce said he is not against the commission but wants the town to get a fair shake. His decision to share the draft budget with the public attracted the criticism of some fellow commissioners, he said, but he explained that he thought it was important that selectmen and taxpayers be alerted early.
On Monday, MVC administrator Jeff Wooden, told The Times that, on executive director Mark London’s order, he could not provide a copy of the draft budget until Mr. London, who was out of the office, returned and authorized its release. With some specific exceptions, the state public records law deems all documents, regardless of their status as drafts, to be public documents. The Edgartown selectmen provided The Times with a copy of the draft budget (available at mvtimes.com).
On Tuesday, in an email to The Times, Mr. London provided a copy of the procedure that the MVC uses to develop and adopt its budget, essentially a schedule.
“As you can see,” Mr. London wrote, “the MVC finance committee will not adopt a draft budget until the third week of December. We are at the early stages of the budgeting process, gathering information and preliminary input from members of our finance committee and members of the All-Island Finance Association.”
Mr. London said he invited questions by email “in order to avoid any confusion about this process.”
In an email received late Tuesday night after The Times print edition deadline, Mr. London provided the latest budget information and a preliminary estimate of town assessments. He wrote, “We normally wait until we are somewhat more advanced in the process before widely distributing these draft documents.
Mr. London said, “The MVC finance committee consists of one member from each Island town and the county and all members have an oportunity to provide comments as we shape the budget.”
He said the MVC would vote on the preliminary working budget at the end of the month. “We will distribute this version to each town and extend an invitation to meet with them individually,” Mr. London said.
Town is capable
In the discussion that followed Monday’s budget presentation, selectmen Margaret Serpa, Michael Donaroma and Art Smadbeck discussed the possibility of the town withdrawing from the MVC.
Mr. Donaroma, a former longtime member of the MVC and its chairman during the tumultuous golf course battles, said Edgartown had seen few developments of regional impact (DRI) in recent years that required the MVC oversight. He said in any case the town’s zoning regulations and master plans provided more than adequate protection.
He also expressed the board’s recurring displeasure with the MVC budget. “We asked them last year to reconsider the budget, and this is what they’ve come back with,” he said. “A higher budget again? They are in a world of their own.”
Mr. Smadbeck agreed, adding that withdrawing from the MVC may be the only approach.
In a telephone conversation Monday, Ms. Serpa, the chairman, said the MVC puts together a regional budget and assumes that is what it will be. She said the town could use the money it now pays the MVC to better purpose. “We’ve questioned them many years on their budget,” she said.
An examination of the latest version of the budget shows that salaries account for the largest share of the budget and the sharpest increase. In FY 2003, the salary line item, a figure that did not include benefits and insurance, was $413,611. Nine years later, the proposed salary number in the draft FY 2012 budget is $701,764 a 70 percent increase.
The FY2011 MVC budget includes merit raises averaging 2.5 percent for the commission’s 10 employees. The salary line item includes an additional $25,700 added last year, which the MVC called a “salary adjustment for health.” That money was used to insulate employees from a change made in the share they were required to contribute to pay for health insurance premiums.
In the past, the MVC contributed 90 percent and employees 10 percent toward the cost of health insurance. The commission changed that ratio to a 75-25 split, the same proportion used by Island towns.
The 2012 draft budget packet includes a salary sheet for ten staff positions. Current salaries include $43,555 for the administrative assistant, $51,606 for the affordable housing/economic development planner, $51,528 for the transportation planner, $58,915 for the DRI coordinator, $64,229 for the GIS coordinator, $66,427 for the coastal planner, $67,177 for the administrator, $78,361 for the senior planner, and $86,763 for the water resource planner.
The highest paid member of the MVC is its executive director, Mr. London, who will earn $123,261. By comparison, the principal of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Stephen Nixon earns $121,100 and is responsible for 683 students, 133 staff, and an operating budget of $16.6 million.
DRIs, costs down
At the same time, administration and operating costs have decreased. In FY 2003, they were $312,841, a figure that included $123,746 in legal fees driven up by the battles over development plans for several golf courses. Administration and operating costs are expected to be $222,092.
The number of DRIs has also shrunk both in number and scope. In FY 2003, the MVC took action on 24 DRIs that included the affordable housing project on Jenny Lane and the golf club.
Since the start of the new fiscal year, on July 1, the MVC has take action on three DRIs. An additional eight are under some type of consideration. These include an estate plan to divide 69 acres on Chappaquiddick into 11 parcels, and a plan to replace a one-story building on Upper Main Street with a three-story building.
In recent years, much of the MVC’s resources have been directed at planning, water resource protection and the development of wind turbine regulations.
Last March, the MVC published the Island Plan, the regulatory body’s ambitious blueprint for Island development and change during the next 50 years.
The document was created following a three and a half year planning effort that cost $341,000. Island taxpayers contributed $120,000 to the effort through earmarked town assessments, in addition to each town’s annual MVC assessment.
Mr. London said in an email that the commission paid to print the Island Plan materials with a portion of a $24,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). The remainder of the grant money would be used for other outreach activities in the coming year.
The booklet cost $13,000 to print and about $2,400 to distribute in Island newspapers, Mr. London said. The cost of printing 200 copies of the full document, which was distributed to town boards, libraries, and other entities, was a little less than $4,000, he added.
“The full Island Plan can be downloaded from islandplan.org, and we are also burning a hundred CDs of the full document,” Mr. London said.
The Island Plan process launched in the summer of 2006.
Although the FY 2012 budget notes that assessments will likely change once the MVC receives the new equalized valuations, current 2012 estimates are: Aquinnah $29,539; Chilmark $120,146; Edgartown $286,829; Gosnold $6,870; Oak Bluffs $118,757; Tisbury $118,721; and West Tisbury $113,264. The total is $794,125.
Once approved by the MVC, taxpayers have no say over the assessments that appear as a line item on their respective town budgets presented at annual town meeting in the spring.
Edgartown officials last signaled their displeasure with the MVC assessment in April 2009 by leaving the assessment off the operating budget sent to town meeting floor and placing it on the election ballot. Voters said no to a request for $274,203 to pay the town’s MVC assessment, 213 yes, 222 no.
The gesture was widely seen by town officials as a symbolic shot across the MVC budget bow, since the town is legally obligated to pay the MVC’s assessment.
“We are seeking the public’s opinion,” the FinCom wrote in its report to the 2009 town meeting. “As we have fulfilled our commitment in regard to the Island Plan, we anticipated a reduction in the budget and accordingly, our assessment, for this fiscal year. This was not the case. We also asked the commission to take a look at the raises they were giving their staff this year, an average of four percent, yet we saw no compromise in this area.”
At a special town meeting on Oct. 27, 2009 and with little discussion voters agreed to pay Edgartown’s share of the fiscal year 2010 MVC operating budget.
The online version of this story includes additional information and corrections made after the print deadline.