Town Coffers on Empty

Budget season this year is a time of great anxiety for managers in every Island town as they meet with department heads and try to stave off employee layoffs. With dramatically slowing growth, sharply falling revenues and the reality of deep cuts in state aid, nothing is safe from the budget axe — not the Health Care Access Program that helps connect Islanders with affordable health insurance, not the Dukes County or Martha’s Vineyard Commission assessments. Towns that are facing their own very real budget crises will be hard-pressed to pick up any more of the costs for these programs than they already have.

The budget deficit malady is epidemic. On Nantucket, the town administrator, facing a four million dollar deficit, has just unveiled a plan to cut 17 town jobs in an effort to balance the town budget. In the town of Falmouth there is also talk of layoffs.

On the Vineyard so far the news has been comparatively good. In Edgartown last week the town administrator, who has been busy scouring old accounts for unused funds, announced that there will be no cost of living increase for town employees this year, but also no layoffs. Oak Bluffs may not be so lucky, with a $4 million deficit already for the current fiscal year. Complete reports are not in yet from the other four towns.

But this much we know: as the population on the Vineyard has grown rapidly in recent decades, so has government in the six Island towns. Budgets have been kept in check only by the constraints of Proposition Two and a Half, and by the prudence of voters.

Now the dance is over and it is time to pay the fiddler.

But this is also a time for town leaders to be creative and look for ways to cut costs without cutting services. Edgartown’s salary freeze is one example.

In other places employees are taking pay cuts and unpaid vacations, working four-day weeks and contributing more to their health insurance premiums. On the Vineyard town employees have long enjoyed generous benefit packages, and as we enter this new era of responsibility, with town coffers running low, this is one area of government where more sacrifice may be required in order to preserve jobs.