Martha’s Vineyard town budgets rise, voter participation lags

Martha’s Vineyard town budgets rise, voter participation lags

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On Tuesday, April 12, four of the six Island towns — West Tisbury, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury — will convene annual town meetings. Three weeks later Chilmark will follow suit on April 25, and then Aquinnah on May 10.

Annual town meetings give voters a chance to have their say in town affairs, most notably, the operating budget elected leaders present on town meeting floor.

But if experience is any guide and as the chart that accompanies this story shows, only a small percentage of voters will decide the spending questions.

This is particularly true when it comes to owners of seasonal real estate, a class of taxpayers that pays a disproportionate share of the freight — and then some in Tisbury — cannot vote, and sees only a small slice of the municipal goods.

For example, at Tisbury’s annual town meeting in April 2001, nine percent of the town’s registered voters approved $14 million in spending. The record of voter participation was even more dismal in 2010, when six percent participated.

Chilmark, the Island’s wealthiest town, had the highest voter turnout. Still, only 25 percent of voters, and of course no non-voting seasonal property owners, participated in spending decisions in April 2001, and nine years later that figure dropped to 21 percent.

Collectively, over the course of the next five weeks Island voters will be asked to approve more than $96.3 million in spending for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, this year. History suggests the decision will be made by just a fraction of those who have a right to participate and who will be affected by those decisions.

A copy of annual meeting warrants and proposed fiscal 2012 operating budgets for every Martha’s Vineyard town but Aquinnah, which has yet to finalize its warrant, is available at mvtimes.com.