County Announces Deep Budget Cuts

Officials at Health, Human Services And Housing Agencies Express Dismay Over Austerity Budget for FY2003

By JOSHUA SABATINI

A budget that aims to tighten Dukes County's belt in the upcoming fiscal year was sent off to the state for approval this week amid criticism from leaders of underfunded agencies.

Officials at health, human services and housing agencies on the Vineyard are dismayed that they will not receive about $273,000 in funding they had sought. The thrifty proposed budget also freezes the salaries of county employees.

The moves were prompted by reduced revenues and rising expenditures, said county manager Carol Borer. "There is no additional funding at this time," she said.

Still, she added, "it is not as grim as it looks." The funding requests may be met belatedly through grants or, if the county revenues are higher than expected, during the supplemental budget process over the next fiscal year, Ms. Borer said. Historically, she added, the county has funded such departments during this follow-up process anyway.

Ms. Borer suggested that Dukes County is still not as bad off as state, county and municipal governments elsewhere that have been forced to lay off employees amid an uncertain national economy. She tried to make the budget work, she said, "without laying people off."

But Cynthia Mitchell, chairwoman of the Dukes County Health Council, charged that better planning by the county could have helped it weather the storm. The health council requested $60,000 - $5,500 for administrative costs and the remainder to implement the Island Health Plan. Now, with no county money forthcoming, the council is trying to scrape together funding from other sources.

"We will proceed with whatever funding we can pull together," said Mrs. Mitchell. "The issue here for groups like the health council and the housing authority is, these are the kinds of efforts that the county should be supporting in some meaningful fashion."

The county should have gone to the towns months ago, Mrs. Mitchell suggested, and asked voters to increase their contribution to the budget. She said she believed many residents would have supported a Proposition 2 1/2 override to fund the health council or affordable housing.

Mrs. Mitchell also wondered how useful it was to hold the public hearing on the budget only 13 days before the start of fiscal year 2003.

"None of the voters in the various towns had the opportunity to weigh in," she said. "I am not saying [the county commissioners] don't value what we do, or don't worry about the affordable housing problem. But they do not position themselves in a way to be helpful. The county doesn't have to put itself in this position."

Sarah Kuh, coordinator of the health services department's Vineyard Health Care Access Program, said the county's decision challenges her, like Mrs. Mitchell, to seek funding elsewhere - something that will be difficult because the state and federal governments face similar economic conditions.

Miss Kuh's program works to provide assistance to Islanders who lack health insurance. Health services had requested $167,574, of which the county will provide only $47,000 - to fund her position.

"We don't have all the money in the bank that we need to run the program," said Miss Kuh. "Our goal will be to keep our staff in place."

Fortunately, she said, the level of service has not yet been compromised by the budget problems.

The draft budget's last stop before it was sent to Boston was a Monday public hearing held by the county advisory board. The longest discussion at the sparsely attended meeting was led by Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA), and John Abrams, chairman of the Island Affordable Housing Fund. DCRHA's request for $45,000 was declined in full.

Mr. Jordi said it is difficult to plan for housing programs and projects without knowing where funding will come from. He said he hopes that in the future the county will maintain a funding commitment to the housing authority.

"For affordable housing this has been a year like no other," said Mr. Abrams. "What we have seen - the business community stretched to provide housing for summer employees and funding the salaries. The towns have done a lot more, but not nearly enough. The land bank is doing a lot more, but not nearly enough. But every part of the Island is heading in the right direction in terms of housing, except the county.

"To show us a zero amount instead of an escalating amount says the county is not doing its share," he added.

Tristan Israel, Tisbury's representative to the advisory board, questioned Ms. Borer's decision to zero-out the housing authority without the input of county commissioners. Affordable housing should remain a priority issue, he said.

Advisory board chairman Ted Morgan suggested that Mr. Israel's concerns would be assuaged if revenues exceeded Ms. Borer's conservative projections. "Unless we have a disastrous year, we will have money," he said.

Ms. Borer agreed that the county will probably see some extra money that could be directed to the housing authority. "But I am not going to make any promises," she said.

A motion by Mr. Israel to recommend finding funds for the authority during the supplemental budget process carried unanimously.

But Ms. Borer has also said that the county's first priority, if it can dip into a larger purse, is to take care of its employees. Step and cost-of-living increases for all employees would cost about $14,000, but salaries will instead remain at last year's levels.

Ms. Borer said her conservative projections for fiscal year 2003 reflect uncertainty regarding how much revenue the county will see over the rest of the year.

Real estate sales - a portion of which contribute to the county budget - are expected to decline, as is Cape and Islands license plating.

Over the last five fiscal years, revenue from excised deeds bottomed out in 1998, at $107,559, before peaking at $154,179 the very next year in 1999. Since then, revenues have fallen each year. As of May 29, the county had brought in $111,857 in excised deeds, versus $119,249 last year. Ms. Borer projected just $80,000 for next year.

"We have had a very good year this year, but I am not expecting high sales next year," she said.

The state license plate program generated about $102,000 in fiscal year 2001. The county anticipated about $75,000 for fiscal year 2002; through May receipts were $13,500 short of that target, although some of the shortfall will be made up in June.

Adding to costs is health insurance for retired county employees, which jumped almost 20 per cent - about $25,000 - going into next year. Funding for the sheriff's department grew by nearly $40,000, and the county treasurer's office will see close to a $41,000 increase.

The hike is attributable to a pay raise for the county treasurer, the changing of the assistant treasurer's position from part-time to full-time and the hiring of a part-time clerk. The expansion is necessary, said Ms. Borer, to meet state-ordered accounting directives.

While the county cites financial strains, Mrs. Mitchell believes there would have been ways around the hurdles with a bit of foresight.

"It just behooves the county to plan to put some support behind these efforts," she said. "The will is there - I hear the county commissioners say, ‘God, if we could only do this, but we can't.' But I disagree with the latter half. I think they could if they planned it."