West Tisbury annual town meeting approves beer and wine service

Eileen Maley, an owner of the Field Gallery property, which voters agreed to buy. — Photo by Susan Safford

West Tisbury voters did their business agreeably Tuesday, approving an article to allow restaurants to serve beer and wine and another to buy the Field Gallery property and several questions relating to the renovation and expansion of the town library.

Voters approved nearly all 45 articles on the annual town meeting warrant, including the $13.8 million operating budget for fiscal 2012. They rejected by a wide margin an amendment to reduce the Up-Island Regional School District budget by $233,250, after emotional debate on both sides of the issue.

A total of 270 registered participated in the town meeting, which featured several hot issues, including a request that the town petition the state legislature to allow restaurants with 50 seats or more to serve beer and wine.

The beer/wine issue

The article was by far the most heavily debated and dissected of the evening. Complicating matters was a proposed amendment to allow selectmen to issue one-day liquor licenses for fundraising events in town.

Many residents supported allowing beer and wine to be served at fundraisers, but not in restaurants. Some residents called for the two to be separated, and an amendment was proposed to scrap the language relating to restaurants but keep the language for fundraisers.

That amendment failed, and in the end voters easily passed the amended motion allowing beer and wine to be served at both restaurants and fundraisers.

The beer and wine changes will now go the state legislature for approval and then return to voters on the ballot of the annual town election. If approved, West Tisbury would follow in the footsteps of Tisbury and Aquinnah, which recently allowed beer and wine service in restaurants.

Greetings and Thanks

Moderator Pat Gregory began the meeting by calling voters’ attention to a familiar face in the audience. Michael Halt, the principal of the West Tisbury School and a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Mr. Halt, who will return as principal of the West Tisbury School next year, received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd. Continuing the patriotic theme, voters were then led by a group of Island Cub Scouts in reciting the pledge of allegiance.

The assembly then paid tribute to Daniel Emerson Prowten, the longtime volunteer firefighter who died in a house fire at his home on Christiantown Road last January. This year’s town report was dedicated to Mr. Prowten’s memory.

Mr. Prowten’s former wife, Pat Waring, accompanied by their daughter, Diana Waring, thanked town officials for the acknowledgement. “It’s a great way to remember Danny. It means a tremendous amount to the whole family,” Ms. Waring said.

Voters then heard a poem by Fan Ogilvie, West Tisbury Poet Laureate, entitled Artemis’s Caution, which focused on the Island’s deer population.

Budget blowout

The $13.8 million budget for FY2012 and an amendment made to reduce the budget by $750 per student, an unorthodox plan backed by the finance committee (FinCom) and selectmen, came next.

FinCom member Greg Orcutt proposed the amendment, explaining it would reduce the school budget by $233,250, and lower West Tisbury’s assessment by $167,666. He said the reduction was nominal compared to the district’s high per-pupil costs.

“The Up-Island district is by far the most expensive district on the Island, and of the 280 school districts in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts there are only eight with a higher per-pupil cost. At this rate, we are fast approaching, or equaling, many colleges and universities,” he said.

Mr. Orcutt cited a handout given voters that tracked changes in the per-pupil cost in the district over the past 15 years. In 1995, the UIRSD spent $6,909 per student, compared to $22,275 in 2010, an increase of more than 220 percent, he said.

“We represent the town, and the town is made up of students and taxpayers,” he said. “With this amendment, the district will still be the highest cost per student on the Island and still be in the top ten in the entire state. But what it will also do is give taxpayers a measure of relief.”

Dan Cabot, chairman of the UIRSD school committee, pleaded with voters to reject the amendment. He said the high per-pupil cost was justified by the elevated educational standards, which produced students that routinely rank among the highest on the Island in several categories.

Mr. Cabot said the UIRSD school committee annually calls for a level funded budget, and the school administration has mostly obliged. He said the overall budget has increased only marginally in recent years, largely due to negotiated salary increases, while the amount of state aid has dropped significantly.

“In the face of current conditions, I think your school committee has worked hard to keep increases down, it is not as if we have been financially irresponsible. Yet it really hurts to hear someone say [the cost] is more than Oak Bluffs, so you must be doing something wrong,” he said.

“If there was some magic way we could reduce our per-pupil cost by $750, don’t you think they would have told us? The answer is, there isn’t a way. That’s why it is maddening to hear the FinCom say we can cut a quarter of a million out of our budget without hurting students,” he added.

Selectman Cynthia Mitchell took aim of the UIRSD school committee, arguing in favor of the amendment. “Not only do we have hope, but we have reason to believe that savings can come from non-operational inefficiencies with minimal impact on programs,” she said.

“It is our belief that the school committee so far has not managed the region optimally,” she continued. “It treats the two schools separately, without thought of efficiencies which may be gained by reconfiguring and using the space more regionally.”

UIRSD school committee member Michael Marcus countered with an emotional plea to voters. “I am proud of our school. But what I would not be proud of is not spending 51 cents out of their annual tax bills and instead force us to cut programs for kids,” he said.

“I think we will be judged by what we leave behind and not what we take with us,” he added.

The amendment was defeated, the budget approved.

Library questions

Voters then took up a pair of articles relating to the library expansion project, which would nearly double the size of the West Tisbury Free Public Library while adding new reading rooms, a children’s area, meeting spaces and other amenities.

One of the articles asked voters to authorize the renovation and expansion of the library, contingent on the receipt of a Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) construction grant and donation of private funds, which together would cover 75 percent of the total construction costs.

