Editorial : We can spend up a storm too
Buoyed by wildly rising real estate values since 2000, Island voters have proceeded "to step high, wide and plentiful" as they approved annual town spending plans. The phrase belongs to P. G. Wodehouse, the matchless British comic novelist who created Jeeves, the perfect, brainy, fish-fed gentleman's gentleman; his employer, the twit Bertie Wooster; Lord Emsworth, the British peer besotted with his prize pig; and Pongo Twistleton, the dim nephew of the irrepressible Lord Ickenham, who is a bit of a rake when he slips his wife's leash. That's when Ickenham drags Pongo along, and they go stepping, as described above.
Voters in the six Island towns, most but not all of them taxpayers, slipped their leashes and spent like the dickens during the nine years between fiscal 2000 and fiscal 2008, according to the tax levies imposed by them on their year-round and seasonal neighbors. Bruce Stone, town accountant for West Tisbury, examined the annual levies in the six towns and drew several conclusions. He created the table that appears nearby. Mr. Stone shows annual levies town by town and the percent change of each town's levy from year to year. The levy is the amount each town votes to raise by real estate taxation. The tax rate that dictates your tax bill results from a calculation that compares how much must be raised through real estate taxes with the value of all the town's taxable real estate. Of course, there is other municipal income, for instance from state and federal contributions, and from fees, leases, and grants, but the largest part of every town's spending is paid by property owners in their real estate taxes. And, remembering that a great many taxpayers and indeed the taxpayers who will foot most of the bill do not vote, suggests one contributor to the willingness of town meeting attendees to spend.
"As debate over town budgets heats up in uncertain economic times," Mr. Stone observes, "and as town meeting season approaches, it may be of interest to citizens to study the ebb and flow of their towns' tax levies in the recent past." [In fact, it's been mostly flow.]
As evidence, Mr. Stone reports, "In the 58 levies listed in the chart, only three times have voters chosen to tax themselves less than in the preceding year (Aquinnah and Edgartown in FY01, and Tisbury FY05). Increases in the levies have fluctuated from a high of 25 percent (Aquinnah, FY03) to a low of nearly zero (Edgartown FY07)." In the last three years, Mr. Stone adds comfortingly, West Tisbury's increases have been the most modest on the chart.
But looked at another way, the numbers tell a story of wild-eyed financial dissipation. Between fiscal 2000 and fiscal 2008, spending in the six towns increased on average 71 percent. When the six towns' annual levies are totaled, the change between 2000 and 2008 is 68 percent for the group as a whole. Chilmark's levy increased the most over the eight years, 85 percent. West Tisbury took second, at 80 percent. Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard's largest and richest town, wasn't as profligate as some of the others, but still managed a 61-percent increase in its levy over nine years. Aquinnah (69 percent), Oak Bluffs (68), and Tisbury (64) trailed the leaders, but not by much.
The difficulty experienced by town officials, and soon town voters, trying to limit spending in this deeply recessionary year may be traced in part to nine years during which they got out of the habit.