Dukes County may study separating airport, cutting staff

A Dukes County Commission subcommittee will recommend that county officials consider a series of changes to county government designed to follow the recommendations of a Department of Revenue study critical of county operations.

The recommendations include divesting the Martha’s Vineyard Airport from the county, a move that would give the statutorily independent airport commission, now appointed by the county, more financial flexibility, and insulate the facility from a state takeover.

The committee will also ask county commissioners to consider combining the jobs of full-time county manager and full-time executive assistant to the county manager into one full-time or one part-time job. The county commissioners’ administrative budget for the coming fiscal year totals $171,006.

Top heavy

The initiative to rein in administrative salaries began with the county advisory board, which includes one selectman from each town and is charged with approving the county budget.

“Between the full-time county manager and a full-time assistant, we’re top-heavy with organization,” Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter said in a phone conversation with The Times. Mr. Manter, a frequent critic of county finances, is West Tisbury’s representative on the advisory board. “I believe one person can do that job. Two full-time people is too much. County government has shrunk.”

The role of the county manager been on the minds of county commissioners for more than a year.

“I think it’s a perfectly legitimate issue,” county commissioner Carlene Gatting said. “It’s one that needs to be explored by the county commissioners.”

County manager Russell Smith, who serves as the administrative manager for the seven county commissioners, exercises direct managerial responsibility for the county commissioners’ administrative department, which includes Mr. Smith and his executive assistant, the one-man integrated pest management program, and veterans services.

The state-controlled sheriff’s office, the registry of deeds, and the office of the county treasurer are all headed by elected county officials who have direct control over their departments.

The county commissioners’ administrative budget for the coming fiscal year includes Mr. Smith’s annual salary of $63,532 and the $54,350 annual salary of executive assistant Martina Thornton.

Air fair

The Martha’s Vineyard Airport is the only county-owned airport in Massachusetts. The county commission appoints the airport commissioners but has no direct role over its budget or operations.

“We would like to protect the airport and make sure that it’s under local control,” said county commissioner Carlene Gatting of Edgartown, subcommittee chairman.

Removing the airport from the county portfolio would require special legislation approved in the General Court and signed by the governor.

Though it accounts for more than half the county budget, by statute the airport falls under the direct control of the appointed airport commission and its professional airport manager. The airport pays a fee to the county for accounting and financial services, which the elected county treasurer provides. Airport revenue cannot be used for county purposes.

In the past, the county used its appointing authority to attempt to control the airport — at one point the county commissioners appointed themselves airport commissioners — and did not shrink from removing airport commissioners who demonstrated independence.

Airport manager Sean Flynn says he supports the idea of exploring separation from county government, though he emphasized the airport management and county commission now have a good working relationship.

“I am satisfied with the relationship as it exists,” Mr. Flynn said in a phone conversation with The Times. “My support is from a stability standpoint, so we don’t end up with personalities later that could change the relationship.”

He said a separation would eliminate some administrative and financial burdens and could streamline airport operations.

“They’re significant, we work around them now,” Mr. Flynn said. “Bonding, for example. To bond a project that I want to pay for out of my own funds is darn near impossible.”

All politics is local

Committee members pointed to a desire to retain local control over the airport through the six Island towns, should county government be dissolved.

“It is candidly, a pre-emptive protective measure,” planning committee member Tad Crawford of West Tisbury said. “We feel local control is absolutely essential.”

“What our airport means to us is completely different to what the Norwood [Mass.] airport means to its community,” Mr. Flynn said.

The proposal is expected to meet stiff resistance from veteran county commissioners. Commissioner John Alley of West Tisbury, who has served as an appointed member of the airport commission for 30 years, sees the recommendation as an attempt to dismantle county government.

“I haven’t approved of dismantling county government over the years I’ve been there,” Mr. Alley said. “It strikes me that this is a time the county government would strengthen itself instead of dismantle. If you dismantle it much more, there won’t be anything left. The sheriff’s department is already gone. The registry of deeds is almost all state.”

Hard look

The internal scrutiny of county government follows a harshly critical financial management review from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) issued last fall. That report made two major recommendations. The first was to form a strategic planning committee to consider changes in county government.

The second was to consider replacing the current system of elected county commissioners with a council of governments, a regional structure that would give towns power to make decisions and manage regional services through appointed representatives.

Ms. Gatting formed the committee last December, when she was chairman of the county commission. The commission appointed 12 members to the planning committee.

Ms. Gatting and county commissioners Tom Hallihan of Oak Bluffs and Melinda Loberg of Tisbury represent the county. The six selectmen who make up the county advisory board are members. They are Mr. Manter, Art Smadbeck of Edgartown, Jeff Kristal of Tisbury, Jim Newman of Aquinnah, and Frank Fenner of Chilmark. Oak Bluffs selectman Walter Vail assumed the role of representing Oak Bluffs with his election in April.

Also appointed were three others with interest and involvement in county government. They are former Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School principal Peg Regan, former Tisbury selectman Denys Wortman, and Mr. Crawford, a member of the Dukes County Health Council.

“It has been surprisingly productive,” Mr. Crawford said. “It has been pretty candid and open.” He said the committee is wary of state officials asserting control over county operations. “I think everybody in the room has a profound mistrust of the state,” Mr. Crawford said.

But the planning committee is a source of continuing friction within the county commission. While reluctant to criticize it publicly, some commissioners see the planning committee as an effort to circumvent Island voters.

Following an examination of county government by the Dukes County Charter Study Commission in November of 2008, voters opted to retain the current form of county government by a vote of 5,939-2,358.

“The citizens of the county overwhelmingly voted for the option of keeping county government here and keeping it local,” Mr. Alley said.