Editorial: Time to water the county

Editorial: Time to water the county

It is that time of the year when we ask, what do we get for our county tax dollars? Reporting on the annual county spending plan can be yawn inspiring, but it is wise to ask the Dukes County commissioners and the Dukes County advisory board that question. It lets them know we are interested.

The problem is too few taxpayers ask the question. The county budget has become the spindly rhododendron in the yard that you water, and not because it generates many flowers, or is even attractive. It is in the yard and you don’t want to dig it up and move it, or cut it, so you water it.

Dukes County taxpayers will chip in $500,000 to fund the $1.5 million county budget that begins with the new fiscal year on July 1. Their sizeable contribution will come in the form of individual town assessments.

Unlike a town budget that appears on an annual town meeting warrant and is reviewed on town meeting floor where interested voters (too few, we think) may question department spending, the county budget process occurs pretty much out of sight, and far from the consciousness of most taxpayers. County money comes right off the top of the tax dollar pot.

As Steve Myrick reports in this week’s issue, on May 21 the county advisory board (CAB) approved the county budget. 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. It was a good start.

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) and Aquinnah ($18,998). That’s a lot of dough.

The need to reference county as opposed to Island taxpayers rests on the town of Gosnold, which includes Cuttyhunk, the one portion of the Elizabeth Islands that is inhabited year-round. It is part of Dukes County.

If Island taxpayers ought to question what they get for their money, how about the residents of Gosnold, who will be asked — no, strike that — told to chip in $6,908. It is not a lot of money, but it is likely that the fewer than 100 people who live on the islands year round would prefer to take that money and send out for pizza several times over the long winter months. That would at least provide something for their tax dollars they could bite into.

Longtime Edgartown selectman and finance board chairman Art Smadbeck has worked hard over the years to pare the county budget. Smart and ever optimistic, Mr. Smadbeck sees the county glass as half full.

Asked by Mr. Myrick what taxpayers will receive from the $1.5 million county spending plan, Mr. Smadbeck described the need to water the plant.

“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.”

Of the fourteen counties in Massachusetts that made it to the administration of Governor William Weld (1991-1997), four county governments were abolished outright. Five transformed into regional councils of government. Only Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket, Norfolk and Plymouth county governments remained substantially unchanged.

Asked the same question as Mr. Smadbeck, Melinda Loberg, newly elected Tisbury selectman and former county commissioner, ticked off veterans services, the county treasurer’s accounting services, and the parking clerk. And initiatives, nominally under the county umbrella. She also emphasized the benefit of the county structure which, she said, “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.”

Of course, Island towns are capable of providing regional services and funding regional programs and even crafting inter-municipal agreements outside the county umbrella.

In recent weeks, determined to do what no county manager before her has done before and show the county has a useful purpose, county manager Martina Thornton has been making the rounds of selectmen meetings to seek support for special legislation that would allow the county to organize the regional purchase, funded with town dollars, of the former Vineyard Nursing Association building, now on the market for $1.6 million, for use by the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living.

The Center for Living is an Island-wide organization that offers care and services for residents aged 55 and over, including a supportive day program for frail elders, as well as Alzheimers and dementia patients. The building is too large for their needs, but there is the thought that excess space could be rented out to help pay the freight.

There is no question that the center should have a permanent home. There is a question whether the VNA building is the right building and whether the county, or an Island social service organization should organize a purchase. It is not too early to ask questions.