Chilmark selectmen take Martha's Vineyard Commission to task over budget
Chilmark selectmen directed angry criticism at representatives of the Martha's Vineyard Commission Tuesday night. The selectmen took the Martha's Vineyard Commission to task for its proposed fiscal 2010 budget, a lack of communication, and the Martha's Vineyard Commission's overall mission.
Martha's Vineyard Commission executive director Mark London and Chris Murphy, Chilmark's elected commissioner, attended the meeting at the invitation of Chilmark selectmen to discuss the $1,168,885 budget the Martha's Vineyard Commission approved last week. All seven towns in Dukes County share the costs through an assessment. Chilmark's share is $130,468, a $1,199 increase over last year.
"This is the first time you have ever come to this meeting," selectman J.B. Riggs Parker told Mr. London, who appeared stung by the sharp criticism. Mr. Parker pounced on the fact that the town's assessment was not lower.
"You have lost funding and programs. This budget should have been lower than last year. The Island Plan is done. You've lost significant funding. Have you laid anyone off? If you have fewer projects, you need fewer people to perform them, I'd think," Mr. Parker said.
"We are working hard to find new grant money," Mr. Murphy said.
Prior to the vote by Martha's Vineyard Commission members to approve the agency's budget, the only town that received a visit was Edgartown. That proved to be a sore point. Mr. London said timing issues had prevented the Martha's Vineyard Commission's representatives from appearing in the past. Mr. Parker said. "Mark, timing is not the problem. You find time to get to Edgartown. Attitude is the problem here."
Mr. Murphy took issue with Mr. Parker's assessment. "We don't have an attitude problem. Your attitude is the problem here," he said to Mr. Parker.
"The issue is not just about level funding, it's about whether you provide valuable services and at what price. The commission is a permit pushing bureaucracy, in my opinion," Mr. Parker said.
Mr. London said the budget is down nine percent from the prior year, as a result of lower legal, healthcare, and other administrative charges that are separate from program charges.
Despite the overall drop in the regional planning and regulatory agency's budget, the selectmen said the commission could do more. Chairman Frank Fenner pointed out that Martha's Vineyard Commission employees receive generous health benefits compared to town employees. "You pay 90 percent of healthcare. We pay 70 percent, substitute Medicare and other coverage where you can," Mr. Fenner said.
"We asked for level funding. This is not level funding," said selectman Warren Doty.
Mr. Fenner added, "This whole thing came to a head a month ago. We are asking for level funding. Some of our departments are below last year. We're looking for $20 and $50 savings in our own budgets, in order to be able to give our employees some sort of raise."
Mr. London said he had followed the lead of the towns when he included a three-percent cost of living adjustment and one-percent merit increase. He pointed to one town that had proposed five-percent raises for its employees.
"Raises here won't be anything like that," Mr. Fenner said. "So far, we believe we've been able to cover normal step increases, and we're looking for ways to provide raises." He promised Mr. London a figure on raises proposed for Chilmark employees by February 20.
Mr. Murphy suggested the selectmen provide a list of suggested changes. "We'll do our best. That's all I can tell you," he said.
"If you don't make changes, you will look arrogant," Mr. Parker counseled the Martha's Vineyard Commission representatives before they left the meeting.
Bill Bennett, the town's newly appointed representative to the Martha's Vineyard Commission, observed the jousting from the audience. Mr. Bennett told selectmen he attended the meeting to familiarize himself with the duties and expectations of his role. "From what I'm hearing, the Martha's Vineyard Commission has lost its way," he said. The selectmen wasted no time in describing their views on the commission and Mr. Bennett's future role as a change agent at the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
"The commission was a wonderful organization when it began 20 years ago. It had great ideas and got things done, innovations we needed on the Island. Now we get a lot of plans. We need implementation," Mr. Parker said
While noting that water and GIS planners continue to provide useful information, Mr. Doty said, "I'm just concerned that the Island Plan will use SmartGrowth for development. That will effectively limit residential and commercial growth up-Island and allow it down-Island. We need affordable housing here," he said.
"The commission is supposed to be developing affordable housing, but when we brought the Middle Line Road project to the Martha's Vineyard Commission, we were met with all kinds of questions," Mr. Fenner said.
In a more harmonious first-time meeting with the prospective new owners of the Home Port restaurant, selectmen learned the Home Port plans to extend its season at least through Columbus Day.
Noting that the restaurant was open about 80 days in 2008, David Zeilinger, acting general manager, said Bob and Sarah Nixon, who have agreed to buy the Menemsha fixture, plan more than 100 days of operation between Memorial Day and at Columbus Day weekend. Selectmen encouraged Mr. Zeilinger to extend the season beyond Columbus Day.
Chairman Fenner, who is an abutter and owns the Menemsha Galley restaurant, removed himself from the discussion, which was led by Mr. Parker.
Selectmen had asked for the meeting with Home Port officials before the expected sale later this month, in order to apprise them of four potential issues: septic, parking, seating, and public access to nearby Menemsha Creek by handheld craft (kayaks). Noting that the town had recently discovered a small portion of the restaurant's septic field is beneath a town road, Mr. Parker said he believed the town ought to get a letter of indemnification in the event of a septic system failure.
Mr. Zeilinger agreed to work on arrangements to allow public access to the Home Port's waterfront property by kayakers. And he said he was amenable to providing a letter of indemnification holding the town harmless in the event of a failure of the restaurant's septic system which touches town-owned land. Mr. Doty cautioned against asking for the letter. "There are probably at least three other instances of private property on town land. Let sleeping dogs lie," he said.
Mr. Zeilinger said planning is in place to ensure that employee parking is minimized at the restaurant. Twelve to 15 parking spots were lost as a result of the sale of an adjacent lot to a separate buyer by the current owners, Will and Madeline Holtham. He noted that the Nixons also own two inns within walking distance of the Home Port that could be used, as well as carpooling and VTA service.
In other action, the board approved permanent status for Jessica Bradlee, who had been provisional town clerk; took under advisement three bids ranging from $37,500 to $41,700 to clean public restrooms in season in Menemsha; and approved a Sunday, August 2, date for the biennial Chilmark Book Festival, held at the field behind the Chilmark Community Center.