Dukes County taxpayers pay more get fewer services

Updated 12:15 pm, March 31

A review of the four departments managed directly by the Dukes County manager reveals a government organization top-heavy with salaries but short on actual functions. This budget cycle, county government will grow its budget but fund less of the limited services it delivers. It will do so by shifting more of the cost of these services to the towns.

County manager Russell Smith, who serves as the administrative manager for the seven county commissioners, has direct managerial responsibility for the county commissioners’ administrative department, which includes Mr. Smith and his assistant; the one-man integrated pest management program, the health care access program, and veterans services.

The budgets of the four departments under the county manager’s control will increase from zero to 7.1 percent in the next fiscal year. Most of the increases are attributed to a reorganization of the pay scale and a two percent cost of living adjustment for employees.

The county commissioners’ administrative budget totals $171,006. That figure includes Mr. Smith’s annual salary of $63,532, and the $54,350 annual salary of his assistant, Martina Thornton, who will also receive a cost of living adjustment (COLA).

Health, retirement, and insurance benefits, as well as employment taxes, cost county taxpayers an additional $43,224. The county also provides Mr. Smith with a car for county business.

Mr. Smith provided The Times with a list of the functions and services of the manager’s office. They are, he wrote: “Sylvia (sic) Beach management, courthouse, group purchasing, GIS software license, heating fuel bid, and prescription discount card.”

The county commissioners’ budget would rise 2.6 percent under the current draft budget.

Down the rabbit hole

The integrated pest management services is a one-man operation primarily focused on rodent control. The $80,641 covers the salary of director Thomas J. Hegarty ($50,035, including longevity bonus and COLA), as well as benefits and insurance at a cost of $16,409. According to the county website, the department “offers a broad range of information and control methods based on Integrated Pest Management (IPM).”

Although he is licensed to do so, Mr. Hegarty does not remove the ubiquitous Island skunk as part of his county duties. Under a longstanding agreement, Mr. Hegarty runs a private skunk removal business on his free time.

During annual town meetings, town meeting voters will be asked to fund 80 percent of the IPM program, at a cost of $38,971 after figuring in projected program revenue of $25,000.

In an effort to illustrate the scope of IPM services provided to taxpayers, The Times requested public records of accounts billed, including payments and dates of service.

“I am not the keeper of the records for billing of the IPM department,” county treasurer Noreen Flanders, an elected official, replied to The Times. Ms. Flanders’ salary is $93,245, and she is responsible for financial administration for most county functions, including the airport, parking tickets, payroll, and until this year, the sheriff’s department.

“As Noreen stated, I am not the keeper of these records,” Mr. Smith also wrote.

The Times asked both Ms. Flanders and Mr. Smith who is the designated custodian of the records.

Mr. Smith did not reply. Ms. Flanders answered by email: “TJ does the billing with a remittance address of PO Box 190 Edgartown (the county’s “official” address). Martina picks up the mail. After posting the payments, the money is turned over to me when it gets deposited into a county account.”

Asked who reconciles bills against payments, Ms. Flanders did not reply.

The Times requested the billing records from Mr. Hegarty by email on Tuesday and in a follow-up phone call Wednesday. He did not reply.

Mr. Hegarty replies

Mr. Hegarty responded to The Times request in an email received Thursday morning.

“I received your e-mail yesterday morning March 30, 2011,” Mr. Hegarty wrote to reporter Steve Myrick. “When I returned to the office that afternoon a message from you was on my answering machine demanding to know where the information you requested was.”

Mr. Hegarty cited the following provisions of the law: An agency has ten working days to decide whether it will comply with a FOIA request and to inform the person making the request of its decision and of the person’s right to appeal a refusal. An agency may take an additional ten days to respond if the agency indicates it must process a large volume of records, or it has to consult other agencies to satisfy a request.

You will be charged fees for a FOIA Request. These costs could include the costs of searching for the documents, the costs of reviewing the documents to determine if they comply with your request, and the costs of duplicating the documents. Your actual costs will depend on whether the request is for commercial use, educational purposes, or private use.

Mr. Hegarty then turned his attention to the specifics of The Times request. “Now we get to your Tuesday March 29, 2011 phone call to County Commissioner Carlene Gatting that I was informed of app 1 PM Wednesday afternoon March 30, 2011 where you stated to her you were denied information that you had requested, regarding records in my care,” he wrote.

“Since I as keeper of the requested records had not received any request from you at the time of your phone call to Ms Gatting why did you state to her your request for records had been denied?

