Edgartown mulls MVC exit

Escalating legal fees are worrying town officials.

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Edgartown's fiscal year 2024 contribution to the regional permitting and planning agency amounts to a 22.77 percent increase from last year. — Abigail Rosen

Edgartown voters could be asked to vote on whether to end the town’s relationship with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. 

No article has been submitted for the upcoming town meeting warrant yet, but members of both the finance committee and select board have raised concerns about rising costs associated with the commission.

At the upcoming annual Town Meeting on April 11, Edgartown voters will be asked to take up a number of warrant articles, including the town’s proposed FY24 budget. On Wednesday, the Edgartown finance committee voted to recommend the articles and budget to the select board, which will issue the final stamp of approval in the beginning of March.

Among the appropriations listed for the upcoming fiscal year is the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s town assessment, which has increased 22.77 percent from last fiscal year, mainly due to escalating legal costs.

In November of last year, Edgartown select board members expressed their concern about the commission’s budget increase, which is funded mostly by Island towns through an equalized valuation formula enacted by the state legislature. 

This year, Edgartown will be responsible for contributing nearly $700,000 — more than 40 percent of the regional planning agency’s collection. 

On Wednesday, Edgartown finance committee member Julia Tarka called the amount “absurd,” and an “unnecessary amount of extra money.” She said it’s straining the town’s budget. 

She also noted that the town is named as a third party in some of the lawsuits recently filed against the commission, adding additional budget concerns.

“Looking at all the town budgets with the security with which we apply to them, and then the flexibility we ask of our town departments, to have the commission spend so much money without taking any feedback from elected officials in Edgartown feels really discouraging with such a large increase,” Tarka said.

Additionally, “[The MVC is] doing merit increases on top of COLA [cost-of-living assessments], which is not something that’s really happening for town employees in the same way,” she said.

“They keep getting more legal challenges, the prices keep going up, the budget keeps going up,” finance committee member Rob Coad said. “Sooner or later, there’s going to be a point where even people in favor of the commission will go, ‘Wait a minute, this is an absurd amount of money for what we’re getting out of it.’”

At the rate the commission is going, he said, “It seems they’re going to approach that point relatively quickly.” 

Finance committee chair Donna Lowell-Bettencourt said the town has no choice but to pay the requested amount. If denied at town meeting, Edgartown would still be required to pay the assessment, and be forced to cut other budget items. 

“It has to be paid, as opposed to an appropriation or expenditure that’s discretionary,” town administrator James Hagerty confirmed.

“The only way not to pay the assessment, which we have no control over, is to get out of the commission,” select board member Arthur Smadbeck said.

Lowell-Bettencourt offered an alternative: “We could offer them input and ask for some changes,” she said.

Smadbeck noted his failed attempts to do that in the past. “They’ve rebuffed me over the years,” he said.

What the town can do, he said, is highlight the budget line item during the finance advisory report at town meeting, and share concerns with the voters.

If the town wants to go forward with potentially leaving the MVC, Hagerty said, voters would need to approve it as a warrant article at town meeting, and then file a home rule petition to state legislators.

A warrant article could be submitted until Feb. 21 for the town’s Special Town Meeting. It could potentially be considered a nonbinding referendum that goes onto the ballot, Hagerty said, and be representative of how the town and its voters think about the issue.

This wouldn’t be the first time the town made moves to pull out of the commission. At a special town meeting in 2010, following concerns aired on a draft spending plan calling for a 5.5 percent increase in the town’s assessment, Edgartown voters were asked to vote on whether to stay with the MVC — the first step of a lengthy exiting process. Voters ultimately opted to reject the proposal to leave. 

One attempt at pulling out of the commission was successful, Smadbeck said, after one town meeting vote years ago. He said that vote prompted the commission to urge legislators to change the existing process so the town would need consecutive approval at two annual town meetings. That change was made.

With no decision made Wednesday, Lowell-Bettencourt said, the finance committee will be taking up the topic at their next meeting.

In a call with The Times, Martha’s Vineyard Commission Executive Director Adam Turner said he understands the concerns raised by Edgartown officials. 

While he did not offer a response to the comments made at the Edgartown meeting, he said he’s been in regular communication with the town, and have worked collaboratively on a number of projects concerning climate change impact mitigation, the town’s Harbor plan, and an open space initiative which “opens up hundreds of thousands of dollars” for the town. 

Unfortunately, “litigation happens,” he said, but overall, “We’re really proud of the things we’ve accomplished with [Edgartown].