Martha's Vineyard Commission levels town costs, keeps pay hikes in budget
In the face of sharp criticism from Island officials, Martha's Vineyard Commission members approved a revised fiscal year 2010 budget, which holds town assessments level, at their regular meeting on February 5. At the same time, the Martha's Vineyard Commission members spurned a call to eliminate pay hikes and did not revise the average salary hike of four percent for each employee that was included in the original budget.
"The town assessments are level-funded," said Martha's Vineyard Commission chairman Christina Brown of Edgartown. "Each town will be assessed the same amount as last year - no increase."
The downward revision in the commission's original budget did not satisfy some town leaders, who asked the Martha's Vineyard Commission to hold the line on salaries, while they wrestle with difficult decisions in their own budgets. Edgartown and Oak Bluffs have ruled out cost of living adjustments for town employees in the coming year.
The Martha's Vineyard Commission noted in its budget that once towns have finalized their budgets, the commission will consider further amending its spending plan to make sure salaries are generally in line.
In Edgartown Monday, both the selectmen and the financial advisory committee voted unanimously to put the town's share of the commission's budget on the town meeting warrant and the town election ballot as a Proposition 2.5 override question.
"It's a good idea, at the end of the day, to let the voters have their say, particularly on issues that involve spending money," said Art Smadbeck, chairman of the board of selectmen.
Late yesterday, the town financial advisory committee met and reconsidered its Monday vote, this time with Ms. Brown attending. But after a spirited discussion, and sharp questioning of Ms. Brown, the committee voted 5-2 to uphold its previous decision to make the Martha's Vineyard Commission assessment an override question.
Several members disputed the figures presented in the Martha's Vineyard Commission's revised budget. "What I'm looking for is leadership," said financial advisory committee vice-chairman Fred Condon.
"If you lose your grant money, the town shouldn't have to pick it up," said committee member Mort Feary. "Everybody here is trying to help, and I don't think you are."
Ms. Brown pledged that the Martha's Vineyard Commission is committed to a clearer budget process next year, including more consultation with town leaders.
The Proposition 2.5 override vote is a symbolic gesture. Even if voters reject the override question, the town will have to pay its share.
Island taxpayers, who foot the bill for the regional planning agency, have no say over the assessments that appear in their town budgets.
A provision of the Martha's Vineyard Commission's enabling legislation requires individual towns to pay their share of the commission's operating budget, once the state Department of Revenue certifies the assessments. All seven towns in Dukes County (the six Island towns and Gosnold) share the cost of the planning work of the agency. Only the six Island towns share the cost of the regulatory expenses.
In the coming fiscal year, Edgartown will pay $274,203, or 34 percent of the total Martha's Vineyard Commission assessment to Island towns.
On January 29, the Martha's Vineyard Commission approved a $1,168,885 budget that included an increase in town assessments of just under one percent, and a three-percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) together with a one-percent merit increase for Martha's Vineyard Commission employees for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2009. In response to Island officials, unhappy at a lack of consultation and planned salary increases, the Martha's Vineyard Commission agreed to delay certifying assessments to allow time for additional discussions, fresh budget information, and possible revision.
The revised fiscal year 2010 budget approved last Thursday totals $1,161,497, down 9.4 percent over the current budget.
A closer look
In order to hold the line on town assessments and hike employee pay, the Martha's Vineyard Commission decreased other administrative and operating expenses and reduced its estimate for legal bills. The total salary line item was also reduced, because the Martha's Vineyard Commission filled the open position of transportation planner last week, at a lower than anticipated starting salary.
The commission employs 10 people at current salaries ranging from $112,170 for executive director Mark London, to $39,784 for the administrative assistant. The commissioners repeatedly stress that they want to pay Martha's Vineyard Commission employees fairly, in comparison with salary rates at Island towns and other regional agencies.
"Our aim is to make sure that our employees are treated in a similar way to other public servants on the Vineyard," wrote Martha's Vineyard Commission treasurer Ned Orleans in a letter to The Martha's Vineyard Times this week. Martha's Vineyard Commission commissioners are sensitive about the labels commonly applied to salary hikes. In its first budget, the average four-percent increase was described as a three-percent COLA, and an average one-percent merit raise. In its revised budget, the commission said "the Martha's Vineyard Commission provides merit increases rather than step and/or longevity increases." But Martha's Vineyard Commission administrator Jeff Wooden still refers to the increase as part COLA and part merit raise.
The different salary structures within individual towns make it difficult for an apples-to-apples comparison, but town officials point out that when it comes to health benefits, Martha's Vineyard Commission employees pay 10 percent of their insurance premiums, while taxpayers pay 90 percent of the cost. In all six Island towns, employees pay 25 percent of the cost, while taxpayers pick up 75 percent.
Another way to compare salaries is to look at the number of people supervised by comparable executives. The executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission directly supervises a staff of nine people. The Edgartown town administrator directly or indirectly oversees a staff of 88 people in various town departments, not including police officers and teachers, and a budget of $25.2 million. Next year, the Martha's Vineyard Commission's executive director will earn $116,657, assuming an average four-percent raise. According to personnel records, the Edgartown town administrator will earn $106,080 next year, which includes a four-percent longevity increase. Like all other Edgartown employees she will not receive a COLA, and she is not accepting a step raise.