“Your news editor Nelson Sigelman knows who the keeper of the records for the Integrated Pest Management Program is. Last year after he followed the legal protocols, the information he had requested from me was produced within 4 hours. Why direct your request to anyone else?

“Now to your currant request; I did my research and you may pick up the information on Monday April 4, 2011. The cost for producing the information is $41.13; please bring cash or a check made payable to the County of Dukes County. The information will not be released without payment. Please call or e-mail me to arrange a time or if you want to retract your request. Pending your reply I will hold off producing the requested information.”

In his response, Mr. Hegarty erroneously cites FOIA, the federal freedom of information act and a ten-day window in which to respond to a request and another ten days in which to produce the requested records.

Requests for local and state documents fall under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, not FOIA. The law gives citizens the right to view or copy documents and records local and state government entities create or hold.

The provision that provides a public official who has custody of the record that is the subject of a request up to ten days to respond or deny a request is designed so that in legitimate circumstances officials have time to gather hard-to-find records, according to state officials.

It does not allow public officials to delay the release of a completed and readily accessible document.

Record custodians are allowed to charge a “reasonable fee” for the time it takes to respond to a records request. “A records custodian is encouraged, but not required, to waive fees where disclosure is in the public interest,” according to the office of the Secretary of State, which is responsible for enforcing the provisions of the law.

Healthy service

The health-care access program operates with a total budget of $150,000 in county and town funds, as well as a substantial amount from grants from state and local governments, as well as private foundations. The grants are secured by the health-care access program staff.

The town- and county-funded portion of the total budget pays for director Sarah Kuh’s salary ($76,431, with longevity bonus and COLA), and contractual services for an administrative assistant ($45,120). The county pays $31,389 for benefits and employment taxes. Two other full-time employees are paid with grant funds.

Taxpayers at spring town meetings will be asked to fund $131,782, or 80 percent of the county portion, in addition to the county assessment each town already pays. The $150,000 total budget for the coming fiscal year is the same amount as was budgeted for the current fiscal year.

The health-care access program helps lower-income Island residents get health benefits and financial assistance.

“We provide public benefit health-care program enrollment and retention services, information and referral and advocacy, referrals to primary care, specialty care and complementary care, helping clients to make appointments and manage medical debt, and facilitate access to services like specialty care, dental care, vision care and prescription medication assistance,” Ms. Kuh wrote in documents outlining the program’s services.

“We don’t have a social security office, a public benefits office. We serve as a liaison to those agencies,” Ms. Kuh said.

Vets service increase

The veterans’ services department budget is $70,202, an increase of 7.1 percent. The operating budget covers the salary ($44,742 with longevity bonus and COLA) and the benefits ($25,071) for veterans’ agent Jo Ann Murphy. The department helps veterans get benefits, keeps records of veterans, and designs programs to honor veterans and promote patriotism.

At the airport

Mr. Smith has no actual control or responsibility for the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, which by statute is under the control of the appointed airport commission and its professional airport manager and represents more than half of the county budget. The state-controlled sheriff’s office, the registry of deeds, and the office of the county treasurer, are all headed by elected county officials who do not answer to the county manager and have direct control over their employees.

The county treasurer’s budget for the coming fiscal year projects a 1.4 percent increase, while the registry of deeds budget is slated for a 2.5 percent increase.

County commissioner Thomas Hallahan of Oak Bluffs led a new finance subcommittee during this budget cycle. He defended the county budget.

“It’s in the county manager’s job description to create and manage the county budget,” Mr. Hallahan said. “It’s been a learning curve. This year it was really in Russell’s lap.”

He said the pay increases result from an analysis of the county’s pay scale, to align the scale with Island towns and is the first COLA paid in three years. “Although the timing may not have been the best, this was something that was long overdue,” Mr. Hallahan said. “The COLA is something that both the commissioners and the county advisory board were in support of.”

Commissioner Carlene Gatting of Edgartown said a new steering committee is making substantial progress at improving administration of county government. The committee was formed at the recommendation of the state Department of Revenue, which issued a report harshly critical of the county government structure last September.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make it work better,” Ms. Gatting said. “I think we’ve made enormous strides. In terms of the functions of county, we still have a ways to go.

“We’re going to take a really close look at the county manager’s position. We’re going to have to look at it as a part-time position.”

She said changes in the government structure and changes in services offered will need the support of Island towns.

“I think it would hurt the Island to lose the county, because it serves the function of holding on to a number of valuable properties and provides some valuable services,” Ms. Gatting said. “It comes down to what the towns want.”

Island taxpayers have no control over the county budget or the town assessments that fund that budget. Those assessments do not appear on the the town meeting warrants.