Refuse District Faces Deepening Financial Woes

By MANDY LOCKE

Financial difficulties again dominated discussion at the Martha's Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District meeting as committee members tried to find ways to climb out of a hole half a million dollars deep.

Representatives acknowledged last Thursday afternoon that moving out of the red depends on whether voters in each of its four member towns allow the district to secure a $1.5 million long-term bond to cover both outstanding bills and upcoming capital projects. Such a bond would supplement the $3 million bond approved in September 2000.

How Edgartown, West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah would receive a request to absorb $4.5 million in capital expenses over the next 14 years is uncertain.

"I think you are in danger of towns turning you down," said Edgartown representative Larry Mercier.

Committee members of the four-town district took a hard look at the district's finances last month after discovering an unpaid balance of $250,000 to SEMASS, the Rochester company that handles the district's municipal waste. The district has also racked up an additional $45,000 in finance charges on late payments since 1999.

A short explanation of the budget problems is found in the long list of unexpected expenses. The district has attempted to absorb on a bare-bones budget unforeseen extras ranging from bird studies and landscaping to legal fees and an over-budget transfer station.

Many of those expenses, some committee members argue, came in the form of mandates from federal, state, regional and local boards.

To chip away at $350,000 in capital expenses incurred in recent years, district manager Charles Noonan used $40,000 in excess operational income and money that was budgeted for handling costs.

District bylaws stipulate that charges to town residents delivering trash must not be used to turn a profit, and that member towns are responsible for capital expenditures.

Despite the financial difficulties, West Tisbury representative Peter Marzbanian said that charges of poor planning were unwarranted in light of what he suggested were unforeseeable costs.

"How many [items] on this laundry list could we have planned?" he asked. "Next to none. You can only plan so much."

The committee did not determine on Thursday afternoon if the matter could wait to be resolved until annual town meetings in April 2003. If not, the district may ask towns to call special town meetings before then to approve issuing a bond to address the mounting debt.

In the meantime, the district is securing a $125,000 revenue anticipation loan to help pay its debt to SEMASS. With the new fiscal year beginning on July 1, assessments from the town will roll into the district's account to help pay the balance at SEMASS.

The proceeds from any bond the towns are asked to approve would cover upcoming expenses such as engineering costs for a construction and demolition debris handling facility and the closure of the Chilmark landfill and remaining portions of the Edgartown landfill.

To avoid a similar mess in the future, committee chairman Richard Skidmore suggested tacking on some extra money to estimated capital expenditures when designing the budget in order to handle unanticipated overages.

"We are always making a bare-bones budget," he said. "Tack another $500,000 onto the $1.5 million. Until we bite the bullet and get some padding, we can't respond responsibly."

Mr. Mercier questioned the legality of that but suggested getting bids for upcoming projects before estimating an amount in the district budget.

In other district business, Mr. Noonan announced the price per barrel of household trash will be increased from $3.75 to $4 at the transfer station in Edgartown to help the district close in on price increases by the handler. The even dollar also makes calculating change easier for attendants.

The towns of Chilmark, Aquinnah and West Tisbury - who each run their own dump - can set prices as they wish.

District members also voted for Mr. Noonan to study ways the district can eliminate the acceptance of cash at the dumps altogether.

"We're running a multimillion business on $3.75 coupons and cash," said Chilmark member Michael Renahan. "It's absurd."