Edgartown escalates budget squabble with MVC

Edgartown selectmen raised the stakes in their increasingly bitter budget dispute with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, by proposing to begin the process to withdraw from the powerful regional planning agency.

At their Monday meeting, selectmen unanimously approved a special town meeting warrant article that would authorize them to take the necessary steps to withdraw. Voters are scheduled to decide the issue at a special town meeting December 14.

Over the past several weeks, town officials and the MVC have sparred over the MVC’s spending.

James Joyce, the town’s appointed representative to the MVC, raised the possibility of withdrawing from the powerful regional planning agency during a presentation to selectmen at their November 1 meeting.

“It’s a good first step,” Mr. Joyce said Wednesday. “My feeling is, to force the budget to be more fair. I think the commission does good work. That’s a different argument over whether it’s as needed as it once was. The equity of how it’s split up isn’t fair and should be done differently.”

Mr. Joyce and others advocate a formula based equally on property valuation and population.

“I think its up to the people of Edgartown to decide,” MVC executive director Mark London said Wednesday. “The commission has been very important in helping Martha’s Vineyard preserve its distinct character and environment. For most of the people on the Island, property values, jobs, business, depend on keeping Martha’s Vineyard as a very special place.”

If voters approve the warrant article, it would authorize selectmen to petition the state legislature for permission to withdraw from the MVC. If the legislature approves, and the governor signs legislation to that effect, it would come back to the town for a vote in the annual town elections.

The latest issue to raise the ire of Edgartown officials was the earliest draft of the MVC budget. That spending plan was set to increase by 3.9 percent over last year, according to the presentation Mr. Joyce made at the November 1 meeting. The original draft budget included a 4.5 percent raise for MVC employees. It would require Edgartown to pay $302,674 of the total $837,995, or 36.1 percent of the amount assessed to towns to fund MVC operating costs for the next fiscal year.

The MVC has since revised its draft budget, and is considering a spending plan that represents no increase in the assessment to towns, but includes a 2.5 percent raise for employees. The draft budget document describes the increase as an “experience” or merit raise, the equivalent of a step increase.

A second draft version offered for discussion includes a $20,000 contribution to pay for future retirement benefits, currently unfunded. The second version represents a 2.5 percent increase in the town’s share of funding.

In a November 11 letter (published in today’s newspaper) to every Island board of selectmen and Dukes County commissioners, MVC chairman Christina Brown and treasurer John Breckenridge stressed the MVC is in the very early stage of the budget procedure. The letter said an MVC consultant has reviewed staff salaries and found them reasonable, and reflective of the staff’s responsibilities. The letter also notes the MVC has no control over how it assesses towns.

“The formula for apportioning town assessments, set out by the legislature in the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Act, calls for the assessments to be divided based on each town’s equalized valuation,” Ms. Brown and Mr. Breckenridge wrote. “This means that in the current fiscal year, a property assessed at, say, $500,000 would pay about $19 in property taxes to support the MVC, no matter in which town the property is located.”

Taxpayers provide the bulk of funding for the MVC. All seven towns in Dukes County, which includes Gosnold, share the MVC’s operating costs. Because Edgartown is the Island’s wealthiest town in terms of real estate value, it ends up with the biggest bill.

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.