County Tries to Balance $4.4 Million Budget

By ALEXIS TONTI

Eliminating the water testing laboratory and turning down a $42,500 funding request by the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority - these are some of the measures under consideration by the Dukes County commissioners as they try to balance the $4.4 million total operating budget for next year.

The county commissioners must consider the changes after an initial draft budget came in with a shortfall of nearly $120,000.

The county commissioners will be asked to vote on the budget at their meeting June 9.

County manager E. Winn Davis unveiled the proposed cuts at the regular meeting of the county commissioners last week. Also being considered is a so-called charge back to towns for about $35,000 in services provided by the county veterans' agent.

The Dukes County budget process is complicated by state laws that mandate the amount of money the county metes out to certain departments. At the same time, under Proposition 2 1/2, the county cannot increase its assessment to the Island towns and Gosnold by more than 2.5 per cent annually.

In addition, the county has initiated a number of programs over the past 10 years - including veterans' agent services, the health care access program and rodent control - that now account for about $300,000 in annual expenses.

County treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders said the budget crunch faced by Dukes County is not uncommon. "That's really why there aren't that many counties left in the commonwealth. A lot of them were so restricted by law that they couldn't go on," said Ms. Flanders.

"The towns want us to toe a tight line, and we have for as long as we possibly could - much tighter than the towns themselves," she said, noting that the towns have collectively voted for $17 million in budget overrides over the past 25 years. In that time the county has voted for only one override, for $150,000.

The Martha's Vineyard Airport budget, although included in the total budget for the county, is accounted for separately from all other county revenue and expenses.

The airport is self-sustaining and runs entirely on the revenue it collects during the year, which includes profit from its nonaviation properties, aviation side rent and terminal and service fees. The airport commissioners approved its $2.53 million budget in February.

Looking to fiscal year 2005, about 41 per cent of projected revenue (excluding the airport) to Dukes County - nearly 768,000 - will come from the county's assessment to the Island towns and Gosnold.

Other primary sources of revenue include Cape and Islands license fees ($100,000), registry of deeds ($300,000) and deeds excise ($115,000), which is the money collected from real estate transactions.

The largest share of county expenses can be attributed to the sheriff's department and the registry of deeds, at $470,000 and $236,000. At $230,000 insurance costs also account for a significant share of the county's expenses.

Mr. Davis on Wednesday introduced his recommendations for balancing the budget.

"As much as we like to support affordable housing, we just can't do it," Mr. Davis said of the regional housing authority's request for $42,500.

The regional housing authority did not receive money from the county last year.

The water testing lab also came under scrutiny last year in the county's efforts to cut costs, although the commissioners ultimately approved nearly $60,000 in expenses over $40,000 in revenue.

By shutting down the water lab for fiscal year 2005, the department's expenses would be reduced to about $29,000, with $20,700 in projected revenue.

Several commissioners asked why there would still be salary costs in the face of the lab's closure.

"I have a real problem approving a budget that still has negative cash flow going to the water testing department when it could go elsewhere," said commissioner Robert Sawyer.

Mr. Davis said they plan to contract some personnel hours to work in the water testing lab in Aquinnah. He also said department effort will be put into publicizing the septic upgrade program, developing other environmental health programs and launching public awareness campaigns to address issues such as Lyme disease and lead poisoning.

On the revenue side of the equation, the commissioners noted the hefty increase projected for the rodent control department. Mr. Davis explained that the change would come from adjustments to service costs. The department is expected to generate $20,000 in FY 2005, up 50 per cent over last year.

The commissioners generally held off commenting until they had time to review the changes, but several noted how difficult the budget process has become.

"It is just conceptually frustrating and sad that we can't have funding for some really important things," said Mr. Sawyer.

"It is important for people to fully understand how little money we have to operate on compared to all the services we offer," said commissioner Roger Wey.