Aquinnah annual trims Tri-town ambulance contribution

Aquinnah voters on Tuesday plowed through special and annual town meeting warrants and approved a $3,048,524 operating budget for fiscal 2012. They also took a scalpel to the town’s Tri-town Ambulance Service assessment and reduced the town’s share by approximately $26,000.

On Wednesday, voters went to the polls to elect town officers.

The only contest was a battle for one seat on the three-member board of selectmen. Beverly Wright, former chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe, challenged incumbent selectman Camille Rose. The voters chose Ms. Wright by a vote of 124 to 95.

On Tuesday night a total of 65 voters, or 16 percent of the town’s 398 registered voters, appeared on a foggy, windswept evening, well above the 39 required for a quorum to act on town business.

Tri-town scalpel

Following consideration and approval of the special town meeting warrant, voters turned to the 30-article annual town meeting and discussion of the FY2012 budget that begins on July 1, up three percent over the current year.

As town moderator Mike Hebert went through each department in the budget, the only issue to be singled out for discussion was the Tri-Town Ambulance assessment.

The Tri-town assessment formula for the ambulance force splits the cost evenly between Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury. That has been a sore point in the past with voters and town officials who point to a disparity in calls between the up-Island towns.

The Tri-town budget called for the ambulance service assessment to increase from $104,269 to $160,278. At the request of selectmen, the Aquinnah budget called for a reduction in the assessment to $134,360.

Aquinnah Police Chief Belain, who is also chairman of the Tri-town committee, said the jump in funding was part of a larger effort to transition the ambulance service from a largely volunteer to a professional force. The additional funding will ensure that a paramedic is on duty in the up-Island area at all times during the daytime, he said.

“This guarantees we have coverage,” he said. “If we don’t have the money to pay these people, then you don’t know if you are getting an ambulance.”

Barbara Bassett questioned the increased costs. “There certainly hasn’t been a campaign to get more volunteers in town, maybe we should focus on that more, instead of having more chiefs,” she said. “This is a huge amount of money.”

But Chief Belain took a different tack, asking why selectmen, who also serve as the town finance committee, cut approximately $26,000 from the initial ambulance funding request of $160,000. “I think the selectmen did this without Tri-town’s knowledge, and I would like them to explain,” he said.

Selectmen did not explain the cut; and there was no motion to restore the funding back into the budget.

Ms. Rose raised the point she has raised in the past — that Aquinnah pays the same amount for its ambulance service as the two other up-Island towns, even though the town uses the service the least.

“At this point Chilmark is using the ambulance three times as much as we do; West Tisbury nine times as much, but we are paying the same assessment,” she said. She recommended a new assessment formula based on use or population.

In comments following the meeting, Chief Belain said it is unclear how the cuts would affect the committee’s plan to hire new staff. He said he sent an e-mail to committee members Wednesday morning apprising them of the situation and that the issue will be discussed at an upcoming committee meeting.

He said he only found about the cut over the weekend and was unsure how selectmen arrived at the figure of $134,360. “If they don’t want a deputy chief, and you back that money out, the figures still don’t square up,” he said.

The chief hoped delaying the hiring of a chief and deputy chief until after the start of the fiscal year on July 1 could save enough to allow both positions to be filled next year. “There may be some wiggle room in the budget,” he said.

Special town meeting

The evening began with members of Cub Scout Pack 90 and 93 leading voters in the pledge of allegiance. Moderator Michael Hebert then opened the 10-article special town meeting warrant, and immediately the questions began.

Voters questioned a request for $1,032 from free cash to pay for the cleanup of the beach at Menemsha Pond and asked why the town was paying for the cleanup and not the people who created the mess.

“We will go after the leaseholders. This is just a way to pay the person who already did the work,” selectman Camille Rose said.

A request for $5,000 to maintain the town access to Menemsha and Squibnocket great ponds came under close examination. A woman asked if there is public access to Squibnocket Pond.

