Editorial : Stepping up
The Dukes County commissioners have seen the need and cobbled together a way to address it.
Last week, the commissioners considered the expected costs of operating a town-supported, community animal shelter and agreed to front start-up funds. They will ask the towns to reimburse that outlay and continue to foot all the bills.
The county-sponsored shelter will replace the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) Foote Memorial shelter, run by the nonprofit organization for decades, but soon to be abandoned by the society. With luck, Islanders committed to animal welfare and to the need for a working shelter will organize the replacement effort and the funding required to realize this plan. And, one hopes, voters in the six towns will agree to share expenses.
There are bits of good ideas in this outcome. Island officials should pay heed. First, this is a genuine need, recognized by Islanders and brought to the towns and county for their assistance. Because of the exigencies of timing - the MSPCA will end its shelter operation in a few days - and for the sake of expedience, the county has been a logical place to turn for immediate assistance.
But, the county government apparatus, even shorn as it is of all its significant obligations, is clumsy and expensive. The wisest and least expensive choice for the county commissioners, the town selectmen, and the Islanders now in the fevered search for a permanent solution is to make the county a temporary stopping place along the way. A six-town enterprise, agreed to by all and supported by all, but run as a nonprofit contractor to the towns by volunteers, is the solution much to be preferred. The county does not have the financing, personnel, or organizational skills to do what the towns need, in simple, efficient, and inexpensive ways.
The county manager estimates that in its first year the shelter will generate revenues of $70,000, but cost $95,000 - personnel costs are not included in these calculations. The county proposes that the towns share the $25,000 difference. The county is prepared to front the initial costs of operating the facility but only if the towns agree to repay the county. Under its aegis, the county imagines donations of $35,000, a figure that county manager Russell Smith said is based "on intuition and not much else."
According to the MSPCA, the shelter costs approximately $250,000 annually to operate and for the past several years has run a deficit of approximately $130,000. It's daunting.
The MSPCA budget naturally includes supervisory costs for overseeing the operation and for the costs associated with the shelter property, which the society owns and will allow the county to use at no cost temporarily. Should these costs eventually be passed along to the county, as they must be, one expensive-to-operate nonprofit will have handed off a big expense to another expensive-to-operate entity, this one governmental.
Consequently, there is every reason to look at this problem and these numbers very carefully, not because this is an obligation the Martha's Vineyard community can responsibly avoid, but because it is one we must arrange in an efficient, economic way that holds the promise of long-lived service.