$6.6 million 2009 budget faces voters in Chilmark
Chilmark voters gather Monday to take action on a $6,681,399 annual operating budget that is up by half a million dollars over the current fiscal year spending plan. The budget is one item on a 27-article town meeting warrant that includes three Proposition 2.5 override requests totaling $90,946.
The meeting begins at 7:30 pm in the Chilmark Community Center. Wednesday voters return to the community center between noon and 8 pm to elect town officers and answer ballot questions.
Telecommunications figures large in the Chilmark warrant. Voters will be asked to take action on a lengthy zoning bylaw pertaining to cellular communication equipment and facilities and a Coast Guard request to increase the height of a radio antenna on Peaked Hill.
The costliest item in the budget is education. Chilmark taxpayers will be asked to pay $448,509 more in school costs, a 24-percent increase.
Warren Doty, chairman of the Chilmark selectmen, said the proposed budget reflects modest increases. He said the town did its best to absorb an increase in school costs tied to enrollment numbers and the assessment formula but had no choice but to seek an override.
"We did our best to keep the override as low as possible," said Mr. Doty.
Budget savings offset
The Chilmark operating budget for fiscal year 2009, which begins on July 1, reflects mostly small departmental increases and a 2.5-percent cost of living increase for town employees. For example, the selectmen's department budget will rise from $144,533 to $154,479, a 3.17-percent increase.
The budget subhead labeled total culture and recreation, which includes the library ($238,563) and beach committee ($263,725), would increase by 3.47 percent to $505,380.
Some town department costs would decrease. For example, ambulance service will cost taxpayers $39,420 less next year due to insurance reimbursements. The police department budget, one of the larger town expenses, would drop by 2.34 percent, from $543,248 to $530,519.
Those town departments that would increase significantly in the FY 09 budget include legal, up by 25.33 percent to $75,200. Employee health benefits and insurance would rise by 9.46 percent to $69,282.
But the most significant budget increase is tied to the cost of education. Voters will be asked to approve a budget request of $2,264,796 of which $78,156 must be approved as a Prop 2.5 override request.
The total represents an up-Island regional school district assessment of $1,727,528, a 26-percent increase, and a regional high school assessment of $537,268, a 22-percent increase.
School costs are tied to enrollment. The number of Chilmark students attending the high school jumped from 26 to 33. Chilmark has a total of 57 elementary school students, 26 of whom attend the Chilmark School and 31 the West Tisbury School.
In total, the FY 09 operating budget rises from $5,944,951 to $6,681,399, an 8.38-percent increase over FY 08 that does not reflect two Prop 2.5 requests tied to the Dukes County budget.
In addition to a request for money to fund the costs of education, town taxpayers will be asked to pick up a share of the county budget.
In December, the Dukes county commissioners decided to erase a fiscal 2009 budget deficit by cutting the rodent control ($69,457) and health-care departments ($88,863) by 50 percent and eliminate the county engineer ($63,755). The cuts were made with the intention of shifting the costs to Island taxpayers. Ultimately, the commissioners intend to ask the towns to fully fund all the programs.
Chilmarkers will be asked to pay an additional $5,598 for the cost of the pest control department and $7,192 for the county health access program.
The warrant article request for money to fund the rodent control department includes the option of hiring a private contractor to service the town.
The county pest management department is a one-person operation. In the first six months of the current fiscal year the rodent control department billed $11,045. The largest customer was the Winnetu Inn and resort and Mattakesett Resort in Edgartown for a combined total of $4,342.
The health-care access program assists low-income people, non-native speakers, and those who do not have access to funded health care. The program also assists people with the new state-mandated insurance plan.
If approved the Prop. 2.5 requests would be in addition to the town's FY 2009 county assessment of $127,192, money that is not subject to town meeting vote.
Communication is big
The annual warrant (available at mvtimes.com) includes a slew of money requests for various town departments. There is a request for $6,000 for ice and water safety equipment for the fire department, $8,791 to upgrade police computer equipment and $35,000 to upgrade computer software and hardware used by the assessors and tax collector.
