Deficit Crisis at Refuse District Angers Officials in Island Towns

By MANDY LOCKE

The Martha's Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery district found itself on the hot seat this week as selectmen in both Edgartown and Chilmark grappled with the six-figure hole in its books - a deficit that the district's four member towns will eventually be asked to carry.

Edgartown selectmen called for an independent audit of the district's records, expressing outrage that auditor George L. Malone did not red-flag budget shortfalls, unpaid bills to the district's waste handler in Rochester and the use of operational money to cover unplanned capital projects.

Chilmark selectmen - themselves victims of the district's cash crunch - hounded district manager Charles Noonan for letting debt mount to nearly half a million dollars. The town of Chilmark now awaits payment from the district of almost $56,000 - nearly all of the latter's share of engineering costs for capping the town's landfill. The unresolved payment caused the town of Chilmark to end fiscal year 2002 with a shortfall of its own.

As another round of town assessments begins to arrive in this, the first month of the new fiscal year, Mr. Noonan said Chilmark would be paid $35,000 by the end of this July.

The district's $500,000 deficit came to light two months ago when Edgartown district member William Elbow discovered that the district owed waste handler SEMASS $250,000. The outstanding bills - having incurred $45,000 in finance charges since 1999 - accumulated when Mr. Noonan used operational revenues to cover unexpected capital expenses.

In Edgartown, the topic of poor management remained central to the discussion between selectmen and the town's representatives to the district, Larry Mercier and Mr. Elbow. "It sounds like somebody needs some lessons in financial management," selectman Fred B. Morgan said.

"The magnitude of the problem was shielded from us," Mr. Elbow told selectmen. "And there was plenty of opportunity for this to be brought forward."

At the past two refuse district meetings, Mr. Noonan has argued that a number of unexpected costs, arriving in the form of directives from government entities like the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Martha's Vineyard Commission, caused the capital deficit to climb beyond predictions.

Refuse district members, Mr. Noonan said, voted to approve payment for each unplanned capital project - from $20,000 in landscape screening for the transfer station to a bird study ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration before construction began for the transfer station on West Tisbury Road near the airport.

Mr. Elbow noted that overruns might also have played a role, saying the district's records need to be examined further.

Edgartown district members also suggested the debt accumulation could have been addressed sooner.

Mr. Elbow acknowledged that the district is paying steep finance charges of 12 per cent. "We're going to get some low-interest funding [to pay SEMASS], something that should have been done two years ago," he said.

Ultimately, Mr. Mercier said, the district's member towns need to jointly examine the body's financial problems. "We must make choices based on a good understanding" of the financial situation, he said. "We pay 70 per cent of the district's costs but we need other towns in the district."

In the coming year, the district will be faced with at least an additional million dollars' worth of capital projects, including engineering costs for a construction and demolition debris handling facility, closure of the Chilmark landfill and closure of the last portion of the Edgartown landfill. The district now must appeal to the voters of Edgartown, Chilmark, Aquinnah and West Tisbury to approve a long-term bond for $1.5 million - enough to get them out of the current crunch and to cover upcoming capital expenses.

Some district members favor tacking on an additional $500,000 to that request in order to be able to handle any unforeseen costs. Others believe the district will be fortunate if voters simply grant the $1.5 million bond, given the poor financial forecast within the district.

Both Edgartown and Chilmark selectmen made clear this week that the district should not depend on their municipalities to bail them out of financial messes.

"The town [of Chilmark] did not give the refuse district a blank check," Chilmark board of selectmen chairman Frank Fenner said. "This is not a bottomless pit."

Reporter Mark Alan Lovewell contributed to this story.