After a period of relatively moderate growth between 2007 and 2012, the tax levy for the Town of West Tisbury has risen steadily and dramatically over the past four years:
- 5.5 percent in 2013
- 3.1 percent in 2014
- 5.9 percent in 2015
- 6.6 percent in 2016
- 4.4 percent in 2017 is projected, or approximately $634,000.
If you are the owner of a $700,000 home in West Tisbury, your property taxes have increased over the past four years respectively $238, $105, $210, and $245, for a four-year increase in property taxes totaling $798.
The reasons for this upward trajectory are varied, but can mostly be attributed to a few key factors:
Salaries and benefits
By far, salaries and benefits are the predominant factors behind our tax increases.
- Though circumstances affect actual figures, every new employee hired with benefits costs the taxpayers nearly double the actual salary paid.
- When benefits and retirement costs are included, a recent calculation for a $35,000-per-year employee came to $63,000 for all costs.
A combination of increases in grade/step or negotiated salaries, cost-of-living adjustments and rising health insurance premiums have resulted in a 120 percent hike in cumulative growth for salaries and personal services between FY04 and FY17.
Creation or expansion of programs and services
Each time the town or a regional entity creates or expands upon programs and services, there are the apparent costs as reflected in the warrant article under consideration, but there are also the trailing expenses, which are much less visible at the time the proposal is being made on the floor of the annual town meeting. Additional real estate, personnel, equipment, insurance, and service-contract requirements, as well as inevitable recapitalization (the true tooth to tail costs), will virtually guarantee an expanding burden upon the budget in future fiscal years.
It is impossible to seriously discuss budget increases without addressing the issue of school costs, which currently account for almost 65 percent of the town tax levy. According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, 2013-2014:
- The Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) ranks sixth among districts in the Commonwealth for per-pupil expenditures at $25,312 per student per year.
- The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) ranks fourth, with an annual per-pupil cost of $26,076.
- The state average expenditure per pupil is $14,518.
The West Tisbury share of budgets for UIRSD and MVRHS have risen over 35 percent, from $6.598 million in FY04 to $9.782 million today. Projected out at that rate over the next 10 years, the combined school budgets could reach $13 million by 2028.
Add to this an accrued liability that will take an increasingly heavy toll on the wallets of West Tisbury taxpayers. Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB), pensions and health insurance, are benefits that follow employees into retirement and are paid for the duration of their lifetime. The town incurs not only the liabilities associated with its own personnel but also proportionally those of other regional entities (UIRSD, MVRHS, Martha’s Vineyard Refuse District, Dukes County, Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Tri-Town Ambulance). The accounts for all of these entities are woefully underfunded. The Town of West Tisbury currently has an unfunded liability of approximately $4.5 million, the UIRSD and MVRHS of nearly $13 million and $27 million respectively. While West Tisbury has done a good job of managing this growing debt, and has a plan moving forward, it will require increasing contributions over the coming years and a corresponding increase in taxes to cover them.
The issue of affordability, particularly in the area of housing, is one that all of us on the Island understand and struggle to address. Ironically, the continued escalation in our property tax rates has a direct and harmful effect upon efforts to ameliorate the situation. Young residents of the town who have managed to scrape together sufficient funds to become homeowners do so assuming a mortgage rate and a tax rate they calculate they can afford. Over the past 10 years we have seen our property taxes in West Tisbury rise by 34.3 percent. We risk driving these young residents back into the pool of those competing for the limited affordable housing available, or even off-Island. Similarly, our elderly on fixed pensions, many of them born here or longtime residents, cannot sustain this rate of increase in their taxes, and must face the prospect of leaving the Island community.
There is a tendency at town meeting for the voters to view the budget through the narrow lens of discrete proposals enumerated on the warrant without looking at the aggregate, long-term consequences of their approval. During the budget review process, the Finance Committee routinely questions proposed increases, providing its recommendation for approval or disapproval of warrant articles to town voters. While we, as your representatives, may urge all those submitting budgets or warrant articles to seek greater efficiencies in order to reduce costs, ultimately it is you, the voter, who has the power to rein in spending through your vote. Tax increases don’t just happen; they are the result of conscious, cumulative votes taken on the floor of town meetings. We ask that you keep this in mind and weigh carefully the lasting financial implications before voting to create any new program, expand an existing one, or to hire new personnel — for in the end we reap what we sow.
Katherine Triantafillou, Gary Montrowl, Sharon Estrella, Greg Orcutt, Doug Ruskin
West Tisbury Finance Committee