Five articles pertain to community preservation committee (CPC) requests. The CPC will ask to use $20,000 in community preservation act (CPA) funds to help restore stonewalls along South Road and $60,000 to help fund a mortgage interest assistance program.
The largest use of CPA money would be to pay for infrastructure improvements to the Middle Line Road affordable housing project. Taxpayers will be asked to spend $376,400 for roadway improvements and driveways to the building sites and $132,500 to install ten wells.
The project's six rental units and six houses will be built on 21 acres of heavily wooded town-owned land located about a half mile down Middle Line Road, a dirt road that intersects with Tabor House Road just north of the town landfill.
At a special town meeting on March 3, voters agreed to purchase the small lots at a cost of $500,000 to provide safer vehicle access to Middle Line Road from Tabor House Road. The town spent an additional $38,721 for an archaeological survey of the site.
The Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) approved the project on April 10 with 26 separate conditions (a copy of the decision is available here).
The lengthiest article is a request to amend the town bylaw pertaining to the installation and use of wireless communications equipment. Chilmark has been working with town leaders in Aquinnah and West Tisbury to explore the feasibility of a distributed antennae system (DAS), which relies on a series of small antennas set on telephone poles, or poles erected for that specific purpose, to distribute cellular telephone signals. Although the range is considerably less, it appeals to communities where a high conventional tower is unwelcome but wireless telephone service is poor.
In February, up-Island town selectmen signed a memorandum of understanding outlining their agreement to share the costs to facilitate the creation of a DAS to serve the three up-Island towns.
The bylaw changes would provide the town with the flexibility to move forward with DAS and allow for the installation of newer technologies in the future.
Mr. Doty said the existing bylaw is outdated. "We need to bring it into the modern world," he said.
Selectman Frank Fenner agrees. He said the changes would allow the town to provide better service and exercise some control.
Coast Guard tower is an issue
The last article on the town warrant is a request by the Coast Guard to replace the existing 48-foot public safety antennae on top of Peaked Hill with a 113 pole antennae.
Erection of the current antennae required town meeting approval and a special act of the state legislature signed in June 2001 that changed the language of the conservation restrictions that protect the top of Peaked Hill.
At the time, voters expressed opposition to allowing cellular companies to share antenna space and language was inserted specifically barring commercial use.
The Coast Guard request has divided the board of selectman.
Mr. Doty said the town got more than it bargained for when it allowed the existing tower to be erected in a conservation area, including a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. He said now five years later the Coast Guard wants to increase the size.
"It just sounds to me like a slippery slope," said Mr. Doty. "We allowed this installation in a conservation area and now they want to make it bigger and they'll make it bigger again. I think it's a mistake for the town to say yes to that."
Mr. Doty said the safety issue could be addressed with modern location equipment such as EPIRPs and radios. "Peaked Hill is a very special spot for us," he said.
Mr. Fenner disagrees. "We are a marine community," said Mr. Fenner, selectmen's liaison to the harbor advisory committee. "The safety aspect of it outweighs the detriments."
Selectman J.B. Riggs Parker said the radio tower fits in with the town's support of its commercial fishing infrastructure. "I am in support of this proposal because I think it is important for us to enhance the safety of the boaters and fishermen off our shore," said Mr. Parker, a recreational boater.
The antennae replacement is part of a nationwide Coast Guard program to replace outdated coastal communications equipment known as Rescue 21 (See associated story). The new system is expected to greatly enhance search capabilities along the coast.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Stephen Barr, Officer in Charge of Coast Guard Station Menemsha, told The Times that when a mariner in distress or a hoax caller presses the channel 16 call button of a marine radio the Coast Guard, which constantly monitors that channel, immediately picks up the call but has no way to pinpoint where it originated.
Sometimes there is a brief call for help. It may be real or it may not, but for someone in a marine emergency without the time or the knowledge to give a detailed location the consequences can be tragic.
The new system will immediately enable the Coast Guard to see where a call came from, out at sea or a parking lot on land, and will provide enhanced digital quality of the radio transmission.
"We spend hundreds of hours a year searching because we heard a distress call," said Chief Barr. "This really takes the search out of our job."