Advisory board views vary on county budget
Most agree, study committee must answer ultimate question
Island voters will not get a chance to review, discuss, or vote on the $4.5 million Dukes County operating budget, or the annual county assessments which total $769,530, at the annual town meetings this spring.
Each town's county assessment comes directly off of the so-called "cherry sheet" from the state, and cannot be amended on the town meeting floor. Taxpayers must rely first on the county commissioners to exercise fiscal oversight, and lastly on the members of the finance advisory board.
It is the job of the county finance advisory board (FAB), which includes one selectmen from each Island town, to review the county budget each year. The finance advisory board must approve the budget before it is sent to the state's County Finance Review Board for final approval.
The FAB was scheduled to meet last night with the county commissioners to continue discussion of the latest draft budget.
As they consider the county budget, advisory board members spoke this week about the latest draft of the fiscal year 2007 (FY07) county budget, which goes into effect on July 1, about the strengths and weakness they saw in the budget, and whether or not they felt that taxpayers in their towns receive value for their annual town 's assessment.
Among the members of the FAB, Art Smadbeck, Edgartown selectman, was the most generous in his comments on the budget. Edgartown taxpayers pay the largest percentage of the county budget; their 2007 annual assessment is more than $250,000.
"The budget looks, as it is currently presented, to be a good budget," said Mr. Smadbeck, who found only one weakness. "I thought there should be a cost of living adjustment incorporated into this budget, because the employees of the county deserve it, just as the employees of the towns deserve it," he said.
Asked whether he thought Edgartown taxpayers get their money's worth, Mr. Smadbeck said, "I do think that, and we will have to wait for the charter study commission to be sure, but it is my feeling that when you add up all of the things that the county provides, my guess is that we are probably getting more than our money's worth, considering the cost if we were to run these services ourselves."
Other members of the advisory board disagreed with that assessment. Tristan Israel, the Tisbury selectman, said he did not like the county's proposal, a part of the FY07 spending plan, to charge the towns additional fees for the county engineer.
"In looking at this budget, what jumped out at me was that the county is using fees to balance it," said Mr. Israel. "Instead of looking for ways to cut back, they raised fees, and to me, by charging an assessment to run a department, and then charging a fee to balance the budget, that's double dipping."
Asked if Tisbury taxpayers receive their money's worth for their $106,372 county assessment, Mr. Israel said flatly, "No. I think with all the chaos that has gone on with the county over the last few years, we are not getting the most bang for our buck. I think that this is an institution that is on the ropes, and they either have to go through some meaningful change, or I don't think they will survive."
Despite its size, Chilmark pays $147,764 into county coffers, the second highest county assessment paid by an Island town. That's because the assessment for each town is a function of each town's total real estate value.
Warren Doty, Chilmark selectman, also questioned additional fees for the county engineer.
"The most recent budget proposed includes $50,000 in revenue for the county engineer," said Mr. Doty. "The only place that revenue is coming from is the towns. This doesn't seem to me to be a good idea."
Looking at the budget as a whole, Mr. Doty said that it was "questionable" whether Chilmark taxpayers were getting their money's worth.
"I think that it is a good question, and that is why we are going to have a charter study commission look at the county, and see what people think," he said.
Jim Newman, Aquinnah selectman, said that because he has not attended recent advisory board meetings, he would not comment on budget details, but he was adamant that Aquinnah receives little in exchange for the town's $28,040 assessment.
"I don't think we get our money's worth from the county," said Mr. Newman.
Michael Dutton, Oak Bluffs selectman, tempered his remarks with the observation that the county had room for improvement. Regarding Oak Bluffs' $117,499 county assessment, Mr. Dutton said, "Let me put it this way, if we had a different form of regional government, I think Oak Bluffs taxpayers could get a lot more for that amount of money. For instance, not saying anything against the job of the town animal control officer or health agent or building office, but a lot of functions that every town has to handle separately could be handled regionally with less overhead and more efficiency."
"Regionalizing functions such as those are the things that a proactive and engaged county government could propose, but it would take some critical and creative thinking," he said.
John Early, the West Tisbury selectman, said that he also sees some room for improving the county budget.
Asked to comment on the services West Tisbury taxpayers received in exchange for their $108,153 assessment, Mr. Early said, "I think we can always do better."
Among his concerns, Mr. Early said the county's proposal to pay for a COLA with money currently in escrow, pending the settlement of a rent agreement with the airport, is not a reasonable strategy for future budgets.
He asked, "It begs the question, what happens next year?"
Mr. Early said that he is glad that the county began the budget process earlier than it has in the past.