County minimum-wage policy complicates TTOR beach contract

The Trustees of Reservations said a $15 wage requirement would add undue costs to its management of county-owned Norton Point Beach.

Dukes County contracts with The Trustees of Reservations to manage county-owned Norton Point Beach - Photo by C.R. Sullivan

Last November, the Dukes County commissioners approved a policy that calls for all county employees, including those who are employed under a contract, to be paid a minimum wage of $15 an hour. The immediate effect was negligible across county departments.

The seven elected county commissioners, and their paid county manager, have direct control over several county employees. The elected county treasurer, sheriff, and registrar of deeds, and the appointed airport commission, are responsible for their departments and salaries, none of which fall under the $15 an hour threshold.

It was not until it came time for the county to renew a three-year contract with The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), the private conservation organization that manages county-owned Norton Point Beach, that the $15 wage requirement became an issue.

TTOR Martha’s Vineyard superintendent Chris Kennedy estimates that meeting the county wage requirement would cost TTOR approximately $20,000, money that would otherwise be used for educational and shorebird-protection programs. He said many of the seasonal employees are retirees who are seeking to supplement their incomes, not earn a living, and who have an interest in being outdoors.

TTOR and the county are negotiating the best way to move forward before The Trustees’ fiscal year expires on March 31. As talks continue, shorebirds are on their way to Martha’s Vineyard. As of April 1, state and federal regulations require that beach managers take measures to delineate and protect nesting areas.

History of the deal

The agreement dates back to 2006. After years of woeful beach management overseen by one county employee, under pressure from beachgoers who often fish and travel the beach, and with the assistance of Pam Dolby, Edgartown parks and recreation director, the county concluded a deal with TTOR to manage the beach.

The two-mile strip of county-owned barrier beach between the open Atlantic Ocean and Katama Bay links Katama to Chappaquiddick, and provides an important transportation route and recreational resource. The beach is also considered to be prime nesting habitat for protected species of shorebirds.

The Trustees already owned and/or managed approximately 12 miles of beach and more than 800 acres on Chappaquiddick, extending from the county’s Norton Point Beach to the tip of Cape Poge.

Once the deal was concluded, The Trustees set about cleaning up the beach. That included removing rusting metal fence posts that created hazards for oversand vehicle drivers, setting up an air station, and providing full-time ranger coverage, and shorebird monitoring.

TTOR funds the cost of Norton Point Beach management through the sale of oversand vehicle permits. The annual permit costs $90 for Island residents and $140 for nonresidents. Day permits are $30 and $60 respectively. Under the current contract, TTOR projects $375,000 in revenue, of which it will pay $75,000 to the county. In the event that revenues exceed $375,000, there is a formula for further revenue sharing.

Tight ship

In a phone conversation with The Times on Tuesday, Mr. Kennedy said the people who work on the beach are largely retirees who supplement their income. “A lot of them, frankly, it’s a labor of love,” Mr. Kennedy said. “They’re working outdoors, they’re working with wildlife. And you know, there’s a little bit of hero worship that goes on.”

Most of the summer employees have already been identified, he said, because there is very little turnover from year to year.

He said that TTOR runs a very tight ship financially, and it cannot afford to operate under a deficit. Norton Point operates with a small surplus, he said, and any excess funds go to other programs, particularly education and shorebird protection. “What little surplus is generated is plowed right back into the programs that provide community benefit,” Mr. Kennedy said.

If there is no agreement, TTOR would need to find a way to account for the additional $20,000 not now in the budget — those measures could include an increase in permit fees or seasonal staff cuts.

“That would be kind of ironic that the county’s attempt to provide a pay increase ultimately results in staff layoffs,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Many of the employees are involved in shorebird protection. By April 1, Mr. Kennedy said, TTOR must identify and delineate all potential shorebird habitat. If there is no contract by the end of the month, he said they will enter “unknown territory.”

“If it looks like there’s some real progress being made, I think we would just go ahead and put up the fencing and take responsibility for all that,” Mr. Kennedy said.

TTOR will ask the county commissioners to alter their minimum-wage policy to exclude contract workers. “One of the first things is we would ask the county to revise that resolution … When they start using a broad brush, covering others that may be associated with the county, I think that’s a whole different kettle of fish,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Out of the blue

The county’s longest serving commissioners, John Alley of West Tisbury and Lenny Jason of Chilmark, were not present in November when the county commissioners voted unanimously to raise the minimum wage. In his comments, commissioner David Holway described the minimum wage increase as a “strong statement” from the commission, according to a video recording of the meeting on MVTV.

“This goes along with the national movement,” he said.

Commissioner Leon Brathwaite, who participated in the meeting by telephone, made the point that no one currently employed by the county made less than $15 per hour. He said that voting the wage into policy codified a practice already in place.

Mr. Kennedy, who was at the meeting to discuss the county’s contract with TTOR, told commissioners that raising the minimum wage might require TTOR to raise fees for various passes they sell for oversand vehicles (OSV). He said that TTOR sells approximately 2,000 permits that pay for seven to eight employees, and that the current fees were not adequate to cover a pay hike.

At that same meeting, Mr. Kennedy presented a draft of the contract for renewal. Action was postponed because the commission approved the minimum-wage resolution just moments before Mr. Kennedy appeared.

“I guess I’ll wait, but I can’t imagine that the dollars would be that big,” commissioner Tristan Israel, who is also a Tisbury selectman, said. Mr. Israel offered that in his view, because TTOR didn’t have many employees, the burden to fulfill the wage requirements shouldn’t be very great.

Mr. Kennedy said that TTOR pays its workers between $10 and $18 an hour.

Going forward

The wage discussion resurfaced at the county commissioner’s meeting on March 2, when TTOR and Dukes County officials attempted to move forward with the contract renewal.

Mr. Alley was upset with the county move to dictate what TTOR paid its workers. “If you hire an organization, whatever it might be, to manage or do whatever it is that you need done, you both agree this is it it. Why are we in the salary business? I don’t get this. I don’t understand it,” Mr. Alley said.

“Because we voted it,” Mr. Israel responded.

Mr. Alley argued that because the county and TTOR agreed that TTOR would perform a service — managing Norton Point Beach — the county should allow TTOR to operate to the best of its ability to do so. He said that it was not the county’s business what TTOR paid its employees.

“We’re negotiating services at a certain price, and we want them to pay the people $15 an hour,” Mr. Holway said.

Mr. Jason and Mr. Israel said that the wage requirement would be problematic if commissioners were attempting to revise a contract, but that was not the case. “You may not agree with the vote we took, but we’re not asking them to change a contract we already had with them,” Mr. Israel said.

Commissioners agreed to name Mr. Brathwaite and Mr. Holway to a negotiation committee to meet with TTOR. Mr. Alley voted against the measure.

“This is going forward, not backward, you know what I mean?” Mr. Jason said to Mr. Alley.

“I’m a little confused on that one,” Mr. Alley said.

“Yes, so why don’t you at least abstain? This is a good thing,” Mr. Jason said.

In addition to Mr. Alley, Mr. Jason, Mr. Israel, Mr. Brathwaite, and Mr. Holway, Christine Todd of Oak Bluffs and Gretchen Underwood of Oak Bluffs sit on the county commission.