Soundings: Regional taxes and the MVC

Imagine for a moment that Martha’s Vineyard had one single, Islandwide property tax rate: what would that look like?

Computing the rate would be easy enough. Just add up all the money the towns need to raise with property taxes, divide that against the Island’s total assessed value of about $20 billion, and voila! – a single tax rate applicable to every owner of property on the Island.

Town property tax rates actually range widely, from a low of about $2 per $1,000 in assessed valuation in Chilmark to a high of about $8 in Vineyard Haven. But if for some reason you did want to generate all the money the six towns raise through property taxes at one single rate, you’d need to set it at about $4.65. Tax bills in Chilmark would more than double, and they’d jump pretty dramatically in Aquinnah and Edgartown, too. Taxes would drop a little in West Tisbury and a lot in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury.

It’s important to understand that the current disparities in tax rates across the Island are not a reflection of either frugality or largesse on the part of our six town governments. They do reflect differences in the value of taxable property in each town.

Chilmark enjoys one of the state’s lowest tax rates for the simple reason that it has almost $3.7 million in taxable property for each resident of town. That’s more than four times the value of property, per person, that either Tisbury or Oak Bluffs can tax. (It’s more than 50 times the value of taxable property per person in Fall River, which is one good reason why Fall River gets more than $9 million in state aid for education, while Chilmark gets nothing — but that’s a story for another day.)

Depending on where you live, a single Island tax rate would be either a dream or a nightmare. But it’s already a reality, right now, in the case of one agency of government that’s funded with our property taxes: the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

My favorite line in each January’s reporting on the MVC budget is the one that begins, “Edgartown will pay the lion’s share this year.” Of course Edgartown pays the lion’s share: The MVC assessment applies a single tax rate to every property on the Island, and Edgartown has 37 percent of the Island’s taxable property. So — surprise, surprise — Edgartown pays 37 percent of the MVC’s operating costs.

Actually a better way of describing the situation is to say that the MVC doesn’t tax towns, but property — all the property on Martha’s Vineyard, at the very same rate. The towns are merely responsible for collecting that money and passing it along.

Nevertheless, each winter as the Island towns prepare their budgets for annual meetings in April, we brace ourselves for what has become a seasonal tradition, Edgartown’s ritual bashing of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

Remember the year when Edgartown, in high dudgeon over the MVC’s cost-of-living increases for its staff, symbolically withheld that money, only to face the expense of calling a special meeting later to appropriate it because the town was obligated to do so by law? Remember the year when town leaders placed a cage-rattling “Let’s withdraw from the MVC” article on the annual warrant, used the occasion to complain about every real and imagined slight Edgartown has suffered at the hands of the commission, and then tried to look all statesmanlike by withdrawing the article when it was clear they didn’t have the votes?

This year’s increase in the commission’s budget, about 10 percent, is attributable mainly to pension costs and legal fees. Covering pension costs is a universal issue for government agencies in Massachusetts, but the MVC’s legal fees have a specific connection to Edgartown. The commission is fighting the Hall family, in three separate matters, to defend Edgartown’s interest in protecting its ancient ways. And both Edgartown and the commission incurred legal expenses last year when Edgartown joined West Tisbury in suing the MVC over its approval of the Roundabout in Oak Bluffs.

This year’s MVC budget increase will add about two bucks to my property tax bill. Your millage, of course, will vary. I’m not worried about scrounging up that $2, but I am curious to hear what new form this year’s howls of outrage might take from the powers that be in Edgartown.

I’m hoping they come up with something creative, because the whole “It’s so unfair that just because we’re the richest town on the Island, we pay the most for this regional service” thing is both misguided and tiresome.

One great irony lies just behind this story of Edgartown, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and the town’s share of its budget. Back in the late 1970s, Edgartown withdrew from the MVC, was clobbered by an explosion of development at Katama, and quickly rejoined the agency whose powers to regulate land use are so much greater than any town’s. Now every year, a bit of Edgartown’s payment to the MVC is attributable to the value of those houses that we couldn’t stop from being built because we spurned the regional agency and briefly tried to go it alone.