Busted Budgets, Conscious Choices

Six Island towns, six budgets, and one — in Oak Bluffs — already collapsing as weakening receipts this year cannot hold up the weight of spending. Town officials across the Vineyard continue to demand that all departments do the job on leaner budgets; cost of living increases have been scrapped, travel has been curtailed, in Oak Bluffs voluntary redundancy packages are on offer for town employees.

Yet so far towns have been reflexive, not visionary. While individuals and corporations across the country are using this recession to reinvent their ways of doing things, there is little sign of Island officials looking at the bigger picture — including structural issues such as sharing services.

Three years ago, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue provided a full report on the finances of the town of Aquinnah. It also offered suggestions for ways that all Vineyard towns might get greater efficiency and effectiveness — noting that, compared to the statewide average of less than three thousand dollars being budgeted per person, Martha’s Vineyard averaged five thousand, four hundred dollars per person.

The state report recognized that each Island town operates as separate legal structure and reflects its own character. This was not about the Jefferson-versus-Hamilton question of whether small agrarian models or centralized government are the right choice — although New York, New Jersey and other states are aggressively pushing for streamlined town governments. In this report, the commonwealth department was simply suggesting ways to save taxpayers money and increase town expertise.

“There are areas of government that are not policy related, and instead require skilled professionals. Assessing, collections, treasury, accounting, public works, health inspections and harbor master are just a few of those areas,” the report said.

In assessing, for instance, the report noted: “If the Island could pool its financial resources and data sets into one professional, full-time assessing office, each of the towns would produce more accurate and uniform assessments.” Still, no towns have consolidated this function, nor even actively pursued the idea.

The state report urged selectmen in all towns to explore cooperation. When money is easier to come by, this kind of challenge slips easily down the priority list. Now that times are tight, taxpayers would applaud brave leaders who crunched the numbers and presented clear choices about what services really need to be duplicated in each town. Sharing services makes sense for many communities, in the words of New York attorney general Andrew M. Cuomo, “If you care more about your children than your sewer pipes.”