County tells Edgartown that skunks are extra

Steve Myrick

Edgartown selectmen have a downtown skunk problem. But when it comes to skunks, Thomas J. Hegarty, the director of the one-man Dukes County Integrated Pest Management (IPM) department, told selectmen he takes a hands-off approach.

At a December 17 meeting of the Edgartown selectmen, chairman Michael Donaroma asked Mr. Hegarty whether he could do anything about skunks in the downtown area. Mr. Hegarty told selectmen he traps skunks privately, but it is not part of the county pest control program.

“It would be cost-prohibitive to have taxpayers foot that bill,” Mr. Hegarty told selectmen, though he didn’t detail the added costs. Selectmen asked Mr. Hegarty to consider the idea and get back to them.

Mr. Hegarty, a full-time county employee, mainly provides rat trapping services to Island residents, towns, and businesses. Edgartown taxpayers, as well as taxpayers in the other five towns, already share that bill under a financing strategy that Dukes County commissioners put in place to help shore up county finances.

While the county operating budget once funded the entire IPM budget, the six Island towns now contribute 90 percent of the budget through appropriations at annual town meeting.

Edgartown, which has the highest assessment under the equalized valuation formula, pays the lion’s share among the six towns — $18,159 in the current fiscal year. That appropriation is in addition to the $244,997 that Edgartown taxpayers contributed to the fiscal 2012 county operating budget.

Mr. Donaroma said his question followed inquiries from local business people and the Edgartown Board of Trade, a business association.

“People have been coming in, saying every time we walk through Main Street downtown there are skunks everywhere, and can’t the town do something,” Mr. Donaroma told The Times in a December 20 phone conversation.

He was not entirely satisfied with Mr. Hegarty’s explanation. “I didn’t understand the distinction between skunks, and rats and mice,” Mr. Donaroma said. “Is it any harder to trap a skunk than a rat? Why can’t they do both? It’s getting to be a bigger and bigger problem.”

County defers to towns

County manager Martina Thornton said the county is open to the idea of adding skunk removal services as part of Mr. Hegarty’s duties, if the towns ask for it.

“It was not part of the program when he was hired, and then the program was offered to the towns,” Ms. Thornton said. “It’s the town’s decisions. If they want the service included we would have to look at what it’s going to mean in terms of how much the service costs, and how it’s going to impact the rest of the service.”

She said that Mr. Hegarty offers skunk removal service outside of his 40-hour per week county job.

“He does it privately,” Ms. Thornton said. “That was the agreement he had with prior management. If the towns are not happy or want to change, they should bring that to the county.”

In a follow up e-mail, Ms. Thornton said that since towns pay most of the cost of the program, she would defer to the towns to determine whether they want to address the proliferation of skunks regionally and whether they want to subsidize the cost.

“The added service would affect the currently provided services, and it would also break the original agreement with Mr. Hegarty.” Ms. Thornton said. “I do not feel that I can proceed in this direction without a clear charge from the majority of the towns.”

The agreement Ms. Thorton referred to was between Mr. Hegarty and former county manager Carol Borer, who resigned in December 2002, amid a cloud of controversy.

The Times asked Ms. Thornton whether the agreement with Ms. Borer was a written contract or a verbal agreement and whether it could be changed.

“I believe it was a verbal agreement that was part of the hiring process,” Ms. Thornton wrote in an email. “I believe it was an agreement without any time limit.”

Though the county does not offer skunk removal services, it does list Mr. Hegarty’s business phone number on the county website for those who want to hire him privately.

The web page on the county public web site, which includes information about skunks, lists Mr. Hegarty as a Problem Animal Control agent certified according to state law, not director of the county pest control program. An Internet search reveals no private web site for Mr. Hegarty’s skunk removal business.

Rodent revenue

At the December 17 meeting, Mr. Hegarty also provided Edgartown selectmen with an assessment of the IPM program finances for fiscal year 2012.

“The program has been busy,” Mr. Hegarty said. “We had an incredible year, exceeded our revenue projections. This year we’re kind of flat, moderate, but we’ve been plugging along.”

Revenue continues to fall far short of costs. According to Dukes County treasurer Noreen Mavro-Flanders, the IPM program generated $38,119 in revenue for fiscal year 2012. Of the total revenue, $3,437 had yet to be collected at the end of the fiscal year, on June 30, 2012. The county projected $25,000 in revenue in its budget, but later increased the revenue projection to $29,000, as part of a series of budget adjustments to make up for the expected revenue lost when Oak Bluffs voters opted not to fund their share of the IPM program. Actual revenue exceeded adjusted projected revenue by 11 percent in fiscal 2012. Actual revenue covered about 47 percent of the cost of the IPM program, budgeted for $80,461 in FY 2012.

In fiscal 2013, the county budgeted $88,016 for the IPM program, according to Ms. Thornton, an increase of 9.4 percent over the previous year. The county projected a year-to-year decrease in revenue, to $28,000. The projected revenues would cover about 32 percent of the cost of the IPM, program for the current fiscal year.

The largest expense in the IPM budget is Mr. Hegarty’s salary. He will earn $51,080, this year, an increase of six percent over last year. Mr. Hegarty also receives health insurance, retirement benefits, and longevity pay totaling $17,426.

The Times was unable to reach Mr. Hegarty for comment by phone or email, on December 23 and December 26.

Cost shift

The county once funded the pest control program entirely from its operating budget, which is mostly funded through an assessment to Island towns. In 2008, faced with eliminating the program because of budget deficits, the county asked each town to fund a progressively higher amount of the pest control costs each year.

This year the towns pay 90 percent of the operating costs, minus the revenue collected. At 2013 town meetings, the county will ask the towns to assume the entire cost of the program.

All towns except Oak Bluffs have approved this arrangement in past years at their annual town meeting. For the past two years, Oak Bluffs has opted out of the IPM program, by vote of the town meeting. This year, special town meeting voters approved an appropriation to rejoin the pest control program, with provisions for tighter supervision by town officials.

The appropriations for rodent control approved by town meeting voters in Oak Bluffs come in addition to the assessment to Island towns. Town meeting voters have no direct say in the assessment they must pay. Each town’s county assessment comes directly from state aid to the towns, known informally as “cherry sheets.” The assessment cannot be amended on the town meeting floor and does not show up on the operating budget.

Taxpayers must rely first on the county commissioners to exercise fiscal oversight and ultimately on the members of the county’s finance advisory board, who approve the county budget. The advisory board includes one selectman from each town.

This year Dukes County assessed Edgartown taxpayers $244,997 to fund its $1,814,178 operating budget for the current year. Chilmark taxpayers paid $106,132; Oak Bluffs, $99,520; Tisbury, $97,205; West Tisbury, $87,948; Aquinnah, $25,459; and Gosnold, $9,258.