Last month the Dukes County commissioners began attending meetings of Island selectmen as part of an outreach effort and to solicit suggestions from town officials for new county services. The next round of visits could include an appeal for money to pay for existing county services.
Almost six months into the fiscal year, a first draft of the Dukes County operating budget for the next fiscal year, FY 2009, which begins on July 1, 2008, projects a deficit of $178,798, with no new services added to the county portfolio.
County treasurer and acting county manager Noreen Mavro-Flanders presented the first version of draft county budget at a joint meeting of the county commissioners and county finance advisory board (FAB) on Nov. 28. The board includes one selectman from each town, and approves budget transfers and the annual county budget.
County revenue is expected to increase by 2.45 percent, or $41,036, according to the draft. That number includes an automatic 2.5-percent increase in the annual assessments paid by the seven towns that make up the County of Dukes County, which includes Gosnold (the Elizabeth Islands and the town of Cuttyhunk). Budget increases are limited by the provisions of Proposition 2.5.
According to a draft copy of the meeting minutes, Ms. Flanders estimated expenses will increase by 9.07 percent, or $166,621. An increase in the estimated cost of health and life insurance benefits for county employees, who pay 10 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums, will add almost $60,000 in expenses.
Additional cost increases include $18,000 added to the budget of the county treasurer for various expenses, and $21,000 needed to fully fund an annual salary for a new county manager, who has yet to be hired.
The county manager's salary line was decreased in the FY 08 budget to account for an expected six-month period when there would be no full-time county manager while the commissioners looked to fill the vacancy created when former county manager Winn Davis left in August.
At the Nov. 28 meeting, the FAB, absent the Chilmark, Aquinnah, and Gosnold members, expressed concern about how best to confront the looming deficit. Art Smadbeck, Edgartown selectman and FAB chairman, told the commissioners the budget must be balanced, and it must be done without reaching into the county reserve fund as has been done in the past.
Mr. Smadbeck says there is good reason to be concerned about county expenses. Town assessments will account for 40 percent of the county's FY 09 operating budget. Edgartown taxpayers will pay the largest share, $277,208, followed by Chilmark ($130,372), Oak Bluffs ($125,478), Tisbury ($122,808), West Tisbury ($114,799), Aquinnah ($26,697) and Gosnold ($11,123).
The county commissioners turned to the reserve fund to bail out the budget in the current budget year.
The $4.8 million FY 08 operating budget that the county manager presented to the county commissioners last June included cuts in the county rodent control department, engineering department, health council, and the county manager's salary.
Mr. Davis, who was paid a salary of $79,194, did not fully fund his position because he expected the search for his replacement to consume six months. However, individual commissioners were unhappy with some of the proposed cuts and asked Mr. Davis to restore the money.
In July, one week into FY 2008, the county commissioners were still struggling to complete the budget. Mr. Davis advised the county commissioners not to rely heavily on an account that provides a buffer against unexpected expenses.
In the end, Mr. Davis agreed to do what the commissioners wanted and restored the cuts by tapping the reserve account for $48,500, a move that Mr. Davis said at the time he could not "defend or recommend."
The county is expected to have $190,000 available in unreserved funds in FY 09, according to Ms. Flanders.
Fairness for county employees was also a topic of discussion at the Nov. 28 meeting. Taking up the current FY 08 budget, Ms. Flanders told county officials that the budget called for a three-percent cost of living increase for union county employees and a two-percent increase for non-union employees. Ms. Flanders asked the county commissioners and FAB members to consider a one-percent increase in the latter, so all employees would be treated fairly.
On a motion by Roger Wey, seconded by Tristan Israel, the commissioners approved the increase.
Mr. Smadbeck deferred action by the FAB, because not all the members were present. The FAB approved the increase at a later meeting.
Discussion at the November meeting then turned to the deficit. FAB and county commission members called for a budget approach that would focus on funding only mandated services. County commissioner Lenny Jason of Chilmark proposed eliminating the health care access program ($88,863 FY 09), health council ($4,083), rodent control ($69,457) and county engineer ($63,755). According to the minutes, Mr. Jason suggested approaching each town as it begins its annual budget process to ask for help in continuing these services.
So-called mandated county programs and expenses would include the parking clerk, registry of deeds, courthouse expenses, veterans agent, and sheriff's department.
Couny Commissioner Tristan Israel, also a Tisbury selectman, said he would like to see new employees contribute more to the cost of health insurance. Employees of Island towns and schools contribute 25 percent.
Ms. Flanders said that any distinction in payments between existing and new employees would violate the law.
Mr. Israel said that the county was not trying to eliminate programs, but that additional revenue is needed.
According to the draft budget worksheet, county revenue not offset by expenses will increase in only one line item. The county assessment will rise by $19,719, based on the 2.5-percent increase allowed by law.
For example, the county will also receive an additional $18,316 in retiree health/life insurance payments. That increase is offset by a 27-percent increase in expenses from $223,281 to $282,508 in FY 09.
The projected cost to taxpayers of the one-employee rodent control department, including salary, is $69,457. Projected revenue is $20,000. Actual revenue in FY 2007 was $19,245, compared with a projected $20,000.
The projected cost, including salary of the one-employee engineering department, is $63,775. Projected revenue is $30,000. Actual revenue in FY 07 was $30,809, well short of the projected $52,500.
It is estimated that the county parking clerk, who processes parking tickets for all Island towns, would have expenses of $39,772, compared to revenue of $37,500. Actual revenue in FY 07 was $38,873, short of the projected $45,000.
The county budget also projects FY 09 revenue from the sale of Cape and Islands license plates ($100,000), deeds excise ($150,000), and communications center fees ($125,000).
Several departments would see increased costs. The county commissioners office, which includes the county manager and the manager's administrative assistant would rise from $154,005 to $175,389, mostly for salaries and benefits.
The new county manager is expected to earn at least $60,000. Mr. Davis's salary was $79,194 at the time of is resignation.
The treasurer's office would rise from $228,857 to $247,174. That total includes Ms. Flanders's salary, which would increase from $84,829 to $88,256, and money for computer upgrades.
According to the job description published this summer, the county manager oversees the administration of a $3.9 million budget and 73 employees.
Although the county manager serves as the administrative manager for the seven county commissioners, the actual responsibilities of the job are limited.
The Martha's Vineyard Airport, which by statute is under the control of the appointed airport commission and their professional airport manager, represents more than half of the county budget. State and federal regulations prohibit any use of airport revenue for non-airport related uses.
Although the FY 09 budget includes the sheriff's department ($517,702), registry of deeds ($268,754), and office of the county treasurer, those departments are headed by elected county officials who do not answer to the county manager and have direct control over their employees.
In terms of day-to-day supervision and responsibilities, the county manager has control over nine employees and four departments: veterans' affairs, rodent control, health and the county manager's administrative assistant.
The finance review board includes Mr. Smadbeck, Denys Wortman of Tisbury, Ron D'Orio of Oak Bluffs, Jeffrey Manter of West Tisbury, Frank Fenner of Chilmark, James Newman of Aquinnah, and Kris Lombard of Gosnold.
The seven elected Dukes County commissioners are Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs, chairman, Leslie Leland of West Tisbury, vice chairman, Lenny Jason of Chilmark, John Alley of West Tisbury, Tristan Israel of Tisbury, Roger Wey of Oak Bluffs, and Carlene Gatting of Edgartown.