Over the past 10 years, Dukes County has taken in more than $1 million in income from the Cape and Islands premium license plate program. But according to its own accounting, the county has spent less than half that amount on economic development and tourism, as required by law.

The license plate program was created by the state legislature two decades ago to boost the region’s tourism economy. Drivers pay a $50 premium for the distinctive plates featuring representations of Nauset Light in Eastham, and the Clay Cliffs of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. After deducting the cost of manufacturing, the state sends the money directly to Dukes, Nantucket, and Barnstable counties, based on the number of vehicles registered in those counties.

The program is unrelated to the more recent Martha’s Vineyard license plate program which pictures a ferry. Proceeds from those plates benefit programs at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

An accounting of the money collected by Dukes County for the Cape and Islands license plate program, provided at the request of the Gazette, shows revenues and expenses for the program since it began in fiscal year 1997. According to county records, the program has generated nearly $2.4 million in income for the county over a 20-year period.

Looking at the entire length of the program, it appears that most of the money was used for purposes the county has identified as related to tourism and economic development.

Between 1997 and 2008, the county spent much more than it took in on economic development-related expenditures. Much of that money was spent on expenses associated with water testing and engineering, services no longer provided by the county.

However, the past 10 years tell a different story.

Between 2008 and 2017, only about half of $1.07 million collected from the license plate program has been used for economic development or tourism, county records show.

“In the first 10 years there was a lot of deficit because we were running departments that were collectively more expensive than what the money coming in was,” said county manager Martina Thornton. “The following years I guess when we collected, [county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders] accounted it as recovering that expense.”

An accounting spreadsheet provided by the county allocates certain county expenses to economic development and tourism. The spreadsheet assumes that 15 per cent of the county manager’s office is doing work associated with tourism and economic development. In the past 10 years, that adds up to $254,614.

The next largest expenditure, totaling $87,816 over the past 10 years, is for the county portion of marketing expenses for the license plates. The county sends that money directly to the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, which produces television commercials, online advertising and brochures. The accounting also allocates 25 per cent of the expenses associated with the county website, as well as expenses such as fence repairs and signs on Joseph A. Sylvia State Beach and Eastville Beach.

“I manage the beaches, run the department for that,” Ms. Thornton said. “I deal with economic development when I go to seminars, or deal with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. I do a lot of economic development.”

After the county advisory board learned in early October that the county had not been spending all its money from the license plate program for economic development, the board voted to return $150,000 to the six Island towns for that purpose.

The advisory board is made up of one selectman from each town, and has oversight and control over the county budget.

“We sent back $150,000 to the towns with the proviso that it be spent for economic development or tourism,” said advisory board chairman Arthur Smadbeck of Edgartown. “The county doesn’t really have the ability to use that money. They’ve been spending some of it, not all of it,”he said, adding: “If they have the money, I’d rather see them give it to the towns, and let the towns use it. There’s plenty to do. We don’t have to make stuff up. It’s politically ticklish because the county is generating the money.”

In total, county records identify $525,777 in tourism-related expenses over the past 10 years, including the $150,000. That leaves a balance of $548,245 that was apparently not spent for the purposes designated in the legislation. 

Ms. Thornton said the money went into the county’s surplus fund. The current balance of that fund is approximately $106,000, she said at the most recent meeting of county commissioners.

Asked why the county did not spend the license plate revenue specifically for economic development and tourism in the past 10 years, Ms. Thornton said proposals to do so had been turned down.

“Because the county commissioners, and more the county advisory board did not allow us to,” she said. “We wanted to spend it. We had programs we were proposing to do.”

The Cape and Islands license plate legislation provides for direct state oversight and reporting for the portion of the income that goes to Barnstable County.

But the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), which administers the premium license plate program, exercises no oversight for how the money is spent in Dukes and Nantucket counties.

“MassDOT’s fiscal department ensures that the collected funds are transferred to the respective nonprofit entity/organization for each designated special plate,” MassDOT spokesman Judith Riley said. “The registry does not have any direct oversight regarding how the transferred funds are spent.”

Barnstable County lists 22 separate organizations which benefit from funds generated by its share of the Cape and Islands license plate program, all clearly related to economic development and tourism. Among them are the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod, Housing Assistance Corporation, the Cape Cod Transit Task Force, Housing Land Trust, the Cape Cod Baseball League, and the Lighthouse Association.