MVC prepares to vote on $1.4 million operating budget

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission budget will shrink by 2.4 percent in the next fiscal year, as increases in employee benefits are offset by cuts in legal fees.

The Martha's Vineyard Commission will consider a special permit which would allow Wave Lengths Salon's new building to exceed town building height restrictions. — Martha's Vineyard Times file pho

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) is set to vote this month on a $1,420,940 operating budget for the 2016 fiscal year (FY) that begins on July 1, 2015. This proposed FY 2016 budget reflects a 2.4 percent decrease of $34,538 over FY15.

The modest decrease will be welcome news to taxpayers who have watched the MVC budget grow annually. The current fiscal year budget reflected a nearly 10 percent increase over the FY14 budget, which also included a 10 percent increase over the previous year.

The decrease will be reflected in the MVC assessment most taxpayers will encounter at annual town meetings this spring. Once approved by the commission, towns are legally obligated to pay the assessment.  Edgartown, the Island’s largest town in terms of real estate value, and the largest contributor to the MVC budget, will see the largest decrease, approximately $10,800. Only one town, Aquinnah, will pay more next year, $42,207 up from $40,840, based upon a formula tied to assessors’ changes in real estate valuations during the past year.

By law, the MVC must present a budget in January. The process began in October, and according to the MVC’s budget timeline, a vote by the full commission is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 22.

Expenses drop

The overall drop in MVC budget expenses was triggered in large part by decreases in two line items: legal expenses and the general reserve fund. The FY16 budget reflects a decrease of $50,000 for legal expenses next year, from $120,000 to $70,000.

MVC decisions can sometimes lead to litigation with property owners. In a phone interview with The Times, MVC Chairman Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs explained that legal fees for two lawsuits were responsible for budget shortfalls in 2012 and 2013. Last year, after both lawsuits had worked their way through a multi-year appeals process, a decision was made to use the general reserve to pay for accumulated additional legal expenses in order to bring the budget and reserve back into balance.

Mr. Hancock said that in prior years, the MVC maintained the legal budget at $60,000 in order to avoid increases to the towns. As the MVC’s legal counsel believes that there are not currently matters requiring significant additional work, the MVC finance committee adjusted the legal fees budget number to $70,000.

“We are happy that this will allow us to move money into two other accounts, for planned maintenance on our building and a much-needed new copy machine,” Mr. Hancock said.

The second line item with a significant impact on expenses is the general reserve fund, which the commission maintains “to cover urgent, unforeseen expenses during the course of the year.”

In FY15, the MVC placed $75,000 in the reserve fund, which the commission had depleted in FY 2012 and FY 2013, Mr. Hancock said, due to expenses that included legal fees and state-mandated contributions to the Dukes County Contributory Retirement system. The MVC has earmarked no contribution to the general reserve fund in the FY16 budget.

Salaries rise

Salaries and employee benefits that include the cost of funding retirement benefits will lay claim to the largest share of expenses, approximately 82 percent of the MVC budget. Personnel costs total $1,175,564 next year, an increase of $60,831, or 5.5 percent.

Salaries for the MVC’s 10 full-time employees, which include a senior planner, a senior transportation planner, a water resource planner, a coastal planner, a developments of regional impact planner, GIS coordinator and affordable housing/economic development planner will account for $810,575, an increase of $39,309. In addition, there is $159,740 in health and disability insurance and $139,795 in pension costs.

The commission’s headcount of 10 staff members is the same as it had 10 years ago, according to budget notes. Current staff salaries range from $51,536 to $91,735. MVC Executive Director Mark London, who will retire this summer, earns $130,891.

Salary increases in the coming fiscal year will include a cost of living adjustment (COLA) and a merit-increase component, according to the MVC salary policy. The COLA is determined by averaging increases for employees in all six Island towns from the previous year’s data.

Assessments decline slightly

The bulk of MVC income comes from Dukes County taxpayers through town assessments based on property tax valuation. All seven towns in Dukes County, which includes Gosnold, share the cost of planning, according to their relative property valuation.

FY16 assessments for Island towns and Gosnold are projected to decrease by a total of $34,808, from $1,047,748 to $1,012,940, which is a decline of just over 3 percent from the current fiscal year.

Based on the most recent draft, Edgartown will once again pay the lion’s share, $373,250 in FY16, compared with $384,043 in FY15. Chilmark will pay $173,808 compared with $176,600. Oak Bluffs will contribute $141,868, down from $149,526. Tisbury falls just short of Oak Bluffs at $141,039 compared with $148,604 this year. West Tisbury will pay $132,716 down from last year’s $138,520. Gosnold will contribute $8,053.  According to the draft budget, Aquinnah is the only town to pay more for FY 2016: $42,207 compared with $40,840 in FY15.

In addition to income derived from county taxpayers, grants, contracts, and gifts are projected to generate an additional $358,000, the same as last year. Interest and other income are projected to generate another $50,000.

“Given the reduction in the Massachusetts state income tax, it is even more difficult than usual to project where we will end up next year with grants for planning projects funded by the state,” Mr. Hancock said.

MVC planning agenda

Mr. Hancock noted that in addition to regulatory and permitting responsibilities, the MVC is a planning agency. “This means that the MVC staff is also occupied with ongoing data collection and planning in several areas of expertise in order to assist state agencies, town boards, and volunteer action committees across the Island,” Mr. Hancock said.

Some of the planning projects the MVC is working on now include completing a predisaster planning activity that focuses on how Martha’s Vineyard should respond to a significant hurricane or other impacts of potential climate change, he said. Other projects with priority include fertilizer regulations designed to protect groundwater, efforts related to water quality in coastal ponds, and further consideration of affordable housing.

Mr. Hancock said, “It is a tough dance to communicate about our goals and capabilities. Not everyone is aware of what the MVC does until there is a DRI that is important to them. So often, they simply don’t notice our projects. And sometimes, when they want to know why we aren’t involved and they think we should be, it is difficult to explain that what concerns them is simply not within our legislative or regional planning charter.”

Search begins

With the retirement of Mark London coming at the end of August this year, members of the MVC have also begun the search process for a new executive director. Search considerations include salary and relocation expense, as well as whether there should be overlap of the new candidate with Mr. London so as to provide for a smooth transition.  When asked about search priorities, Mr. Hancock said, “As a volunteer board, we rely on the executive director for planning experience, handling and balancing staff assignments, development of the budget, and providing his or her own vision for the MVC.  We are committing significant time and energy to this appointment.”

The appointed and elected Vineyard voting members of the commission are: Clarence (“Trip”) Barnes of Tisbury, Josh Goldstein of Tisbury, Harold Chapdelaine of Tisbury, Ernest Thomas of West Tisbury, Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, Douglas Sederholm of West Tisbury, Christina Brown of Edgartown, James Joyce of Edgartown, Chairman Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs, John Breckenridge of Oak Bluffs, Abe Seiman of Oak Bluffs, Katherine Newman of Aquinnah, James Vercruysse of Aquinnah,  Leonard Jason (Dukes County), Joan Malkin of Chilmark, and Rob Doyle of Chilmark. The governor’s appointee is Karl McLauren.