The Dukes County commissioners will ask taxpayers in the six Island towns to pay 50 percent of the costs of two county departments, and 100 percent of another, in an effort to close a deficit in the draft version of the 2009 fiscal year (FY) budget.
At a special Friday morning meeting, the county commissioners voted to put the question of funding for the county's health and rodent control departments in front of Island voters during the spring round of annual town meetings. Ultimately, the commissioners intend to ask the towns to fully fund both programs.
Should those payments be agreed to by town voters, the money would be in addition to the $808,489 that the county will assess the towns to pay for county services.
Even as the commissioners cut funding for two departments in order to close a projected $179,000 deficit, they added $15,000 to the county commissioners' department, raising the line item to $190,389, in order to boost the salary for the currently vacant position of county manager.
While the numbers are likely to change during the continuing budget process, as the draft budget now stands, the county administration would consume 24 percent of the total assessment, or nearly one out of every four dollars Island towns send to the county, apart from additional sums voters may choose to allocate to county government.
The county commissioners had intended to ask voters to also fund the county engineer. But at the Friday morning meeting Stephen Berlucchi unexpectedly notified the commission of his intention to resign because of the county's uncertain fiscal future.
That news provided an opportunity to pare expenses from the budget. The commissioners decided to eliminate the county engineer's job for a net savings of $13,510 in the FY 2009 budget.
The commissioners later voted to submit a warrant article to Island towns requesting they fully fund the engineering department, if the towns want to restore the position.
Savings from elimination of the engineering department were easily swallowed up when the commissioners learned that the courthouse roof installed in 1996 needs to be replaced (see sidebar).
County treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders revealed the looming budget deficit when she presented a draft FY 2009 budget at a joint meeting of the county commissioners and county finance advisory board (FAB) on Nov. 28. The FAB includes one selectman from each town and approves budget transfers and county budgets. At that meeting, Art Smadbeck, Edgartown selectman and acting FAB chairman, told the commissioners the budget must be balanced without reaching into the county reserve fund as had been done in the past.
At Friday's meeting, the county commissioners ignored that request and proposed tapping the reserve fund, estimated at $184,000, for $90,000, in order to offset anticipated FY2009 spending.
"The amount we're leaving in the reserve fund is close to what accountants say is reasonable," said commissioner Tristan Israel of Tisbury on Friday. "The county advisory board doesn't want us to touch the reserve fund. We have no choice. The only other thing is to start cutting employees. That's where we're going."
There was tension among the commissioners and representatives of county departments as they discussed how to close the deficit and generate revenue at Friday's meeting.
Proposition 2.5 limits the amount by which the county assessments paid by the towns may increase. Long-time commissioner John Alley of West Tisbury suggested asking voters to approve a general override of Proposition 2.5, in order to increase the assessment and balance the budget.
"Were you at the helm of the Titanic?" commissioner Leonard Jason Jr. of Chilmark asked in a tone of amazement.
The sentiment of the commission was with Mr. Jason, as others indicated they believe voters are in no mood to approve a general override.
Although the county manager serves as the executive for the seven county commissioners, the actual responsibilities of the job are limited. Now that the position of county engineer has been eliminated, the county executive will have day-to-day supervision over only the manager's assistant and seven other employees in three departments: veterans' affairs, rodent control, and health.
The budget discussion takes place against the backdrop of an examination of county government by a specially constructed charter study commission that will recommend potential changes in county governance to voters. Tad Crawford of West Tisbury, member of the charter study group and the county's Health Advisory Council, was not happy with the budget decisions.
"I don't see how we can do anything but see what's happening as a failure of government," Mr. Crawford told the county commissioners at Friday's meeting. "You're in effect cutting your reason for being. That's dangerous."
Initially fully funded, the health access program and rodent control departments account accounted for $83,244 and $63,906 respectively.
Mr. Crawford suggested the county consider selling some of its property, and take a hard look at the benefits package for county employees. Currently county workers pay 10 percent of the cost of health and life insurance benefits.
The 50 percent cut in county funding would be a first step. The county commissioners intend to increase their request to fund those programs by 10 percent each year, until the departments are fully funded by the towns.
The commissioners' intention to shift the cost of "non-mandated" county programs to local towns by way of town meeting warrant articles presents some complex issues. The commissioners are far from clear on of how to proceed if some town meetings authorize 50 percent funding for county services, and others refuse.
They pondered what would happen if Edgartown and Chilmark vote to fund services, but four other towns do not. Together, Edgartown and Chilmark shoulder nearly half of the proportionate assessment for the Island towns, and their assessment might be enough to continue some rodent control and health services. But would the services be available to voters in towns that turned down the additional funding? In the case of rodent control, it would be relatively easy to provide services only for residents of towns that voted to fund the service. In the case of health care services, it might be far more difficult.
"We're supposed to be a regional agency, last I heard," said Mr. Alley. "You're opening up a big can of worms."
While the commissioners voted to submit articles asking town voters to fund the county programs, the language of those articles has not yet been agreed upon. While the commissioners want to make clear their intent to ask for more funding each year, they cannot ask a town to commit funds beyond the current fiscal year.
"As there is no way to obligate the town[s] in future years, we thought that the language about the future of this arrangement does not need to be in the warrant," attorney Matthew Ray advised the commissioners.