The Dukes County Commission is between a rock and a hard place. Faced with a looming budget deficit for fiscal year 2009 and a financial advisory board which has refused to consider an unbalanced budget, the commission on Friday voted unanimously to slash funding by 50 per cent to two county programs and 100 per cent of another.
The commission will ask the six Island towns and the town of Gosnold to contribute the balance to continue the three programs — the Health Care Access program, the rodent control officer and the county engineer.
At a Nov. 28 meeting, county treasurer and acting county manager Noreen Mavro Flanders presented the commission and its advisory board with a draft $4.8 million budget for the coming fiscal year. The budget had a projected deficit of $179,000 and would go into effect July 1, 2008, the start of the fiscal year. At that meeting, advisory board chairman and Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck asked the commission to look for new and practical ways to balance the budget.
It is the job of the commission to draft a budget, but the advisory board must approve it.
So county commissioners Tristan Israel, Leonard Jason Jr. and Leslie Leland met twice last week with Ms. Mavro Flanders to rework the draft budget. In those meetings, the group discussed slashing by 60 per cent funding to the health care access, rodent and engineering programs and asking voters at annual town meetings to pay the balance. The county would then reduce funding for the programs by 10 per cent each subsequent year, with the towns shouldering 100 per cent of the cost at the end of five years.
Cutting funding to a fourth non-mandated program, the Health Council, was not discussed because the commissioners deemed the dollars involved insignificant.
Other changes to the draft budget included a $15,000 increase for the county manager position and $20,000 for emergency repairs to the courthouse roof.
Ms. Mavro Flanders and the three commissioners presented their recommendations to the full commission on Friday. “We’re not doing this because we want to do this. We’re doing this because we have a huge shortfall,” Mr. Israel said of the cuts. “This budget has been pared and made lean year after year after year,” he said. “There isn’t a lot of wiggle room.”
The county has struggled over the years to offset increasing expenditures, primarily a result of rising personnel costs. The county collects an annual assessment from the towns, but can only increase the assessment by 2.5 per cent each year.
After presenting the reworked draft budget, Ms. Mavro Flanders announced the resignation of county engineer Stephen Berlucchi. Ms. Mavro Flanders said the resignation was a result of a cut in hours to the position the commission made last year under similar budget constraints. Mr. Berlucchi has accepted a job elsewhere, she said.
Without an engineer, the commission proposed to discontinue funding the position entirely.
The commission acted under a time crunch on Friday, as Island towns are now in the process of drafting warrants for annual town meetings. “Deadlines are approaching,” Ms. Mavro Flanders said. She urged the commission to vote on draft amendments to submit to town selectmen, but said the commission has time to revise the wording. “We need to hold space in the warrant,” she said.
Before taking a vote, the commission heard from a small audience, which included past and current chairs of the Health Council, the director of Health Care Access and a member of the Dukes County Charter Study Commission. “I can’t help but see this as anything but a failure of government. You are, in effect, cutting into your reason for being,” said former council chair Tad Crawford, who now sits on the study commission.
Cynthia Mitchell, the current chair, agreed. “To fracture a program that is serving everybody is asking for trouble,” she said in reference to the access program.
In the end, the commission voted to eliminate the county engineer, to fund 50 per cent of the access and rodent control programs, to add $15,000 to the county manager salary and to include $20,000 for repairs to the courthouse. They also voted to submit draft articles to the towns asking them to fund the remaining 50 per cent of the access and rodent programs. The commission still will have to use $90,000 of unreserved funding, almost double the amount used last year, to balance the budget.
The decision of the committee to reduce funding for the access program, the rodent control officer and the engineer will put an added financial burden on towns. In the coming fiscal year, the county will assess towns for $808,489. Assessments do not include the funds needed to continue the three nonmandated programs. According to estimates from Ms. Mavro Flanders, Edgartown would face nearly $50,000 in increased expenses if residents vote to fund all three programs. Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and West Tisbury would pay roughly $20,000 in additional costs. Aquinnah could expect a charge of $4,500.
Matthew Ray, a lawyer from the office of the county’s legal counsel Marcia Cini, said there was no way to obligate towns to continue funding programs into the future. He encouraged the commission to address the issue on the town meeting floor before a vote.
In a telephone call this week, Mr. Smadbeck praised the commission for their effort. “You have to commend the commissioners for starting to face some of the financial problems of the county,” he said. “We can’t bankrupt the county because we want to have every program under the sun funded.” A date has not yet been set for the advisory board to review the latest draft budget.
Following the vote, Sarah Kuh, director of Health Care Access, worried for the future of the program, which assists Island residents obtain affordable, high-quality health care. Use of the program has increased in the past three fiscal years. In the last fiscal year, the program processed 1,717 individual applications from 1,133 Island households. This was up from 815 households and 1,303 individuals in the previous year.
“I am concerned about jeopardizing the services we provide to the community if the remaining 50 per cent isn’t funded,” she said as she left the meeting Friday.