The Dukes County advisory board this week approved a $4.4 million county budget for fiscal year 2006 with one caveat - the $25,000 earmarked for legal expenses cannot be used to fund future rounds in the ongoing legal battle between the county commission and the airport commission.

The decision could effectively place a tourniquet on a formal appeal of the recent superior court ruling against the county.

The advisory board agreed Monday that money can be spent on the motion filed by county attorneys to reduce the triple damages award in the court decision.

Last month a superior court judge ruled the county commission was wrong when it refused to pay former airport manager William J. Weibrecht and then-assistant manager Sean Flynn salaries at levels that had been negotiated with the airport commission. The Hon. Robert H. Bohn Jr. ruled the airport commission is by law vested with independent authority to hire and set the salaries of its airport managers. He ordered the county to pay triple damages, attorney fees, plus interest. County attorneys have filed a motion asking for reconsideration of the triple damages in light of a recent ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

On Monday night county commissioners John Alley and Leonard Jason Jr. both said they will not support an appeal of the court decision. But they did say they support the move by county attorneys to try and reduce the triple damages.

The discussion was sparked when Tristan Israel, a Tisbury selectman who sits on the advisory board, said he did not feel comfortable voting on the budget without knowing what the county commission planned to do with the case. Mr. Israel suggested waiting to approve the budget until the county had made its decision.

"I'd like to have as much information as possible where we'll be going before approving the budget," the selectman said. "The county commissioners could take various courses of action . . . and all of these would have an impact on the projected legal expenses."

Selectmen and advisory board members Arthur Smadbeck of Edgartown and Michael Dutton of Oak Bluffs agreed. County manager E. Winn Davis said the vote could be delayed and the county would continue to operate on one-twelfth of the budget.

But Chilmark selectman and advisory board member Warren Doty said he doubts that Judge Bohn will revise his decision.

Mr. Jason suggested the proposal to limit the budgeted legal spending and Mr. Alley concurred, saying he thought the rest of the county commissioners would agree.

If the county does decide to appeal the case, Mr. Davis and county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders said there is money available in other places to cover legal expenses. Among other things Mr. Davis cited $108,000 that had been placed in a reserve fund with the Federal Aviation Administration to help out with any airport deficit. He also said the county will have certified free cash on hand after the annual audit. Using free cash, however, would limit the county's reserve money for emergency spending or capital projects.

In the end Mr. Israel moved to approve the budget with the stipulation, and it was approved by the advisory board unanimously. Mr. Alley thanked the members of the board.

The remainder of the budget meeting, held as a public hearing, went relatively smoothly.

Mr. Doty who expressed some disapproval with the county retirement fund, which pays 90 per cent of employees' medical insurance, while the towns pay for 75 per cent. Mr. Davis said the retirement benefits were set some time ago and according to state law cannot be changed downward, only upward.

"That's a lot of money," Mr. Doty said. "It's a terrific incentive for county employees. When we look at our costs in towns we're shocked by how much health care is going up."

In accordance with state law, the county is currently on track to cover all of its retirement benefits for employees by the year 2028. Currently the unfunded liability accounts for some $500,000 of the county budget. Mr. Davis said the unfunded liability will continue to increase over the years until the county becomes compliant.

Town assessments will total $751,000 this year.

In other budget discussion, Mr. Davis said the money for the county veterans' agent has not been returned to the towns, but will be as soon as free cash is available.

Also the rodent control department has significantly increased its revenue. In 2002 the department brought in about $6,500. Last year it doubled with an income of $12,000, due in large part to contracts the department has set up with various groups around the Island including Island schools and municipal buildings.

Mr. Israel praised the budget, saying it was better prepared than in years past.

"In spite of the legal expenditures kudos to the budget," he said. "It has vastly improved from last year."