Martha's Vineyard Commission votes budget, talks compromise
Towns, under fiscal pressure, ask reconsideration
The Martha's Vineyard Commission last week approved a $1,168,885 fiscal year 2010 (FY10) budget. The budget includes a three-percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) and a one-percent merit increase for Martha's Vineyard Commission employees.
The Thursday night vote included an amendment that left open the possibility of further revisions to the budget. In response to Island officials unhappy at a lack of input, the Martha's Vineyard Commission agreed to delay sending assessment notices to the towns until after February 5, to allow time for additional input and possible revision.
The Martha's Vineyard Commission budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2009, includes $803,885 in assessments to the Island's member towns.
Much of the Thursday night discussion focused on the budget process and the unhappiness of Island officials. News that the Martha's Vineyard Commission planned to discuss and vote on a budget that included COLAs at the same time that Edgartown and Oak Bluffs have said there will be no increases set off a flurry of protests and a request from Michael Dutton, Oak Bluffs town administrator, to postpone the budget vote until the Martha's Vineyard Commission's February 5 meeting.
Prior to the Thursday meeting, FinCom chairmen Larry Gomez of Tisbury and Al DeVito of West Tisbury called Tisbury commissioner Ned Orleans, Martha's Vineyard Commission treasurer and finance committee chairman, to object that their committees had not seen the budget.
The Martha's Vineyard Commission meeting began with an explanation of he budget process from Martha's Vineyard Commission Chairman Christina Brown of Edgartown. Ms. Brown said that the commission is required by legislation to adopt its budget at the January regular meeting.
The commissioners agreed to go ahead with a vote, but they crafted and approved an amendment on the advice of counsel that left open the possibility of changes.
Once the Martha's Vineyard Commission budget is approved Island taxpayers, who foot the bill for the regional planning agency, have no say over the assessments that appear as a line item on their respective town's budget presented at annual town meeting.
Edgartown was the only town to meet with the Martha's Vineyard Commission regarding the budget. In earlier comment executive director Mark London said Edgartown was the only town to request a meeting.
"We are not like a town department; our budget isn't approved by a town," said Mr. Orleans. "As a former FinCom member, I know it sticks in their craw that the Martha's Vineyard Commission is an assessment."
Carlene Gatting of Edgartown, the Dukes County commission's appointed member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, called for more review. "I think that our budget process needs to be entirely transparent to the towns that we answer to, and I think it's somewhat arrogant to say this is not something that the towns have to sign on to, let's just impose this on them," she said.
Mr. Orleans said he suggested to town FinComs that the time for them to weigh in on the Martha's Vineyard Commission's budget is before the draft is developed, not after. However, that was a sticking point for some Island FinCom members who said they did not know when the Martha's Vineyard Commission budget process took place.
Speaking as a representative of the Tisbury FinCom, Peter Hefler told the commissioner his committee was unhappy at being left out of the Martha's Vineyard Commission's budget process. He asked the commissioners to postpone their vote until the towns had time to weigh in.
"There is the feeling amongst the towns, a certain resentment or bad feeling about the way this distinguished commission's budget process is handled," Mr. Hefler said, suggesting it would be helpful if the Martha's Vineyard Commission alerted town FinComs early in the budget process and extended an invitation to sit in on the planning.
A COLA by any other name
Mr. Orleans defended the inclusion of COLAs in the Martha's Vineyard Commission budget. He said Mr. London contacted Island towns to find out what they were planning for cost of living adjustments. "We took the position our employees should be treated no less than town employees - and no more," Mr. Orleans said.
Mr. Orleans said the Martha's Vineyard Commission FinCom had to make an assumption about what the towns' COLAs would average, and came up with a four-percent increase.
Martha's Vineyard Commission administrator Jeffrey Wooden explained that because the commission has no salary step increases similar to the Island towns, all employees will receive a 3-percent COLA and possibly an additional 1 percent, based on performance.
Although the Martha's Vineyard Commission's budget references a COLA increase, commissioners quickly rebuffed a Times reporter when she referenced the COLA increases in a question at the meeting. Ms. Brown insisted that the term is "salary adjustments," not cost of living increases.
