Dukes County minus sheriff equals much reduced budget
File photo by Steve Myrick
Dukes County commissioners are considering a $1.5 million draft budget for the next fiscal year that would reduce the assessment to Island towns and reduce the overall operating budget by 18 percent, reflecting the full effect of the Dukes County Sheriff's Department's transfer to state control.
Though the overall budget is significantly reduced from last year, one item that will increase is the cost of employee health and life insurance. The draft budget shows a 23.9 percent increase in the county's share of employee health care costs. Budget writers estimated a 10 percent increase in health costs, but this week, the Cape Cod Municipal Health Group set rates at 5.5 percent, so county officials will revise that line item downward.
Last year, the first year health care reform legislation took effect, health costs to local governments that are part of the Cape Cod Municipal Health Group fell by approximately 10 percent.
The budget proposal calls for contributing $150,000 to the health insurance costs of retired county workers, known as OPEB (Other Post-employment Benefits). Like most town and regional government bodies in Massachusetts, Dukes County did not set aside enough money to cover rapidly escalating health costs for retirees, an unfunded liability that amounts to $3.1 million, according to the latest actuarial study of future obligations.
"At this point the county is beginning to pay it down," treasurer Noreen Mavro-Flanders said. "Other towns have put some money aside, some places have put aside nothing. There is no requirement to pay down this liability."
The county contributed no money toward the unfunded liability over the past four years.
The budget includes a cost of living adjustment (COLA) for county employees of 2.95 percent. The COLA is calculated by determining the median pay increase granted to employees of the six Island towns in the previous fiscal year, a formula adopted last year by the county advisory board.
"We know it's still hard out there," county commission chairman Tom Hallahan said in a phone interview. He acknowledged that established employee salary plans and benefits are something many taxpayers do not have. "What the county is doing is working with the systems that have been put in place. For private sector workers who are experiencing hard times, they don't always have these systems in place, especially small business owners or contractors. These systems are in place to benefit our employees, who work hard."
The seven towns of Dukes County will pay $491,829 toward the county's operating budget, down 24.2 percent from the previous year, reflecting the transfer of the sheriff's department.
"That's very good," county advisory board (CAB) member Art Smadbeck, selectman of Edgartown, said. "The assessment to the towns is going to be $157,000 less, which is going to be returned to the towns."
Edgartown will pay the largest assessment, $179,674, calculated by a formula based on assessed valuation of property. Chilmark will pay $77,834; Oak Bluffs $72,985; Tisbury $71,288; West Tisbury $64,498; Aquinnah, $18,761; and Gosnold $6,789.
Each town's county assessment comes directly from state aid to the towns, known informally as "cherry sheets." The assessment cannot be amended on the town meeting floor and does not show up on the town 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, who approve the county budget. The advisory board includes one selectman from each town.
The county commissioners' administrative budget totals $182,128, down 1.5 percent from the previous year. The bulk of the administration budget, 94 percent, is for employee costs, including salaries, benefits, and insurance.
The county has budgeted $69,707 for county manager Martina Thornton's salary. Ms. Thornton, hired in August of 2012, is paid at an annual rate of $67,709 in the current year. She is due for a salary review later this month.
Ms. Thornton hired an assistant, Constance Andrade, who will be paid $44,267 next year. Health insurance and retirement benefits for the department total $53,236.
The largest department in county government is the treasurer's office, whose costs are to increase three percent next year.
Elected county treasurer Noreen Mavro-Flanders will earn $99,169, according to the proposed budget. Assistant treasurer Carol Grant will earn $48,439. Ms. Grant's salary is apportioned between the treasurer's department and the parking clerk department. Ms. Grant will earn $24,953 for her work as the Martha's Vineyard Parking clerk. Her total salary is $73,392.
Senior financial clerk Donna Michalski will earn $38,082, splitting her time evenly between the treasurer's department and the parking clerk's department.
Employee costs account for 94 percent of the treasurer's department.
At the county commissioners' meeting on February 13, commissioners briefly discussed the proposed budget. Most of the discussion focused on the integrated pest management program.
Ms. Thornton noted that Oak Bluffs and Tisbury have warrant articles planned for spring town meetings that would give them flexibility to provide pest control services for municipal buildings outside the county program, perhaps by soliciting bids from private companies.
"It's a flag that we need to look at the IPM program in detail and have a serious discussion, in detail," chairman Tom Hallahan said. "There are a lot of choices we need to consider as this program moves forward. There are a couple of towns, maybe more, that aren't happy."
Commissioner Tristan Israel of Tisbury said the county advisory board (CAB) will examine the program at its March 6 meeting.
"I think we should look at whether we should be going out to bid for this service," Mr. Israel said. "I think the time is right now to have that discussion with the CAB. We should make sure that we have the numbers and anticipate some of the questions."
The county no longer considers IPM or the Health Care Access program to be county departments and has created separate accounts for each program. Both were once funded entirely out of the county operating budget, but in 2008, the county began a year-by-year shift of the cost to individual towns, through warrant articles approved by voters at spring town meetings. This year, voters will be asked to fund the entire cost of the program, a cost that comes in addition to the assessment they already pay through taxes.
"Now that the programs will be 100 percent funded by the towns, we want to reflect that all the revenues will be accounted for in each specific category, instead of being part of the general budget, and being a department of the county," Ms. Thornton said, referring to the IPM program. "Let's say he exceeds his revenues by $5,000. The extra $5,000 will be subtracted the following year from the budget, before the rest of the budget is divided up among the towns."
Revenues projected for the IPM program in the proposed budget cover about 32 percent of the cost. The balance is made up by taxpayers.
The IPM program is budgeted for $95,020 in the proposed budget, up 9.6 percent. With projected revenues of $28,000, the towns will contribute $67,019, if voters approve.
IPM director T. J. Hegarty will earn $55,390, a 7.1 percent increase over the current year.
The Health Care Access program, which helps Island residents get health insurance through state programs, is budgeted for $275,395. Grants and other revenue totalling $31,020 will offset costs. Voters will be asked to contribute $173,036. Director Sarah Kuh will earn $78,524, an increase of 2.9 percent over last year.
The seven county commissioners, elected for concurrent two year terms, are Mr. Hallahan and Christine Todd of Oak Bluffs, Mr. Israel and Melinda Loberg of Tisbury, John Alley and Leon Brathwaite of West Tisbury, and Lenny Jason of Chilmark.
The county advisory board includes Mr. Smadbeck of Edgartown, Jeff Kristal of Tisbury, Walter Vail of Oak Bluffs, Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter of West Tisbury, Bill Rossi of Chilmark, and Jim Newman of Aquinnah.