State aid doesn’t mean much around here


It’s budget-building season in Island towns, preparing for annual town meetings this spring when voters will make FY2014 spending decisions. Budgeting is difficult work, even in the richest Island towns. There are so many claims on anticipated revenue, so many fixed expenses, and on Martha’s Vineyard little help to be expected from revenue sources other than the real estate tax levy. As compared with many communities in Massachusetts, Oak Bluffs is rich in real estate, not as rich as Edgartown or Chilmark perhaps, but rich by comparison with Brockton, Chicopee, and New Bedford. Of course Oak Bluffs suffers as the other towns have from the disappointing reset of town real estate values, an outgrowth of the near collapse of the market and its persistently slow improvement. For towns like our six, when real estate values don’t trend smartly and annually higher and municipal spending continues to grow, tax rates grow too. The consequent tax bills hurt modest income residents, who are the heart and soul of a town like Oak Bluffs.

That’s why Robert Whritenour, the experienced and capable public administrator in Oak Bluffs, laments, in a news report this morning, the dearth of state contributions to the Oak Bluffs treasury. State aid to cities and towns can help. It does help poor communities and big cities. State dollars help with schools, fire and police services, and other necessities that would otherwise draw on dollars contributed by local property owners. For Oak Bluffs, as in the other five towns, by most measures used by the state to decide who gets how much state aid, the calculation leaves the town footing its own bills, paying what the state charges for services it provides and getting shorted in return.

As Times writer Steve Myrick reports this morning, “Mr. Whritenour calculates that the state requires payment for services including school choice and charter school tuition education, county operating costs, library costs, and regional transit costs that total $1,283,355. The total state aid the town receives, including transportation funds, charter school tuition reimbursement, unrestricted funds, veterans’ benefits, library funds, and payment in lieu of taxes for state-owned land totals $1,262,755. He says the cost of mandatory assessments and charges the town has to pay is $20,600 more than the money it gets in state aid. Mr. Whritenour’s accounting includes only the items that make up the town’s operating budget, and it excludes direct offsets for school choice tuition reimbursement and school lunch.”

It’s a sad story for someone like Mr. Whritenour, who must get his arms around the in-rushing budget requests and the disappointing and difficult-to-forecast revenue expectations. Revenue will not satisfy the town’s spending appetite, and the state is unlikely to come to the rescue.

Of course, there are some offsetting considerations. For instance, many tax-paying property owners demand very little from the town, don’t send children to school here, impose on town services for about a third of the year, and own valuable property for which they pay a large share of the real estate tax levy. It’s also the case that most of these seasonal property owners don’t vote, so Oak Bluffs residents who participate in town meeting have control of town spending. The voters get to spend the money that they contribute to the town real estate tax levy, plus the money contributed by the summer property owners who don’t live here year-round and don’t vote.

It’s not a bad deal, really, and the formula the state uses — if you endorse the concept of shifting resources from wealthier communities to poorer ones — intends to do good where the need is greatest. Anyway, it’s not likely to shift in favor of Vineyard towns.

Tim Madden, the Vineyard’s representative to the state legislature, told Mr. Myrick that he is not optimistic about any adjustment, given the current political climate.If smaller towns get a bigger piece of the local aid pie, larger cities and towns would have to get less, the legislator told The Times.

“If you live in Boston, you’re not going to raise your taxes or cut local aid to your constituents, to provide an equitable formula for the Cape and Islands,” Mr. Madden said. And, he explained, if state government cuts local aid, cities and larger towns, the communities with the largest share of the votes in the Great and General Court, would be hurt.

For the time being and perhaps forever, Island towns must rely on their own willingness to shave costs or, if not, their willingness to pay more in real estate taxes.