Out of Balance

Editors, Vineyard Gazette:

Edgartown’s high horse is just tired of pulling the cart. In fact the horse is so weighed down she can hardly stand and looks more like a miniature pony. I am on the finance committee of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and have gone to the meetings. As you point out, the MVC has known about this problem for years and has done nothing about it. The other five towns pay an average of $105,000 and Edgartown pays over $300,000; how is that fair? Nowhere have I said Edgartown is better than the other towns. I said I wanted to be treated fairly. And we are one member in a family of seven when it comes to the commission. And I never said the commission is a bad thing, just something we cannot afford. It has been said that the MVC is like an insurance policy. Well at some point the premiums are too high and you cannot pay them. Then it is better to self insure rather than buy a policy. It may be time for Edgartown to do just that because it is raining now and we have to stop the ever-increasing bills this town endures. All I am trying to do is to keep the horse from going out to pasture.

Jim Joyce

Edgartown

Social Compact

Editors, Vineyard Gazette:

Your editorial has it right and the Edgartown selectmen have it wrong. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission, though a far from perfect or efficient organization, is key to maintaining the kind of environment on this Island that so many claim to love.

The idea of holding the commission and the people of Martha’s Vineyard hostage over unhappiness with Edgartown’s assessment is akin to South Carolina’s attempting to nullify the tariffs of 1828 and 1832. Though that effort failed, it engendered enormous rancor and amplified the coming reality of actual secession.

As Lincoln said in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We are either a part of a whole, with some regard for the welfare of the whole, or we are solipsistic, greedy, and, in the end, myopic. Martha’s Vineyard is a small place. It is eminently desirable that it have an overarching planning authority in order to deal with the hard questions that town authorities, for a variety of reasons known to all, do not or cannot deal with.

The problem lies in the commission’s charter. It apparently allows a town to withdraw. I imagine this was included to make the legislation easier for residents to adopt, but it is a bad provision. Better that the commissioners petition the legislature for an amendment to remove this provision now that the commission has settled into our landscape than to periodically have to deal with the retrograde leanings of elected officials who don’t appear to understand their responsibility to the commonweal.

Population is no basis for this kind of assessment and never has been. Population when? Assessment based on real property valuation has been the basis for local taxation for a very long time, and underpins our schools. Property owners pay whether their families use the schools or not. What the selectmen profoundly fail to understand is that the work of the commission, over time, benefits their own property values (and, of course, those of their constituents) by working through inevitable change to keep Martha’s Vineyard a magnet for its visitors as well as a haven for its residents.

Nicholas W. Puner

West Tisbury

Fair Formula

Editors, Vineyard Gazette:

The following letter was sent to the Edgartown selectmen:

I am writing in regard to an article I read in the Vineyard Gazette which indicated that you called into question the use of the Department of Revenue equalized valuations as a fair mechanism for determining assessments of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to the participant municipalities. From the reporting, I believe you may not have an understanding of why equalized valuations is a tool used by the state for use in formulas that try to determine equity among municipalities in a variety of circumstances including the assessment method of the MVC.

Equalized valuations is used in formulas to try to achieve equity among equivalent taxable properties no matter where those properties exist in the state. Instead of trying to explain in a lot of words, some illustrative examples might help to demonstrate. The data in these examples is from fiscal year 2010 which is the most recent tax year that tax rates were set. [Table of figures not included here.]

In the example above I used my home property at 8 Saddle Club Road to show how much of my tax bill goes toward paying the MVC assessment. By using the equalized valuation, a taxpayer in any of the participant communities that owns a property of equivalent value will pay an amount close to the same. Note the average tax of an owner of a $500,500 property in the six towns would have a little over $21 go to paying the MVC assessment with a fairly narrow range of variation between the individual towns. And in fact, the taxpayer from Edgartown actually paid in fiscal year 2010 a lower amount than an equivalent owner in any other town except Aquinnah. I would also like to note that the fiscal year 2010 MVC assessments used the DOR’s 2006 equalized valuations in its formula. The length of time from 2006 and fiscal year 2010’s tax rate caused more of a variation in the above example (small as it may be) than would have occurred with more recent equalized valuations.

Now let’s take a look at what happens if we use a new formula that blends the use of equalized valuations and population. I recalculated the fiscal year 2010 MVC assessments using the fiscal year 2006 equalized valuations and the 2009 population numbers for the Island towns that I found on the DOR Web site (I’ve enclosed an additional worksheet that shows how I derived the new assessments). What happens to an owner of my equivalent property in each town is shown in the table below.

[Table not included here.]

Note that by using the blended formula, there would be a far greater range of disparity among equivalent property owners. A taxpayer in Oak Bluffs or Tisbury would pay approximately double what their counterpart in Aquinnah and Chilmark would. Considering this, I don’t see how this can be considered a fairer formula. I won’t even go into the question of population for use in formulas on the Island. Which population is it fairest to use? Year-round? Seasonal? Should we include tourists abiding at any particular time? There are a significant number of seasonal homes in Edgartown that create a burden on the social, economic and ecological systems of the Island that would not be included in census population; why should these be discounted in the funding formula?

My discussion does not attempt to get into any political discussion of the merits of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. It only seeks to demonstrate why equalized valuations is a fair device to use to determine an equitable tax burden for taxpayers of equivalent property across town borders. I’d be happy to discuss or be of service at any time.

Bruce K. Stone

Edgartown