Advisory board rejects hike in Dukes County assessments

The county advisory board (seated left) discussed budget issues with the county commission at a public hearing Wednesday evening. — Photo by Steve Myrick

The Dukes County Advisory Board (CAB), charged with oversight of the county budget, met Wednesday night and approved a $1.5 million spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 but not before it trimmed the county’s sails.

The CAB, made up of one selectman from each town, rejected a hike in the assessment each town pays to the county and requested the county return $150,000 to the towns from surplus county funds. The budget the Dukes County Commission proposed increased assessment to the towns by 2.5 percent and held all surplus funds in county accounts.

Acting advisory board chairman Art Smadbeck of Edgartown proposed the county assessment remain unchanged. “We are increasing the costs to the towns, and if there’s a way to not do that, it would be a good thing,” Mr. Smadbeck said.

County taxpayers will still kick in $500,000 to the county coffers. The assessments do not appear on the budgets reviewed at annual town meetings.

Under the equalized valuation formula, Edgartown taxpayers this year paid $179,374. Chilmark, with the next highest assessment, paid $89,687, followed by Oak Bluffs ($69,825), Tisbury ($69,331), West Tisbury ($64,644) Aquinnah ($18,998) and Gosnold ($6,908).

The CAB unanimously approved an amendment to reduce the total figure for assessments in the proposed FY2015 budget from $504,032 to $491,739, the amount in FY 2014.

In a phone interview Thursday, Mr. Smadbeck defended the county budget. Asked what taxpayers will receive from the $1.5 million spending plan, he described the need to maintain the county.

“We have a political entity that we’ve all inherited, that costs money to operate,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “It costs less money today than it used to cost. We’ve been getting the cost down. The value of the political entity is just that, it’s a political entity that can be used for rescuing the MSPCA if that’s necessary. It’s a regional entity that can be used for regional purposes such as finding a home for the Center for Living. Statutorily, we have to have the county, we have to pay for the county. The assessments have come down dramatically. We’re just trying to live up to our responsibility.”

Newly appointed CAB member Melinda Loberg stepped off the county commission following her election to the Tisbury board of selectmen on May 13.  Asked what Tisbury taxpayers get for their tax dollars, she described county oversight.

“They certainly get the veterans services,” Ms. Loberg said. “They get, basically, a share of what the county treasurer is providing in accounting and services. They get the parking clerk. I was a little surprised that we haven’t broken even with that budget yet, that was the goal. I think there is an administrative home for all these grants. These are sort of extraneous things that need an administrative home, but are not necessarily a county program. They come out of county initiatives, the Youth Task Force, the Health Care Access Program, that sort of thing. My hope is the structure of the county that is provided by the state statute, and by particularly the people that keep it running, will provide an opportunity for towns when they choose to do so, to work together like we’re hoping to do with the Center for Living.”

Surplus funds

According to county budget documents, the current surplus funds total $275,746. In each of the past two years, the county surplus has topped $500,000, prompting the advisory board to return some of that surplus to Island towns.

At Wednesday’s public hearing, county treasurer Noreen Mavro-Flanders said she expects to record an additional $80,000 in surplus funds at the end of fiscal year 2014, which ends June 30, bringing the estimated surplus to $356,000.

“I think this might not be a bad opportunity to return another $150,000 to the towns,” said CAB member Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter of West Tisbury. “We over assessed the towns last year. We go around and ask money for the county to do things, and then we have all this surplus.”

County commissioners argued that a larger surplus will be beneficial if the county moves forward with plans to purchase the Vineyard Nursing Association building in Vineyard Haven to house the Center for Living.

Ms. Mavro Flanders also warned that a lower surplus could affect the county’s bond rating.

“Right now we have the highest rating,” Ms. Mavro Flanders said. “If we don’t have a healthy surplus, we’re going to have a lower rating.”

Mr. Smadbeck rejected that idea.

“Even after we give back this $150,000, we have twice the amount we have recommended (in surplus),” Mr. Smadbeck said.

The advisory board approved the refund in a split vote. Mr. Smadbeck of Edgartown, Mr. Manter, and Bill Rossi of Chilmark voted yes, Ms. Loberg and Walter Vail of Oak Bluffs voted no.

Legal questions

The legal tussle between the county and airport commission also figured in the budget hearing. County manager Martina Thornton proposed an increase in the amount budgeted for legal services from $4,000 to $16,500.

Ms. Thornton, Ms. Mavro Flanders, and the County Commission are named in a lawsuit filed by the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission. The Airport Commission, County Commission, and individual commissioners, were also sued last month by a fired airport employee, who is seeking reinstatement to her job, back pay, and attorney fees.

Advisory board members sharply questioned the cost of litigation. Mr. Manter said the legal dispute reminded him of 2005, when the County Commission and the Airport Commission engaged in a protracted legal battle over control of airport operations.

In that case, a Superior Court judge ruled that the county commissioners were wrong to insist that they, and not the members of their appointed Airport Commission, had the authority to set the salaries of their professional airport manager and assistant manager.

“It started out small, the next thing we knew, we spent $250,000,” Mr. Manter said. “I think we should do something about this from a financial viewpoint. One board appoints the other board. I don’t think this is worth spending any money on.”

County commissioner Tristan Israel, a Tisbury selectman, said the two legal actions are not comparable. “It keeps being portrayed that that’s what’s going on now,” he said. “We’re talking about $12,500 of which we hope not to spend. I don’t think you would allow, or anybody on this board would allow hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal funds.

The request to increase spending on legal costs prompted some sharp exchanges.

“I find this micro-managing,” Ms. Mavro Flanders said.

“What we’re doing here is not micromanaging,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “Calling it micromanaging is a very negative term. The volunteers on this board, this is what we’re here for.”

“I wonder why there doesn’t seem to be a concern,” said Register of Deeds Diane Powers, that the airport “increased legal fees $25,000, and that doesn’t seem to bother anyone.”

“We were minding our own business,” said County Commission chairman Lenny Jason of Chilmark. “They sued us. Remember that.”

Airport manager Sean Flynn said that the Airport Commission carries insurance that will cover the legal expenses for both parties in the personnel lawsuit, the Airport Commission, and the County Commission. The Airport Commission will be responsible for paying any additional insurance costs, including a deductible charge.

The county advisory board approved the budget as amended, including the increase in legal fees for the County Commission, by a vote of  4 to 1. Mr. Manter was the dissenting vote.