Surprise cost reduction trims Dukes County spending

— File photo by Steve Myrick

Flush with the news that they will be obliged to spend $205,162 less than they had budgeted for fiscal 2013, the Dukes County commissioners voted Wednesday to substantially reduce town assessments.

The line item cost reduction was discovered during an examination of the $2,032,163 draft county budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. The commissioners had endorsed that budget when they last met on February 22.

Since then, county treasurer Noreen Mavro-Flanders determined that the largest county budget line item, known as “maintenance of effort,” would not require $501,702, but will actually cost $307,540. In addition, eliminating a charge for a new computer server for the treasurer’s office will further reduce budgeted outlays. An $11,000 line item for the server had been included twice in the draft budget.

Maintenance of effort is the state-required funding of the Dukes County Sheriff’s department, communications center, and community corrections center. Two years ago, the state assumed direct control of the sheriff’s department, and state law required the county to continue to make the maintenance of effort payments. In fact, instead of funding the sheriff’s operating budget, the payments went toward future pension benefits for sheriff’s department retirees who remain in the Dukes County retirement system.

Next year, the third year of that agreement, the maintenance of effort costs will be substantially less than in the first two years. Ultimately, there will be no mandated payment from the county, because the liability will be fully funded.

At their Wednesday, February 29, meeting, commissioners discussed several options for spending the surplus. These included assuming more of the cost of two county programs, pest control and health care access, which the county has shifted to Island taxpayers in addition to the assessment.

They also considered addressing the unfunded liability for future health benefits promised to current and retired county employees or making $313,681 worth of repairs to the Dukes County Courthouse.

But it was clear from the start that the commissioners considered only one option viable.

“To suggest we’re going to take what is being assessed to them and spend it the way we want is insanity,” commissioner Lenny Jason said.

Commissioner Tom Hallahan of Oak Bluffs said using the surplus for the other suggested projects would be a bad idea. “It’s suicide, and it’s actually somewhat arrogant,” he said.

County manager Russell Smith suggested another option. He advocated that the county return to partial funding of the integrated pest management program, and the Health Care Access program.

Over the past four years, the county has asked towns for an increasing percentage of funding for those programs at annual town meetings, with the expectation that after five years the towns would assume all of the costs. The towns pay the cost of the two programs, in addition to their county assessment.

“That would benefit the county and the towns,” Mr. Smith said. “The advantage to the county is that these programs are county programs, and it answers the issue of how they’re managed when they’re no longer under the county financial umbrella.”

Mr. Hallahan responded. “I totally disagree,” he said. “It’s a separate issue.”

Chairman Melinda Loberg, Mr. Hallahan, Mr. Jason, and Tristan Israel voted in favor of reducing the assessment levied on towns. Commissioner John Alley, who arrived at the meeting in the middle of the discussion, abstained.

The county advisory board, scheduled to meet March 7, must also approve the change.

In the current fiscal year, county assessments by town are: Chilmark, $128,024; Edgartown, $305,423; Aquinnah, $31,459; Gosnold, $11,360; Oak Bluffs, $126,276; Tisbury, $126,276; West Tisbury, $120,596.

Commissioner Carlene Gatting of Edgartown did not attend Wednesday’s meeting. Les Leland of West Tisbury resigned his position as county commissioner on February 22 because of health issues.

Mr. Hallahan participated by video conference from Jordan, where he is on a teaching assignment.

This article was updated to clarify that it was state law, not an agreement with Dukes County, that requires the county to continue “maintenance of effort” payments after the state assumed control of the Dukes County Sheriff’s department.