Soundings : Summer and symbiosis
A crusty Vineyarder of my acquaintance a couple of decades back grew so tired of the question from summer people at summer parties, "What do you find to do in the winter?" that he came up with a reliable conversation-stopper in reply: "We fumigate!"
That's a terrific line, but unhelpful. One truer answer would be to say that we Islanders, being the wonderfully contentious folk we are, find all manner of controversies to warm ourselves during the cold seasons. Another more accurate answer to the inquiring summer person - at least, to the seasonal property owner - would be to say, "We spend your money."
We love to complain about the high costs of living on Martha's Vineyard, but we're rather less inclined to mention the bargains. One of them, in my experience, is the cost of our household trash disposal. We haul a load of recyclables and a pair of trashcans to the regional transfer station every few weeks. The cost of each trip is about nine bucks, plus an hour's work sorting and half a gallon of gas for the Toyota.
A far bigger bargain, however, is our property taxes. With 351 towns in the Commonwealth, four of the ten lowest tax rates belong to the Island, and all six Island towns fall into the lowest 25. Fewer than 10 percent of all the towns in Massachusetts can boast a municipal tax rate lower than $7 per thousand, and that category includes every town on the Vineyard.
The expenditure per pupil at the Edgartown School is well over $18,000, and my Edgartown household, which put two children through 13 years of public education here, each year contributes less than a tenth of that sum to pay not only for education, but for all our town services. It doesn't take a degree in economics to see that someone must have been paying all these years to make that great bargain possible. That's what I mean when I suggest saying to the summer folks, "We spend your money."
Do you find yourself enticed when the public radio host announces that for the next hour, your pledge will be matched in full by an anonymous donor? By that logic, we voting citizens should be falling over each other in the rush to pony up more property taxes, because each dollar we spend and appropriate comes with a built-in seasonal multiplier that enriches our towns three-fold.
And yet - and this is the amazing thing - the finance committees of the Island towns persist in behaving as if the business of pinching municipal pennies were the highest calling imaginable. Never mind that each time we cut a town service to put a tax dollar back in a year-round household's pocket, we're giving three dollars back to the community of seasonal property owners.
This distribution of the tax burden may be unequal, but it's not systematically unfair. No issue of taxation without representation comes into play here. Because in the end, real estate on the Vineyard trades in an open market, and one of the factors that keeps values high here is the level of town services that sustains our quality of life.