To the Editor:
From the discussions leading up to Edgartown’s decision to stay in the Martha’s Vineyard Commission there came a nice side effect — a clarification of taxation based on equalized evaluation. If you own a $500,000 house you pay the same amount of actual dollars toward the commission’s services, whether you live in Chilmark or Oak Bluffs or any other town.
In editorials, new stories, on-line posts, and letters to the editor, many people explained the concept. These people were making the point that Edgartown’s bill from the commission each year was indeed fair. It was larger than the bill to other towns because the property value total in Edgartown is larger than the total in any other town.
Outside of Edgartown, I don’t recall hearing anyone object to the fairness of this formula — at least with respect to the commission. Many people glaze over when they hear how costs are assessed, even people who should know.
I recently served for four years on the Oak Bluffs finance committee. When a representative from the regional transit authority or the regional housing authority came before us, the discussion was usually about whether our assessment was up or down — almost never about the formula that determined the separate assessments for Oak Bluffs and the other towns.
I’m a big fan of Island-wide approaches. We could use more of them. In particular, I believe the 2,000-plus children of Martha’s Vineyard would be better served by one school district rather than our current arrangement of two regions and three K-8 town school departments.
It’s not just about the cost. Island-wide we have low tax rates compared to the rest of the state, and a large percentage of the tax revenues we raise comes from off-Islanders. Money we spend on schools benefits kids, but it also helps bolster the Island’s winter economy with good jobs. We need wintertime jobs. But we could get more benefit from the people we hire if we were better organized to manage them and help them to develop their abilities.
Our current organizational structure is bizarre and wasteful. Efforts to do things together across town lines often founder on the issue of divvying up the costs. When a town feels it is going to have to pay too much, it simply decides to retain the town-based status quo, even when it recognizes the advantage of inter-town cooperation. Why risk a change when you might get snookered?
That’s where the the equalized valuation process comes in handy. It is widely perceived to be fair. Who pays how much? Which town pays more, or less? Changing a formula will always mean a change in how much a town pays. And the news stories will talk about winners and losers. When Edgartown voted to stay in the commission we were all winners because we stayed together. The idea of taxing according to equalized evaluation, so well articulated by so many proponents of staying in, helped to make staying in a palatable choice. It seemed fair.
When we sit down next time to talk about doing things together across town lines, assessment according to equalized evaluation is a concept that can be helpful in the negotiations.
Thanks to the events in Edgartown and the widespread discussions, this fair method is now more widely understood, and thus more available for us to use.