Dukes County commissioners approve treasurer

Often rowdy session also elects three airport commissioners.

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The Dukes County commissioners on Wednesday approved three separate requests totaling $1.5 million in long-term debt and short-term funding for the cash-strapped Martha’s Vineyard Regional Airport, approved the selection of Ann Metcalf as treasurer of Dukes County, and elected three new members to the airport commission.

Emergency funding for the airport was by far the thorniest and most contentious item on the agenda before a packed meeting room. Airport manager Ann Richart and airport board chairman Robert Rosenbaum showed up to ask the commissioners to approve three financial moves — to roll over $450,000 in current loans in anticipation of an approved federal grant in that amount; to borrow $420,000 in anticipation of a federal grant, and to ask that state legislation be filed to borrow $690,000 for the airport’s share of new construction, equipment, and upgrades.

The airport’s share of the costs relates in part to the recently completed $10.5 million, 23,000-square-foot Aircraft Rescue Firefighting/Snow Removal Equipment Building, which opened last month. Federal and state funding cover 95 percent of those costs.

Commissioners were clearly bewildered by the scope and intricacy of the funding process and timeline, and several seemed stunned by that the airport’s cash flow was insufficient to meet current operating needs. Rosenbaum noted that the airport has a long history of positive cash flow and year-end surpluses. A year-end budget projection provided by airport management showed net operating income will be $677,548 at fiscal year end.

After long discussion and questioning by commissioners, a picture emerged of cash flow strain caused by the need to pay for construction done now in advance of repayment by state and federal agencies.

Commissioners Leon Brathwaite, Tristan Israel, and meeting chairman John Alley were most vociferous in their questions and concerns about airport finances. Commissioner Robert Zeltzer, however, disagreed.

“We’re squeezing the pineapple too hard here. You guys are jumping all over them. I think you should be handing [airport management] a rose for their work,” he said, alluding to the number of projects undertaken by the airport over the past year, and the need for legislative approval to borrow as the state’s only county-owned airport.

The three measures all passed, with two nays from Alley and two abstentions by Brathwaite.

Commissioner Christine Todd recommended the airport managers bring a “timeline of projects, cost, and repayments to our next [June 6] meeting that would help us better understand the situation.”

The managers agreed.

Commissioners debated long and hard on the recommendation by Noreen Mavro Flanders to appoint Ann Metcalf to the final 2½ years of her elected term. Metcalf has served as assistant treasurer for the past 14 months.

At her retirement on June 2, Flanders will have completed 27 years over five terms as treasurer. She is the longest-serving county treasurer in the state. She said she was willing to work a day a week after her retirement to mentor Metcalf’s efforts.

Flanders pushed back hard at suggestions by several commissioners to appoint Metcalf for 60 or 90 days while conducting a search for treasurer candidates in addition to Metcalf. None of the commissioners questioned Metcalf’s skill set or job performance. Several commissioners also lobbied for a plan to change the position from an elected to appointed post.

The commissioners elected John Clark, Clarence “Trip” Barnes, and Rosenbaum as new airport commissioners, and appointed mental health and geriatric specialist Mary Holmes as as associate commissioner. Clark will serve his first stint; Barnes and Rosenbaum are sitting commissioners whose terms expired at the end of February. Clark replaces Myron Garfinkle, whose term also expired in February.

Debate about filling the treasurer’s post included calls to set a new salary for the position, in addition to calls for a search committee to find a replacement and, at one point, asking whether county manager Martina Thornton could fill in as treasurer during the search process.

The double-duty idea found no traction for the group, based on workload and potential conflicts of interest that would require Thornton to approve funds involving her own work.

Flanders was impassioned and clear in her views: “What was the point in having Ann work for a year and shadow me? Who in this room knows more about the job than I do? Remember that the county treasurer is also chairman of the Dukes County Retirement Board. I am asking you to respect my opinion. Appoint her for the 2½ years remaining on my term. This is not a difficult decision.”

Todd said that a decision for a job search was not about the candidate but about process. Israel eventually moved the Metcalf appointment to fill the term, while arguing for a change in which future treasurers be appointed rather than elected. Metcalf was approved by a 5-0 vote, with two abstentions, to complete the 2½ years.