2007 county budget in the red
Faced with a $77,000 shortfall in next year's county budget, the Dukes County manager wants to close the gap by increasing rates and adding additional fees for county services. The county finance advisory board, which includes one selectman from each town, had suggested cutting county departments to overcome the shortfall.
The cost to the county of its losing lawsuit with the former Martha's Vineyard airport manager and assistant manager is not included in the budget. Depending on the response of the court to a county request for reconsideration of the triple damages ordered in the decision, the county would have to pay between $250,000 and $500,000 in connection with that case. And another lawsuit may be in the offing.
E. Winn Davis, county manager, presented his latest version of the $4.5 million 2007 fiscal year draft budget, which begins on July 1, 2006, to the county commissioners and the county finance advisory board at a meeting on Feb. 22.
The county budget is funded in part through an assessment paid by the seven towns that make up Dukes County. The FY 2007 assessments are: Aquinnah, $28,039; Chilmark $147,764; Edgartown, $252,801; Oak Bluffs, $117,499; Tisbury, $106,372; West Tisbury, $108,152; and Gosnold, $8,901.
While the county could seek a Proposition 2.5 override to raise additional revenue, the political prospects of approval are slim. Instead, county officials are proposing to add fees charged by the rodent control and engineering departments, both of which have one employee.
Advisory board members had suggested that both departments, which cost county taxpayers $61,303 and $75,550, respectively, might be cut and their services provided on a contract basis or by other private suppliers.
The most significant increase materializes as $50,000 in additional revenue generated by the county engineering department. County officials have proposed that the towns now pay Steve Berlucchi, the county engineer, an hourly fee of $50 for work that qualifies for state reimbursements under the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).
At last week's county meeting, Mr. Davis stressed that the state will reimburse the towns for the additional engineering fees for TIP projects. He also said that only the three down-Island towns have any TIP projects.
Tristan Israel, Tisbury selectman and county finance advisory board member, argued that the towns already get reimbursed for TIP work, and should not have to pay additional fees for it. "I'm not happy with the towns now having to pay $50,000 for the TIP program," he said. "We get reimbursed now, and we aren't paying for it separately."
Art Smadbeck, advisory board member from Edgartown, questioned whether extra hours devoted to TIP projects could bring the towns additional money. "Maybe we have money left on the table, I don't know," he said. "I don't think we have enough information."
Mr. Smadbeck and Mr. Israel said that they would discuss the issue within their towns and would share their findings to at a future advisory board meeting.
County officials also plan to increase the fees charged by T.J. Hegarty, the rodent control officer, who would begin charging the towns and regional bodies for work that he previously did for free. According to the latest draft budget, rodent control generated $5,698 in revenue year to date, or from July 1, 2005 to Feb. 22, 2006. According to an income-by-customer summary provided by Mr. Davis, rodent control generated $7,797 between July 1, 2005 and Feb. 27, 2006.
More than half of the rodent control department's revenue reported on the summary came from the Mattakesett Resort ($3,000) and The Winnetu Inn and Resort ($1,579) in Katama.
According to the 2006 budget, the department is expected to earn $12,500 this fiscal year. The FY 2007 budget projects revenue of $20,000.
The health access program shows an additional $2,500 in revenue. Mr. Davis said that the program serves approximately 2,400 people a year. He said a non-mandatory donation of $1 would generate the additional revenue.
Along with the revenue boosts, the county cut some expenses in several departments. The most significant cut is to the county's legal budget, which was trimmed by 40 percent, from $25,000 to $15,000.
Mr. Davis said that the county has only spent $8,400 on legal fees so far this fiscal year, and that he did not anticipate exceeding $15,000 next year.
The legal budget does not now include the money the county would need to pay in connection with a winning lawsuit filed by the airport manager and assistant manager over the county's refusal to pay the men their full salaries agreed to in a contract with the airport commission. Last July a Superior Court judge ordered the county to pay $537,212 in back wages, triple damages, interest, and legal fees.
The county has since filed a motion for reconsideration of the portion that includes the triple damages. Even if the triple damages are reversed, however, the county would still owe $246,299.
Mr. Davis said that the county's unreserved fund balance, which he said is about $220,000, has been set aside to pay the outstanding debt, once the court rules on the motion for reconsideration. Mr. Davis said that if the triple damages were not reversed the county would have to use money that it would receive if the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approves a land deal between the county and the airport.
Mr. Davis said that the deal would "free up" approximately $110,000 that the county has already set aside pending the resolution of the agreement.
"The rent proposal with FAA would free up enough money to put us within striking distance if we were to lose everything in the lawsuit, although we are confident that won't happen," said Mr. Davis.
Possibly setting the stage for another lawsuit, last month an attorney for Sean Flynn, the former assistant airport manager hired to be the new airport manager, sent a letter to Mr. Davis over the county's refusal to pay Mr. Flynn the full salary outlined in a contract he signed with the airport commissioners.
In other department decreases, the county treasurer's department, $220,906, also saw a decrease between the two budgets for a savings of $13,000. The decrease was created by leasing needed software, instead of purchasing it, and by postponing the purchase of a needed file vault.
The county also cut money form the temporary employees, travel, and janitorial services, for a total savings of approximately $7,000.
The county budget was balanced last week without one item that county commission and advisory board members had hoped to include - a cost of living adjustment (COLA) for county employees.
Mr. Davis said that a COLA would cost the county about $25,000 per percentage point increase. The county commissioners and the advisory board members said that they would like to include a two percent pay increase for county employees.
In the last four years, county employees have received one three-percent COLA halfway through the fiscal year.
"I believe that we should find the money somehow if we can," said county commissioner Roger Wey, a selectman in Oak Bluffs.
Mr. Smadbeck said, "I don't think there is any disagreement... but we have to have the money first."
John Early of West Tisbury, chairman of the advisory board, said that a COLA would only be possible by eliminating one or more county department.
Dianne Powers, Dukes County Register of Deeds, asked if the county had considered charging the towns for the COLA in the form of an override.
The annual assessment to the towns is limited by a 2.5-percent increase every year. Town voters must approve any additional assessment in the form of an override.
Mr. Israel said that he doubted voters would agree to shoulder any additional county assessments. "I think it would be very difficult under the current climate," he said.
Mr. Smadbeck also expressed skepticism. "I don't think it would fly," he said.
Robert Sawyer of Tisbury, county commission vice chairman, said he was against an override, but wanted to find a way to include a COLA in the budget.
"I am not in favor of an override, but somehow we have to do a COLA... I think anything less than two percent would be wrong."
One possible funding source for a COLA that was suggested at last week's meeting is the money that the county would receive if the FAA approves the rental agreement between the county and the airport. Lenny Jason, county commissioner from Chilmark, suggested that the county earmark the rent money for a COLA. Other county and advisory board members supported the idea, but neither board took any official action on the matter. They did not discuss the fact that the money could be needed to pay the county's legal debts if the triple damages in the airport case are not reversed.