Refusing to let the fundraiser be a stage for escalating labor tensions, Martha's Vineyard Community Services officials this week denied the request of Possible Dreams poster child Carly Simon to earmark a portion of her gift's proceeds to staff wage increases.
"The mission is to raise funds for otherwise unfunded care," said veteran auction co-chairman Kerry Scott this week. "That's how we understand it. That's how the donors, bidders and hosts understand it. To change the way the money's spent changes the mission of the Possible Dreams auction. We can't do that mid-stream."
The singer/songwriter and year-round resident of Tisbury announced last month in a letter to the Gazette the conditions she would attach to her dream this year. Her decision came, Ms. Simon said, after learning about the financial plight of Community Services employees locked in contract negotiations.
Ms. Simon, who is the highest yielding dream giver in the auction's 25-year history, said despite her frustration, she will not back out on her promised donation.
"I'm disappointed, clearly. What seemed like a positive gesture turned out to be something so complicated to put into practice. Only [the organizers] could help make it simple, but it seems they aren't willing to do that," Ms. Simon said Wednesday night from New York city.
Ms. Simon said her decision comes partly in deference to humorist Art Buchwald, who has said this will be his last year as auctioneer.
"It's only because of Art. Else, I'd be taking a stand," Ms. Simon said.
"But the conversation will not end here," she added.
Instead of a restricting a portion of her donation's proceeds, Ms. Simon will, instead, match 30 per cent of her gift's price tag after the auction with a personal check dedicated to staff salaries. She intends to announce the gesture during the auction and encourage other celebrities and bidders to do the same.
"Even though it may be a small gift, I hope it's an example of what I, myself, am willing to do," said Ms. Simon.
Management's decision stems more from philosophical concerns rather than feared legal implications, said agency labor attorney Richard Perras.
"The auction's been successful, in no small part, because people can give unrestricted gifts. For nearly 25 years, they have contributed knowing that the board will determine where it needs to go. The question is whether the formula should be changed. It's an issue regardless of whether we are in negotiations or whether we are already into a contract," Mr. Perras said.
Community Services executive director Ned Robinson-Lynch and board president Ursula Ferro would not comment on the recent decision.
"Can we be the vehicle through which someone interjects themselves into labor relations? No. Has she started a conversation? Oh, yeah," Ms. Scott said.
"When someone like Carly steps up and says things need to be made better - when someone sticks her neck out to this extent - that's the stuff dreams are made of," Ms. Scott said.
After nine months of negotiations, agency officials and the employees of Island Counseling Center and Visiting Nurse Services are still far apart on the wage issue. Both sides hope to narrow the gap with the arrival of a federal mediator - a third-party facilitator recently asked to join the negotiations. In April, the union called on Community Services to spend more than $200,000 to increase the average wage of 36 employees by 35 per cent. Two weeks ago, the request dropped to 15 per cent raises. Management's best offer: a two and a half per cent cost of living adjustment and fresh wage talks next fall.
The stakes are high for Community Services. Each year, the agency depends on the star-studded gifts bringing in more than $300,000 in a single night to pay for unfunded care provided by the health and human services organization. Community Services ended the recent fiscal year more than $100,000 in the hole. A draft budget for the 2004 fiscal year counts on $350,000 from Possible Dreams to fund the day-to-day operations of the $5 million agency.
Labor tensions have plagued the agency for 16 months and have spilled into the local newspapers in an increasingly public dispute. Employees of ICC make no promises that the unresolved wage issue won't surface at the Harborside Inn during the August 4 auction.
"We haven't made a final decision. We do see it as an opportunity to voice our opinions. Because we can't get a response from the board despite repeated attempts, the only other option is to raise the volume. The best place to do that is the auction," said Rob Doyle, an ICC employee.
"But clearly the last thing we want to do is harm the auction. I don't think it would sour the atmosphere. The agency provides valuable services. No one disputes that," he added.