Editorial : Consistently out of touch
In its regulatory activities, its planning activities, and now its budgeting, the Martha's Vineyard Commission displays an impressive consistency in standing apart from the community of Martha's Vineyard's voters and taxpayers. Undisciplined in its regulatory reviews, Island planning on the basis of a narrow, fervent cell of supporters, and now demonstrating its estrangement by failing to submit its fiscal 2010 budget planning to review, or even informal discussions with town finance committee members, the Martha's Vineyard Commission marches steadily away from its natural constituency.
It might be merely a matter of political hearing impairment. One hopes this is the case, but it is surprising that the Tisbury finance committee, of which Martha's Vineyard Commission treasurer Ned Orleans was a member, should need to send an emissary to the Martha's Vineyard Commission to ask that the regional planning and regulatory agency consult Tisbury's finance committee over spending plans. It's surprising too that Edgartown Martha's Vineyard Commission member and now chairman Christina Brown would require an invitation from Edgartown selectmen to discuss the planning agency's 2010 plans. It is surprising that she would not have instructed Martha's Vineyard Commission managers weeks ago to be sure to schedule discussions with all town planning boards over the budget that the regional agency was building, before the moment to adopt the budget arrived. Indeed, Edgartown is the only Island town in which a meeting occurred between Martha's Vineyard Commission representatives and the town finance committee prior to the adoption of the Martha's Vineyard Commission's 2010 spending plan. It's the only town to receive, after a request, a copy of the Martha's Vineyard Commission spending plan. The record reveals an astounding hamhandedness on the part of Martha's Vineyard Commission leaders.
In a letter published this morning, treasurer Orleans explains, as Ms. Brown did Tuesday to the Edgartown selectmen, that while the Martha's Vineyard Commission has adopted a budget, it has not certified that budget to the towns, therefore fixing the assessments that each town will be required to pay.
"The Martha's Vineyard Commission," Mr. Orleans writes, "along with the towns and other public entities, is very concerned about how to deal with the current budget crisis. Like the towns, we are getting information about the severity of the budget crisis almost daily. The Martha's Vineyard Commission foresees major reductions in grants and other income, and is prepared to reconsider our budget as we get more information."
It happens that the Martha's Vineyard Commission has a reasonable argument in support of its budget, even including the payroll increases, and discussions with town officials might have mooted the current turmoil.
But, it's understandable that the irritation expressed by selectmen and finance committee members in Edgartown, Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs naturally focuses on salary increases, namely cost of living increases. Such increases have been forced out of the budget for employees in some towns, as the town officials have come to grips with realized and anticipated declines in revenue. These revenue shortfalls threaten the jobs of town employees and consequently the services those employees provide to voters and taxpayers. In some towns, saving money wherever savings may be found may mean saving jobs that would otherwise be lost. So, assessments such as those exacted by the Martha's Vineyard Commission, immune as they are from town voter action to affect their size, put pressure elsewhere in town budgets, where pressure is already intense.
Despite the work done by Martha's Vineyard Commission planners to restrain that agency's planning, town leaders ought to have had an opportunity, before the Martha's Vineyard Commission adopts its budget, to discuss it with the planning agency's managers, and especially with each town's representatives on the regional agency.
"Our aim is to shoulder our share of the load in these troubled times," Martha's Vineyard Commission treasurer Orleans, "while making sure that our employees are treated like other public servants on the Vineyard." A commendable sentiment, but in the working out, it is not reasonable for the regional agency to stand apart as it has from its bill paying constituency. The school system understands this, as does the county government. As with the schools and the county, the towns that pay the bills deserve timely and good faith consultation with the agency that exacts its price.