Dukes County taxpayers will be asked to fund county pay hikes in the next fiscal year, even as county-funded services continue to shrink. This week, county manager Russell Smith defended the increases as long overdue and on a par with town payscales.
Mr. Smith attributes nearly all of the budget increase to salary hikes resulting from a reorganization of the employee pay scale, and a two-percent cost of living allowance (COLA) granted to county employees.
Four employees supervised directly by Mr. Smith will see pay hikes that range from 4.9 percent to 12.7 percent, in the current spending plan.
“The increase that you see in the budget has been part of our reorganization of our personnel,” Mr. Smith said in a phone interview with The Times. “In the process, we took our step and grade system and made it look much like the towns. When we did that, a couple people needed to move to another step because their responsibilities were higher on the scale.”
The largest pay increase in the county budget is planned for Thomas Hegarty, the one-man integrated pest management department. His salary, including longevity pay and COLA would rise to $50,035, a 12.7 percent jump. Mr. Hegarty’s current salary is $44,448, including longevity pay.
“We have been very austere in our budgets. When the towns have given COLAs of two, three, or four percent, we have not. Every few years we should,” Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Smith, who is paid $63,532 annually under a personal services contract, said he would not accept the COLA.
On March 9, the seven elected Dukes County Commissioners approved a $1,963,303 budget for the coming fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2011. Next year the total county assessment to Island towns will increase by 2.5 percent to $849,414. The county will fund the increases by continuing to shift costs of departments it previously funded to the taxpayers.
At annual town meetings this spring, voters in the six Island towns will be asked asked to appropriate an additional $170,753, to fund 80 percent of the county’s integrated pest management and health care access programs. The county entirely funded both of those programs, as well as an engineering service, until 2008, when it chose to ask towns to fund an increasing percentage of the programs over a five-year period, until they take over the entire cost.
If voters approve the additional appropriations, the total paid by the towns to cover the county’s operating budget would be $1,020,167, an increase of 3.6 percent over the current year.
Town-meeting voters have no direct say in the assessment they must pay. Each town’s county assessment comes directly from what’s called the “cherry sheet,” which sets out the tax revenue allotted to the towns by the state government. The assessment cannot be amended on the town-meeting floor and does not show up on the operating budget.
Taxpayers must rely first on the county commissioners to exercise fiscal oversight and ultimately on the members of the county’s finance advisory board, which includes one selectman from each town.
Next year’s county assessments by town are: Chilmark, $128,024; Edgartown, $305,423; Aquinnah, $31,459; Gosnold, $11,360; Oak Bluffs, $126,276; Tisbury, $126,276; West Tisbury, $120,596.
The county advisory board made changes to the original budget request submitted during preliminary discussions about the spending plan, according to Mr. Smith. He said a majority of the advisory board members endorsed the current draft .
“We had not given the county employees raises for the last two years, it was appropriate,” acting advisory board chairman Art Smadbeck of Edgartown said. “There is money in the budget to do it and still have a modest surplus.”
Ron DiOrio, the county advisory board representative from Oak Bluffs, voted against the COLA’s and objected to the evaluation of the salary scale during preliminary budget discussions.
“I think the evaluation should have been done with elected people involved, rather than an internal evaluation by the staff,” Mr. DiOrio said.
With spending increasing and the county funding fewer services, Tisbury representative Jeff Kristal called for closer scrutiny of the county government, including the possibility of moving to a part-time county manager.
“There needs to be change,” Mr. Kristal said. “I think they need to look at an overhaul. I know they are looking at the structure of the county. It can’t hurt.”
The county advisory board must formally vote on the budget following a public hearing.
Although the county manager serves as the administrative manager for the seven county commissioners, the actual responsibilities of the job are limited.
The Martha’s Vineyard Airport, which by statute is under the control of the appointed airport commission and its professional airport manager, represents more than half of the county budget. State and federal regulations prohibit any use of airport revenue for non-airport related uses.
Last year, the sheriff’s office transferred operations from county to state control. The registry of deeds, and the office of the county treasurer are county departments headed by elected county officials who do not answer to the county manager and have direct control over their employees.
In terms of day-to-day supervision and responsibilities, the county manages four people in four departments: the assistant county manager, veterans affairs, integrated pest management, and health care access.
The county’s web site trumpets efforts to keep the public informed. “I am very pleased to introduce you to our new website — a site that is designed to maximize our efforts to keep the public informed and to encourage a public dialogue with our citizens, our clients and our visitors,” Mr. Smith writes in a welcome message on the web site.
But the site is outdated. The county’s financial information is not readily accessible to taxpayers. The budget approved by commissioners on March 9, is not posted on the county’s web site. Minutes of the meetings where county commissioners debated the budget are not posted.
The most recent minutes available are from the December 15, 2010 commission meeting.
The last news item posted was from December 6, 2010 for a fishermen’s association fundraiser at the P-A club in Oak Bluffs.
The latest, and only, annual report posted is from 2005. A listing of county services includes an engineer, a service that the county eliminated in 2008.
The seven elected Dukes County commissioners are Carlene Gatting of Edgartown, chairman; Tristan Israel of Tisbury, vice-chairman; Leslie Leland of West Tisbury, Lenny Jason of Chilmark, John Alley of West Tisbury, Thomas Hallahan of Oak Bluffs, and Melinda Loberg of Tisbury.