The other article authorized the town to apply for and accept state grants that may be available for the project.

At the start of the meeting, during the annual reports, library trustee Daniel Waters explained the need for the expansion.

“The West Tisbury library is severely overgrown and has been overcrowded for a very long time. This is absolutely not news to any of us,” he said.

Mr. Waters said a space needs committee recommended four years ago that the library needed to approximately double in size, a project at the time projected to begin in 2016, cost between $5.1 and $5.3 million, of which the town would pay $2.65 million.

But since that time the town has received good news, he said.

There is now a good chance the town could receive a grant from the MBLC which would effectively cut the town’s cost for the project in half. But in order to receive the grant, the town must break ground in 2013 instead of 2016, Mr. Waters said.

“This is a freak occurrence. This grant availability is not likely to happen again in our lifetime,” he said.

Mr. Waters said the two articles were required by the state to secure the MBCL grant. If approved, the two articles would not commit the town to build the project, and voters would instead make that decision at next year’s annual town meeting.

Over the next year, he said, the library building committee will hold meetings and gather comments, he said.

“We want to take into account everything you have to say, we want it to be a size and shape that reflects its users and the community. So please get involved over the next year,” he said.

Both articles passed easily.

‘Where is the picture?’

Voters then debated an article asking for $152,000 for planning and schematic design for a proposed new police station at the Public Safety Building site on State Road.

The article asked voters for $63,320 for the project, and to permit the use of $75,000 from the unspent balance of the town hall renovation project and $14,180 left over in the police department feasibility study fund.

Resident Larry Shubert worried that the article asked for too much, too soon.

“Usually we receive a picture; and we argue over that picture, and we argue the design . . . I am wondering if we should break this into two parts. We see the drawings now and then have the plans brought back at a special town meeting, along with paperwork and bid documents,” he said.

A series of proposed amendments then followed, before voters agreed to remove the language to raise $63,320 in new funding and also the language about developing the construction and bid documents. The amended article passed.

Soon after, voters approved an article to spend $625,000 to buy the Field Gallery property across from the West Tisbury Congregational Church from the Maley Family Trust. The town will use all the funds in the Community Preservation Act open space account to help pay for the purchase.

“I think that little gallery adds a lot of flavor to the town, it demonstrates what the town is,” Eileen Maley said from the audience.

The only person to rise in opposition was FinCom chairman Sharon Estrella. “I don’t believe we belong in the real estate business,” she said. “I just don’t think this is something we should get into. We don’t need to be stewards of a business.”

Voters disagreed and approved the purchase.

Beer and wine deliberations

It was just before 10 pm, three hours into the meeting, when voters took up what was easily the most hotly disputed issue of the evening, asking voters to begin the process of allowing restaurants with 50 seats or more to serve beer and wine.

Ms. Mitchell proposed an amendment to allow selectmen to issue one-day liquor licenses for fundraising events for not-for-profit institutions where the service of alcohol is incidental.

Selectmen agreed to the amendment after town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport issued a legal opinion advising that alcohol cannot be legally served at fundraising events where tickets are sold, a common practice for years, especially in the summer.

The introduction of the amendment upset some residents, who argued that the question of whether beer and wine should be served in restaurants is distinct from the question of permitting one-day licenses.

“I think these are really two separate issues. I know selectmen found out about this late, but I came here to vote against the beer and wine sales in restaurants. If you want to put the one-day liquor licenses on there too, I am voting against that,” said Tiah’s Cove Road resident Prudy Burt.

Obed Daggett Road resident Bea Phear offered an amendment to keep the language allowing one-day liquor licenses, but remove the language allowing beer and wine to be served in restaurants. Mr. Gregory accepted the amendment, but voters did not.

Voters agree to the amendment authorizing selectmen to issue one-day liquor licenses for fundraisers. Debate then turned to the main motion asking voters to authorize the town to petition the state legislature to allow restaurants to serve beer and wine.

Jackson Kenworth, owner of State Road restaurant, argued in favor.

“The recent adoption of beer and wine licenses in Aquinnah and Tisbury appears to have been free of notable problem . . . I also believe that a similar smooth transition could happen here in West Tisbury,” he said.

David Gorenburg, a physician, said the change could have dangerous implications. “It is no secret we have a general problem on this Island with alcohol, alcohol abuse, and drinking and driving. I am concerned about changing the laws in West Tisbury,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind we will have an increase in the number of people driving into West Tisbury expecting to be served alcohol. We are a rural town. We have narrow, winding roads. . . most increased traffic will be summer people who are not familiar with our roads.”

Lisa Amols said she didn’t think the change would reduce the amount that people drink in town restaurants, which currently operate under a bring-your-own alcohol policy.

“I don’t think it makes any difference the amount people drink whether you bring three bottles for four people or you order $300 worth of wine in a restaurant . . . if anything you drink more when you bring your own, because it’s cheaper,” she said.

Kell Hicklin, co-owner of Lambert’s Cove Inn, said the new law would give his staff more control over the amount of alcohol being consumed. He also responded to criticism that Lambert’s Cove Inn and State Road were already too expensive, and were looking to make extra money selling beer and wine.

“It’s totally unfair, we’re being ambushed by this whole scenario,” he said.

“I’ve lived in this town since I was born, and I feel that I have been ambushed,” said Virginia Jones. “We have had no real discussion about this issue.”

Voters eventually approved the motion, allowing the request to the legislature to include permission for one-day beer/wine sales licenses and for restaurants to serve beer and wine.