State Finance Crisis Places New Strains on Budget of MVC

By JULIA WELLS

State budget cuts are expected to hit the Martha's Vineyard Commission hard in the coming fiscal year, and town assessments will go up as grant money goes down - way down.

MVC executive director Mark London said this week that state and federal grant money is expected to drop by some $200,000.

"We have tightened up every expense we can, but as we take on new planning responsibilities it is important that we keep our staffing intact," Mr. London said.

Last week the commission finance committee reviewed a draft $883,000 budget for the coming year. Small increases in salaries, benefits and health insurance are anticipated, and some $12,000 in capital improvements are planned for the Olde Stone Building in Oak Bluffs which houses the commission office.

"We really cannot ignore any longer that the building is falling down and the fact that people cannot walk in the front door," Mr. London told the finance committee during a review of the draft budget last week.

The full commission was expected to vote on the budget last night. The new budget will go into effect on July 1, the start of the fiscal year.

The draft budget shows that state and federal grant money is expected to drop from $445,000 last year to $281,000 this year.

Commission funding comes from two primary sources: grant money and town assessments. The drop in grant money will translate to higher town assessments, although because the assessments are spread across seven towns the actual impact will be relatively small.

Total town assessments for the commission last year were $501,000; this year the number will increase by 17 per cent to $602,000.

"Generally about half of our grant money goes for overhead, so the loss of $200,000 means that about $100,000 that we would have been able to charge for overhead will now be assessed to the towns," Mr. London said.

Town assessments are calculated using a formula based on equalized valuations. Assessments for the coming year are as follows: Aquinnah, $20,941 (up from $17, 854); Chilmark, $125,064 (up from $106,626); Edgartown, $190,203 (up from $162,161); Gosnold, $6,770 (up from $5,771); Oak Bluffs, $91,417 (up from $77,939); Tisbury, $82,008 (up from $69,917); West Tisbury, $85,620 (up from $72,996).

Legal expenses continue to take up a large chunk of the commission's budget; last year $145,000 went to pay for legal expenses. Mr. London told the finance committee that the bulk of the money was spent in connection with the land court case that challenged the right of the commission to review affordable housing projects under Chapter 40B.

The commission won the case in what was considered a landmark ruling from the chief justice of the land court last June.

The commission has budgeted $80,000 for legal expenses in the coming year. Last week Mr. London told the finance committee that it is impossible to forecast accurately for legal expenses. A court appeal of the decision by the commission to reject the Down Island Golf Club project is expected to be costly, but to date the case has only seen minimal activity in court and it is unclear whether the case will even come to trial this year.

Mr. London said legal expenses are a fact of life for any regional planning agency. "It's the cost of doing business for a public agency," he said.

Christina Brown, a commission member from Edgartown, said she expects close questioning from the Edgartown selectmen about the legal expenses in connection with the Down Island Golf Club dispute, but commission member John Best wondered why the selectmen would pick this moment to question legal expenses when they never questioned the extraordinarily high legal expenses that accompanied the decade-long dispute with the owners of the Herring Creek Farm.

"Why hasn't Edgartown asked about the Herring Creek legal bills?" Mr. Best said.

The draft budget unveiled last week was incomplete - the budget detailed expenses for the coming year, but there was no clear statement of revenues. Local assessments were broken down by town for the coming year, but there was no town by town breakdown from last year for the sake of comparison. There was also a discrepancy between the draft budget and the commission's annual audited financial statement on one set of key numbers: annual expenses.

The draft budget reported total expenses from last year were $883,025 and projected exactly the same expenses for the coming year. But the annual audit reported total expenses of $990,000. Total revenues at the commission last year were just over $1 million, according to the audit. The draft budget included no statement of revenues from last year.

Mr. London said the expense numbers are different because the actual expenses listed in the draft budget excluded contract-related expenses for contracts that will not be renewed this year. He admitted that the numbers were not presented clearly and said he is working with commission administrator Irene Fyler to develop a more understandable way to present the budget for next year.

At the finance committee meeting last week, commission member Kate Warner questioned the high utility expenses and urged Ms. Fyler to contact the Cape Light Compact for an energy audit of the commission offices.

Returning to the subject of town assessments, Mr. London said even with the increase, Vineyard taxpayers are getting a bargain. "The average household on the Vineyard last year spent $26 supporting the operations of the commission," he said, adding: "The increase amounts to less than $5 per property, and that is in the context of a situation where in the last five years or so the average property value on the Vineyard has gone from a little over $200,000 to well over $500,000. What can you get for $5 nowadays? A cup of coffee and a muffin? In terms of the commission's work to help planning on the Island and maintain the quality of life, it would seem like a small price to pay - a cup of coffee and a muffin per year."

Gazette reporter Mandy Locke contributed to this story.