Leaders Take Stock with Full Inventory of County Services

By ALEXIS TONTI

Following a year that saw Dukes County officials embroiled in controversy on several fronts, the county manager and commissioners now are setting policy to strengthen their ranks internally and to educate Islanders about county services.

As part of the plan to improve communication, the county commissioners last week invited four department heads to their regular meeting to talk about their programs and goals; the remaining eight will give presentations in the coming months.

These presentations are laying the groundwork for regularly scheduled meetings at which commissioners and county employees can touch base and discuss problems. They also will allow program coordinators to advance their ideas in a forum apart from the sometimes confrontational budget process.

"There's a tremendous advantage for the commissioners to understand what's going on and what's going wrong. They shouldn't always be hearing about it third-hand from me," said county manager E. Winn Davis.

"Also, the departments should have time to talk about the programs they'd like to do without being on the defensive and having the burden of the budget in their hands," Mr. Davis said.

"Previously, we only met with the departments at budget time or when a crisis developed," said commission chairman John Alley. "Now we'll be able to have updates throughout the fiscal year, and it will give the various departments the opportunity to relate with the commissioners one on one."

Mr. Davis said the department meetings also will help increase public awareness about county government, a priority listed by some commissioners at recent goal-setting sessions.

"There are a lot of things being done by the county that are not understood by the general populace. It's a good chance for department heads to come in and do some promotion and education," Mr. Davis said.

On deck Wednesday night are the county treasurer, airport manager and director of emergency management.

Last week, Rob Culbert kicked off the discussion with a presentation on the recreation department, which is responsible for managing Eastville Point Beach, Norton Point Beach and Joseph A. Sylvia State Beach - about three-quarters of all free public beach on the Island.

"We manage the beaches from a multi-use perspective. Maintaining public access is critical while also protecting wildlife, including the piping plover," said Mr. Culbert.

Efforts are under way to update management plans for all three beaches, and Mr. Culbert wants to establish task forces for Norton Point and Eastville Point beaches to help with that process. He also wants to do more wildlife studies with an eye toward understanding why nesting shorebirds do not fare better on the Island.

Next up was Sarah Kuh, director of Vineyard Health Care Access. "Simply put, we help the uninsured get access to health care," said Ms. Kuh.

The program was created in 1999 by the Dukes County Health Council, and since then has helped about 1,200 individuals and families to find health care - roughly one in five Vineyard residents.

Ms. Kuh highlighted the program's reduced fee plan, in which all of the Island's primary care physicians participate, and its prescription assistance service. In addition, Vineyard Health Care Access recently launched a volunteer dental program under which Island dentists take shifts working at the dental center at reduced rates.

Following Ms. Kuh came Tad Crawford, chairman of the Dukes County Health Council. Mr. Crawford described the council as a roundtable of 35 members, half of whom are health care providers and half of whom are users.

"Our mission is to identify the critical, unmet needs of the community in the areas of health and human services," said Mr. Crawford.

He said the council operates on a lean budget and drew a sharp distinction between the business of running programs and the job of the council: "We develop recommendations and then spin them off - find homes for them elsewhere in the community," he said, citing the Island Health Plan as an example.

Looking ahead, the council wants to address issues specific to improving primary care; elders' access to care; care of the chronically ill, and treatment of mental illness and substance abuse.

Mr. Culbert, who also oversees the Dukes County water testing laboratory, then spoke about its mission.

"We protect the health of county residents by making sure the water is safe to drink, by offering testing at reasonable prices and making sure people understand the results of those tests - what they mean and how to resolve any health risks," said Mr. Culbert.

The lab tests both private wells and public water supplies for total coliform bacteria, nitrate-nitrogen, saltwater intrusion and other contaminants.

Mr. Culbert said the lab is currently summarizing all test results since 1996 to develop a comprehensive picture of how the quality of Island groundwater has changed over the years. And looking ahead, he said, the lab hopes to increase the number of contaminants it can test for.