County budget: big shifts, little savings
The draft fiscal 2011 Dukes County budget now under consideration by county commissioners reflects a further shift of costs to the six Island towns and a change in the way the county processes parking tickets. Next year's budget also shifts more of the cost of health care benefits to county employees, but the county has offset that shift with substantial pay adjustments for all employees.
The draft budget projects a $13,975 surplus on the $1.84 million dollar spending plan. The budget represents a year-to-year increase of less than one percent. The county projects revenue will fall by $17,077, and expenses will increase by $15,676, in the latest draft budget.
County commission chairman Carlene Gatting said the commission could consider changes to the budget over the next few weeks. "There is some fine tuning we may be looking at," Ms. Gatting said. "There are some areas where we need to to do a cost benefit analysis to see if taxpayers are getting their money's worth." The county commission was scheduled to meet last night, but no final vote on the budget was planned.
Assessments to the six Island towns plus Gosnold will increase $20,718, to $849,419, an increase of 2.5 percent. (See accompanying chart.) Edgartown carries the largest portion of the burden, $305,424, representing 36 percent of the total assessment for the six towns on Martha's Vineyard.
But beyond the assessment, Island towns this year are paying for an increasing share of some county services. According to the draft budget, town meeting voters across the Island appropriated $62,205 for the health care access program, in addition to the assessments. Voters authorized an additional $32,841 for the county's integrated pest management program. The county also requested Community Preservation Act funds from towns this year, to fix windows and repair brickwork at the historic Dukes County Courthouse. Voters in the six Island towns approved $51,680 for that job.
Those appropriations add $146,726 to the regular county assessment, bringing the taxpayer contribution to the county budget to $996,145.
What you get
The Times asked county officials to outline what Island taxpayers receive in benefits and services for the $849,419 they pay to the county in the form of assessments, an amount that increases 2.5 percent every year. Mr. Smith said it is a complex question, in part because assessments are only part of the county's revenue. He cited regional services, such as negotiating fuel contracts and holding the license for mapping software used by Island towns, that are difficult to quantify. But Mr. Smith concedes the county is providing fewer traditional services, and asking the towns to pay for more and more of the costs of those services.
He cited the health care access program, which helps low income Island residents get health insurance. But in the coming fiscal year, taxpayers will fund 70 percent of the health care program outside the county budget. The service was once funded entirely by the county. Taxpayers are also funding 70 percent of the county integrated pest management program. Over the next few years, town meeting voters will be asked to absorb the entire cost of those two services. Mr. Smith also cited management and maintenance of the Dukes County Courthouse as a benefit to taxpayers. The state makes a payment to the county which covers 81 percent of the cost of maintenance, while the county covers 19 percent, and that does not include the extra money appropriated this year to repair the courthouse windows. Also cited was the Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard. While the county manager spent time getting the shelter up and running, and the county provides some administrative support, the facility is funded entirely by donations. If public funds are needed in the future, Island towns have informally pledged to provide funding.
Other departments cited were veterans affairs, which helps veterans with insurance claims and provides some grants to veterans in need; emergency management, which coordinates some regional services with the local town emergency management directors.
In recent years, the county has shed some traditional services. It no longer directly manages beaches. A county engineer, who helped towns with construction and maintenance projects, has not been funded for the past three years, in a cost-cutting effort. The county also eliminated its environmental testing lab.
For years, town officials concerned about rising assessments have pressured the county administration to cut costs by bringing employee health benefits in line with those in the towns. This year, the county intends to stop paying 90 percent of its employee health insurance premiums and instead to pay 75 percent. That would bring the county in line with all six Island towns. But the county will not realize a substantial savings with that shift, according to county manager Russell Smith. The draft budget includes pay adjustments for nearly all employees to make up for the reduction in the county's share of the health insurance benefit. Though they will pay more of the premium, they will get a pay increase to cover it.
"Essentially we made sure it's not going to hurt the employees," said Mr. Smith. "We also made sure nobody gets a windfall. It's pretty much a wash. We couldn't go to every employee and say you've got to take a $4,000 hit."
In cases where employees have a family plan, the differential is approximately $4,000 annually. In cases where an employee has an individual plan, the differential is approximately $1,500. The pay adjustment comes on top of the 3.5 percent step raise for most county employees.
"For this year it is going to be revenue neutral," Ms. Gatting said. "We did some research and found when towns switched, they would reimburse their employees. In the long term, because inevitably the cost of health care will go up, the county will pay less of the increase. That's where the savings come. In the long run it's definitely a cost-saving measure."
That's the ticket
The draft budget includes a plan to change the duties of assistant treasurer Carol Grant, who also serves as the parking clerk, in order to take back responsibility for processing traffic tickets issued in the six Island towns. For many years, the tickets were processed in Plymouth, but county officials became unhappy with the service last year.
"We had some real problems with Plymouth County last summer," said county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders. "They got months behind."
She said Plymouth County may soon raise the fees it charges to process tickets. Mr. Smith said the county will purchase new software to handle processing. The cost for handling the tickets will be the same. Plymouth charged $1.50 for each ticket processed, and Dukes County will take the same fee.
Although the county manager serves as the administrative manager for the seven county commissioners, the actual responsibilities of the job are limited.
The Martha's Vineyard Airport, which by statute is under the control of the appointed airport commission and its professional airport manager, represents more than half of the county budget. State and federal regulations prohibit any use of airport revenue for non-airport related uses.
This year, the sheriff's office transferred operations from county to state control. The registry of deeds, and the office of the county treasurer are county departments headed by elected county officials who do not answer to the county manager and have direct control over their employees.
In terms of day-to-day supervision and responsibilities, the county manager has control over nine full- and part-time employees in six departments: veterans affairs, integrated pest management, health care access, emergency management, the animal shelter, and the county manager's administrative assistant.
The seven elected Dukes County commissioners are Carlene Gatting of Edgartown, chairman; Tristan Israel of Tisbury, vice-chairman; Leslie Leland of West Tisbury, Lenny Jason of Chilmark, John Alley of West Tisbury, Thomas Hallahan of Oak Bluffs, and Melinda Loberg of Tisbury.