Commissioner Doug Sederholm of Chilmark said that the Martha's Vineyard Commission's salary category is going up by about $25,000, which is miniscule in a budget of almost $1.2 million. "I suspect that $25,000 will be less than the increase in money allocated for salaries in any town," he said. "Maybe we only have a few employees, but even so, it's not a big number, and I would be disappointed if people dwelt on this line too much."
Asked by The Martha's Vineyard Times how the Martha's Vineyard Commission would justify the salary increases to a taxpayer, especially one who might be out of work, Commissioner Chris Murphy of Chilmark said it has been the commission's position to try to match whatever the towns do. "Although the problem is, we try not to shortchange our employees by adjusting their salaries under what the towns are doing," he added. "There's not one number that's going to be magic for everyone, but somebody has to go first."
Mr. Sederholm said he wanted to make his position clear regarding the budget's salary component. "If it turns out that the salary line, the payroll line in our budget, is out of line or out of whack with what the towns are doing, I for one will be happy to move that we amend our budget and reduce that salary line," he explained. "I have no intention of treating our employees better than the employees of the towns in these difficult financial times - I just want to make sure that they're not treated any worse."
Ms. Brown said the Martha's Vineyard Commission would take steps to contact the towns' selectmen before the February 5 meeting.
A process in progress
The Martha's Vineyard Commission budget includes planning and regulatory expenses. All seven towns in Dukes County (the six Island towns and Gosnold) share the cost of planning. The six Island towns share the cost of the regulatory expenses.
In a follow-up phone call on Tuesday, Mr. Orleans, who has chaired the Martha's Vineyard Commission FinCom for four years, said the budget process takes place in November and December. Uncertainty about the towns' COLA figures was the main reason the Martha's Vineyard Commission did not email the draft budget to the towns in December, Mr. Orleans said.
Mr. Orleans said he has offered to speak with Island FinCom representatives at the Martha's Vineyard Finance Association meeting on February 18. Mr. London and Mr. Wooden attended a West Tisbury FinCom meeting on Tuesday, he added.
"We've tried over the years to be transparent -
perhaps we haven't been as successful as the towns would like us to be," Mr. Orleans said. "Certainly we're going to aim in that direction when we review this thing and work on a process for next year and future years."
In the meantime, Mr. Orleans said the commission also has asked the towns for their "drop-dead" dates on getting their Martha's Vineyard Commission assessments. "We are figuring out a way whereby we may be able to delay beyond February 5 in letting them know what the assessment would be, based on the idea that they may have better information for us so that we can make a better decision as it relates to the payroll issue," he said.
After the storm
Island officials shared their reactions this week in the wake of the Martha's Vineyard Commission's budget vote.
"I know the commissioners really are under some constraints there, but I'm sure our selectmen will certainly ask our representative to the commission to relay the selectmen's feelings about making the budget process for not just the commission, but all the regional entities, a more interactive process," Mr. Dutton said. "And I know that's very difficult, and I know that's time-consuming, but especially when times are difficult, the public certainly deserves to know that there's been a healthy, rigorous process."
Edgartown's selectmen and FinCom were the only town boards to review the Martha's Vineyard Commission budget prior to its approval at a meeting on January 12, attended by Ms. Brown, Edgartown commissioner Jim Athearn, Mr. Wooden, and Mr. London.
At that time FinCom member Larry Mercier questioned whether the $40,000 cost shared among towns for the Island Plan still remains in the FY10 budget, because the bottom line does not reflect a proportionate decrease. Mr. Mercier said this week he has not yet received a satisfactory answer from Martha's Vineyard Commission staff.
"My reaction is it's not a done deal yet," Mr. Gomez said on Tuesday, adding that he spoke with Mr. Wooden about setting up a meeting to discuss the Martha's Vineyard Commission budget with the Tisbury FinCom.
"The Martha's Vineyard Commission seems to put the onus on the committees for the selectmen to go back and ask for this information," Mr. Gomez said. "What I'm really asking for is better notification, better communication."
There are 10 Martha's Vineyard Commission staff members, including Mr. London, who works under a multi-year contract, and a transportation planner, whose position is fully funded by MassHighway. The staff has remained the same in number since Mr. London arrived six years ago, he said this week.
Tisbury FinCom member Peter Hefler is the husband of reporter Janet Hefler.