County advisory board balks at pest control, health access deals

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File photo by Steve Myrick

Dukes County advisory board members, at their meeting March 20, questioned draft memoranda of understanding (MOU) intended to outline responsibilities and define oversight roles for the the county Integrated Pest Management program and the Vineyard Health Care Access program.

The brief discussion came at the end of a long meeting where the advisory board members, who are responsible for oversight of the county budget, learned of a $572,726 surplus in Dukes County accounts at the end of fiscal 2012. The news of a surplus comes at a time when the county is shifting the cost of the two programs entirely to the six Island towns. Five years ago, the county began an incremental shift of the costs to towns, through town meeting warrant articles approved by voters, because county commissioners said there was no money in the county operating budget to fund the programs.

The Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, a one-man department headed by T.J. Hegarty, offers rodent control at no cost for municipal buildings and at a heavily subsidized cost to residents and businesses.

An analysis of billing records for the six Island towns and the town of Gosnold shows that the IPM service is heavily weighted toward the owners of commercial properties — including inns, grocery stores, and retail outlets — and private residences. Town and county buildings in the seven towns are the smallest category of customers served, 15 percent of service calls.

This year, taxpayers in the seven Dukes County towns appropriated $67,021 for their proportional shares of the IPM program’s operating expenses, in addition to the $670,518 the county assessed them to cover county operating expenses.

Three of the four advisory board members at the March 20 meeting balked at a review of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) drafted by county officials for the pest management program.

Tisbury and Oak Bluffs have measures on April town meeting warrants that would allow the towns to contract for their own pest management services. Edgartown amended its town meeting warrant article to allow the town to contract for its own services, if other towns do not participate in the county program and the program is no longer viable.

“The question I’ve had for several years now is what would the program cost,” advisory board member Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter of West Tisbury asked, “if we just served public or municipal properties. What would that cost be, understanding it would be a loss of revenue, but how many hours, how much would that cost? I think that’s a fair question.”

That prompted a sharp reply from county commissioner Lenny Jason, who attended the meeting.

“I’m tempted at this point to say this was a program you guys wanted, and we’re trying to make it work. Why don’t you come up with a plan,” Mr. Jason said.

Jeff Kristal, the advisory board member from Tisbury, responded to Mr. Jason. He wants the county to open pest control service to a competitive bidding process by issuing a request for proposals (RFP).

“Times have changed since this program started, and it’s time to re-look at it, and I think that’s what going out with an RFP does,” Mr. Kristal said. “I would say municipalities only, that’s where I’m going with this. Seeing the report of where the majority of time is spent, or some of the time is spent, I would rather see it just focused in on the municipalities.”

Walter Vail, the advisory board member from Oak Bluffs, questioned the process of reviewing the MOU, in essence a contract between the county and the towns.

“I’m not going to weigh in on the MOU myself, because it’s going to be the town’s attorney that’s going to do that, not me,” Mr. Vail said. “I would request, going forward, any documents like this should come both to me and directly to our town administrator for review by the board of selectmen, and if it needs to go to the attorney, it goes to the attorney. In this case it is with our attorney at this point in time. It has not been discussed by our board, and I’m not going to weigh in on it today.”

County manager Martina Thornton suggested that an MOU would still be necessary, even if the scope of the IPM program changes.

“It’s still going to be the county that is going to be administering the program,” Ms. Thornton said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s done by an employee or if its done by a contractor, the county is going to be going out and trying to pull the finances together — we’ll have obligation.”

Health Access

Advisory board members had similar concerns about reviewing the MOU for the Vineyard Health Care Access (VHCS) program.

VHCS, administered by Sarah Kuh, helps those in need of state and federal help in arranging health insurance coverage to navigate the maze of state and federal insurance programs for low-income residents. It was formed when the Dukes County Health Council identified a void in services on the Island, services that are readily available in many mainland towns through community health centers and other organizations. The health council determined that many Island residents were eligible for low cost health insurance and other benefits, but were not aware of what is available or how to enroll.

This year, Dukes County towns contributed $154,208, toward the cost of operating the program. Ms. Kuh secured grants to cover costs above that.

Mr. Vail asked why the county should be involved.

“Why does her organization sit under the county organization?” Mr. Vail asked. “Why couldn’t it be merged into Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS), or some other organization? I’m not saying anything about the quality of what she brings to our residents, because it is important, and everybody agrees she does a great job. But I question whether it needs to be here.”

Art Smadbeck, advisory board member from Edgartown, said the health access program fell to Dukes County because no other organization wanted to do it.

“Frankly the county has done a good job of monitoring this,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “I’m happy with the oversight they’ve provided, and the working relationship between the county and the health access organization has been good. The money is not going to change if you send it to Community Services, they would have to send a bill to the towns each year the same way. My fear is it might cost more money if we moved it.”

Advisory board members agreed to discuss the issues with their own town officials, and continue the discussion at their next meeting.

Under the current draft budget for fiscal year 2014, 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.

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 $71,28, 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.

The seven county commissioners, elected for concurrent two year terms, are Tom Hallahan and Christine Todd of Oak Bluffs, Tristan Israel and Melinda Loberg of Tisbury, John Alley and Leon Brathwaite of West Tisbury, and Mr. Jason of Chilmark.

The county advisory board includes Mr. Smadbeck of Edgartown, Mr. Kristal of Tisbury, Mr. Vail of Oak Bluffs, Mr. Manter of West Tisbury, Bill Rossi of Chilmark, and Jim Newman of Aquinnah.