Already under pressure for the lengthy pace of its development reviews, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission has come under heightened scrutiny in Island towns over its budget for next year. Staff salary increases and soaring legal expenses have led to a 10 per cent increase in the commission’s budget, with some town assessments going up more than 14 per cent.
And as they prepare their own annual town budgets for the coming year, four of the six Vineyard towns are registering strong concerns about spending at the commission.
Mandatory town assessments will account for some $1 million of the $1.45 million MVC budget in fiscal year 2015.
In a letter this week, the Chilmark finance committee informed the commission that it had voted to not recommend the budget to voters. “It is the feeling of the finance advisory committee that the budget and its presentation reflect a lack of clear management, focus and prioritization,” the letter said.
The letter was sent to commission chairman Fred Hancock on Feb. 25 by Chilmark executive secretary Timothy Carroll. Mr. Carroll requested that executive director Mark London contact the town immediately for a meeting to discuss the issue.
“The Chilmark selectmen meet on March 3 to call the annual town meeting and approve the warrant. They hope to have a conversation with the MVC before then and a plan for moving forward,” Mr. Carroll wrote.
That meeting is now set for Tuesday, MVC executive director Mark London told the Gazette yesterday.
“We are happy to go discuss the budget with them and I’ll try to get a better understanding of what their concerns are,” he said.
Meanwhile in Tisbury, Edgartown and Oak Bluffs this week the commission budget also was singled out for discussion and criticism.
“We seem to go through this with the commission every year and have fairly substantial increases,” Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel said during a town budget session at the selectmen’s meeting Tuesday. “I would like to have the commission come in . . . I like the MVC, don’t get me wrong, but at a certain point things need to be reined in.”
At the Oak Bluffs selectmen’s meeting on the same night, Mr. Hancock the MVC chairman found himself defending the commission broadly, from the way development reviews are conducted to the way resources are allocated. Architect Reid (Sam) Dunn’s bowling alley development plan, under review as a development of regional impact (DRI), has stirred strong anti-commission sentiment in Oak Bluffs. Mr. Hancock sought to cool the flames on Tuesday night. “Sam Dunn has a very good record of getting approval from the commission, he has come before us many times,” Mr. Hancock said. “He is also on the record stating that after his projects have gone through the process, he’s had a better project as a result . . . I mean, it’s like visiting an old friend, he comes over, we talk.”
Mr. Hancock also explained the budget, reiterating the reasons for the increase and said he expected it will not go up so much next year.
In Edgartown this week a meeting of the finance committee saw questions surface about whether the commission would consider trimming its budget through staff reductions, minutes show.
The budget was approved by the commission in January.
Speaking to the Gazette on Thursday, Mr. London said the budget increase represents the commission’s need to play catchup after several years of level funding that began with the economic recession six years ago.
“At that time in the interest of limiting the impact of the commission’s budget on the towns, we were extremely conservative with our budget,” he said. “The commission was level funded for three years. No increase at all. Unfortunately that coincided toward the end with substantially higher legal fees than we had anticipated.”
Legal spending at the commission has doubled in the past two years, jumping from $60,000 in 2012 to $120,000 last year.
Mr. London said the higher fees were related to court cases involving ancient ways in Aquinnah and Edgartown, and the commission was forced to dip into its reserve fund to cover the cost. That fund must now be replenished, which is a big chunk of the budget increase, he said.
“Virtually all our budgets are predictable from one year to the next. The one item that is hard to predict is he legal budget,” Mr. London said.
The commission has 10 staff members; total spending on salaries next year is $771,266. The budget includes a planned 2.13 per cent cost of living increase and an average 2.4 per cent merit increase for staff. A new transportation planner was hired to replace one who left and came at a higher price, commission leaders have said.
There appears to be some discrepancy over this; at a meeting with the West Tisbury finance committee this month, commission member Brian Smith said the salary cost would be offset by grant money from the state Department of Transportation.
Mr. London downplayed staffing and salary increases, saying they are in the normal range and follow the same cost of living adjustments as the towns.
“I think a little too much emphasis has been placed on that,” he said.
Assessments to help pay for the MVC budget are collected from Vineyard towns and Gosnold using a formula based on property valuations. The commission, a regional planning agency created by an act of the state legislature 40 years ago, also relies on grant funding for part of its budget.
In its letter to the commission this week, the Chilmark finance committee said it had calculated the town assessment increase at 14 per cent over last year and 13 per cent over the past three years.
There is no mechanism in the MVC enabling legislation for town oversight on budgetary matters, but Mr. London said this closely follows the commission mandate to serve the Island as a whole. “The commission is an independently elected body, and while it has appointed representatives from each town, it’s the only regional planning agency in Massachusetts set up this way: the majority of the members are elected at large by the citizens of Martha’s Vineyard,” the executive director said. “It is responsible to the citizens at large of Martha’s Vineyard. We have a finance committee; the commission adopts a budget and has a process for assessments that is based on equalized valuations and capped at a certain number — to my knowledge we have never come close to exceeding that number. But I do think there is some misunderstanding about it works.”
He also said it is routine for the commission to meet with the towns to discuss its budget.
“It’s normal . . . we do that every year,” he said. “In the past we had done it in December or early January. This time no one invited us.”
Olivia Hull, Sara Brown and Remy Tumin contributed reporting.