At its Monday meeting, the Edgartown select board highlighted increasing concerns over the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s legal budget line.
After having received a letter from MVC executive director Adam Turner in October, relaying a proposed increase to the commission’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year — due to a handful of legal challenges and associated expenses — Edgartown select board members opened the floor for discussion.
Former commissioner James Joyce, who represented Edgartown on the MVC for around a decade, inquired as to where the board stands in regard to the possibility of increasing the town’s contribution to the planning agency.
Joyce also expressed concern over the commission’s legal issues, in addition to their hiring practices. “The biggest part of all budgets is employees,” he said, “the fact that they’ve increased their staff — [it] affects their bottom line.”
Joyce noted that the commission has recently created a new position, which has been temporarily funded by a grant, but will eventually need to be added into the budget after two years, which only adds to the financial burden.
Although Joyce did not specify the new position, the MVC has recently introduced an energy planner role, whose expenses are covered by grant money via the Vineyard Vision Fellowship for the first two years until a long-term replacement is appointed. “Do you think it’s appropriate that they can just increase their staff, without consulting anybody?” he asked board members.
Select board member Michael Donaroma, who has also served on the commission, replied, “As far as I know, they don’t need to talk to us.”
Donaroma said it’s his understanding that because of the way the commission is legislated, that if voters don’t agree to the budget increase at town meeting, Island towns are still held responsible for the expenditures.
Donaroma said in his experience, the commission “didn’t have to worry too much about what the towns say, because they feel they know better.”
“It’s a tough situation,” he said, “and it’s getting really expensive, I agree … Almost a half a million dollars now.”
Town administrator James Hagerty noted that the assessments for the commission’s budget, which is, for the most part, funded by all six Island towns and annually taken up by town voters, is based on equalized property value. He said Edgartown is responsible for contributing 40 percent to the MVC, and confirmed that if voters did not approve the increased budget, the town would still be assessed for that percentage.
“The only way to actually not pay is a home rule petition that effectively pulls you out of the commission,” Hagerty said.
“So they can just pretty much keep doing whatever they want up there?” Joyce asked, to which Donaroma replied, “I believe so.”
“Mr. Joyce does bring up some valid points,” Hagerty said; “eventually it will come to a tipping point … It will get to a point where it will be close to a million dollars for the town of Edgartown.”
He said more information needs to be gathered, and more questions answered, when the town is presented with the commission’s budget for the next fiscal year. Hagerty said that is expected to happen in the beginning of 2023, and town officials will review the budget “line by line” with the finance committee.
“But ultimately, it’s a highly political decision,” he said; “sometimes things come from the bottom up, or the town down, whether it be a petition from the citizens, [or] action from the select board.”
Hagerty said the town will need to be presented with exact numbers in regard to any MVC budget increase to decide “what the next steps will be, if there’s any at all.”
Select board member Arthur Smadbeck said the commission does, in general, remain in communication with the town, but the town does not “micromanage” factors like the MVC’s hiring practices.
Smadbeck said Turner has reached out to him, and has overall been “very responsive to the town,” in addition to being “very sensitive to running up these bills.”
He said the number of lawsuits facing the MVC is “unfortunate,” but noted that the town typically has faith in its representatives to the commission, and their ability to act on behalf of Edgartown’s best interest. Currently, Kate Putnam serves as Edgartown’s representative on the commission.
“We really rely on the appointee,” he said, “to represent what we’re thinking about.”