The fight to keep funding intact for the Vineyard Health Care Access Program continued without letup last week during a meeting of the county advisory board on the county operating budget for the coming year.
Members of the Dukes County Health Council, the charter study commission, concerned residents and county commissioners packed the county administration building on their lunch breaks last Thursday to watch as the advisory board voted to approve a draft $1.9 million operating budget for the coming fiscal year.
The budget marks a 3.1 per cent increase over last year and does not include the operating budget for the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, which has not yet been submitted.
The draft county budget includes a 50 per cent funding cut to two county programs — the health care access and the rodent control programs. The budget will also eliminate the county engineer unless the six towns agree to pay for it.
The county commission also wants the six Island towns and the town of Gosnold to contribute the balance on the health care access and rodent control programs. And the commission wants the towns to take over funding the programs completely at the end of five years.
On Jan. 2 the county commission sent draft warrant articles to selectmen in every town. Edgartown selectmen refused to include the articles on their warrant for the annual town meeting. In an e-mail, town administrator Pamela Dolby explained the commission had missed the deadline to submit warrant articles.
“We need two-thirds support from the towns,” county commissioner Leonard Jason Jr. said when asked what effect the decision from Edgartown would have on the future of the programs. “Without Edgartown, it makes it a little tougher.”
Arthur Smadbeck, chairman of the advisory board and an Edgartown selectman, encouraged the commission not to give up on Edgartown. “The no is for now,” he said.
Since the meeting last Thursday, selectmen in Edgartown have said they intend to place the articles on a warrant for a special town meeting on March 6. Aquinnah, Gosnold and Tisbury have also placed the articles on their warrants for either special or annual town meetings. Selectmen in West Tisbury, Chilmark and Oak Bluffs are still considering the issue.
The advisory board took a break in deliberations Thursday to hear from Sarah Kuh, director of the access program, which helps Island residents obtain affordable health care. “We are the only full-service financial safety net for people on this Island,” she said, pointing to the handful of program clients who attended the meeting. “This is part of the picture of helping people stay on the Island,” she said.
Cynthia Mitchell, chairman of the Dukes County Health Council, asked whether the budget for the access program could be revisited if the towns refuse to contribute. The answer from the board was yes. “This is a program we like and are trying to figure out how best to help,” said board member and Oak Bluffs selectman Ron DiOrio.
Meanwhile, the advisory board praised the county commission for taking steps to rein in the county budget for fiscal year 2009. “Financially, the county is almost imploding,” said Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, a member of the board and a West Tisbury selectman. “I applaud the commission in being creative in trying to find solutions,” he said. But he also acknowledged the risks. “The programs may get caught in the crossfire over people expressing support or lack there of county government,” he said. Mr. Jason responded: “The voters have to understand that these are services that are needed.”
Before voting on the budget last week, the advisory board also discussed the vacant position of county manager and asked the commission to revisit its health insurance policy for employees and retirees in coming years. In the end, the board voted 4-1 in favor of the budget. Mr. Manter cast the sole dissenting vote; representatives from Aquinnah and Gosnold were not present for the vote.
As the meeting closed, county rodent control officer T.J. Hegarty thanked the advisory board for their effort. “We spin gold thread out of straw most of the time,” he said, with a nod to Ms. Kuh and Mrs. Mitchell. “I thank everyone at the table for their support.”
The advisory board will hold a public hearing on the final budget on Thursday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. in the county administration building.