Ms. Rose said the town held an easement, but could not use it until a management plan is agreed to by the Sheriffs Meadow Foundation, the Trustees of Reservations, and the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program.

Former selectman Jeffrey Madison said he believed the town held the right to use the easement on the land, which was part of a 22-acre parcel along South Road in Chilmark and Aquinnah that was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Weston Howland.

“I don’t believe this town needs to get the approval or cooperation from the landowner in order to enforce its rights to access the pond,” he said.

Town counsel Ron Rappaport said the article simply asked for money to maintain the property and did not forfeit any of the town’s rights. “Those rights previously existed in a document. Nothing that we do today takes away those rights,” he said.

Voters approved the article unanimously. Voters approved all other articles on the warrant including a request for $4,000 for exhaust fans and urinals at the Aquinnah Circle restrooms; and $17,500 to rehabilitate the existing fire department rescue truck.

Tax refund fallout

Voters gave full attention to the annual warrant as well. A request Geoffrey Craig “Spa” Tharpe placed on the warrant by petition, generated the most discussion.

Mr. Tharpe wanted a refund of $4,954, money he said he was overcharged on his property tax bill because the value of his home was calculated without taking into account a resident home site provision that specifically states the valuation of his home cannot exceed $230,000.

Mr. Tharpe received an abatement, but the state ruled the abatement could not be granted beyond three years. Town counsel Ron Rappaport advised that town meeting could not provide relief.

Mr. Rappaport said he drafted a legal opinion in January, advising Mr. Tharpe he could not successfully petition town meeting for his abatement. He suggested the town file a home rule petition with the state legislature, so it could refund Mr. Tharpe the money.

Voters agreed to amend the language of the article to authorize the selectmen to petition the state legislature for the authority to compensate Mr. Tharpe.

Affordable lots

Voters approved several articles submitted by the planning board asking for amendments to the town zoning bylaws, including a new section that would allow the lifespan of a special permit to be extended from one year to two years.

Another change would allow certain smaller developments to skip the special permit review process required under the guidelines of the district of critical planning concern (DCPC), the special protection zone regulated by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission that covers the entire town.

A proposed change to the zoning bylaws that would allow someone with a three-acre parcel to create an affordable homestead lot to be conveyed to a qualified town resident generated discussion.

Housing committee member Derrill Bazzy explained it was a modification of an existing bylaw allowing a property owner to carve out an affordable lot from a four-acre parcel; the change would simply lower the threshold to a three-acre lot.

Elise Lebovit said she worried the change would create a slew of new year-round houses and put a strain on town services and finances.

“It sounds like these are going to be year-round houses, which means if we had a school child in each of those we would be paying between $12,000 to $20,000 per one-acre lot to send that child to school,” she said.

She asked how many potential lots could be created. Mr. Bazzy said it was almost impossible to tell, but cited a similar bylaw in West Tisbury that has only been used twice. He said most three-acre lots would not be eligible to spin off a small lot, because they lacked suitable setbacks and frontage.

He also made an emotional plea for voters to see the bigger picture. “I am sorry I am getting a little upset; I think our children are who we should be spending money for,” he said.

“Well I don’t disagree. I just wanted to be able to afford to pay my taxes,” Ms. Lebovit said.

The article passed by a wide margin.

Tabling the table

During a largely lighthearted finale, voters considered an article to reduce the number of voters required to form a quorum at annual and special town meetings from 10 percent of the registered voters down to 6 percent.

“As all of you know it’s been difficult to get a quorum, especially for special town meetings. We don’t call them lightly, they are called to conduct business, and we have had to call some three or four times,” said Ms. Rose, representing the article.

Ms. Bassett bristled at the return yet again of the quorum question. “This is the third or fourth time you have brought it up. If we bring this down tonight, can we have your assurances you won’t ask us to lower the quorum for, like, five years. You are torturing us with this,” she said.

“Hey at least this issue brings people out,” selectman Jim Newman joked.

The article was then tabled, which served as the perfect lead-in to the final article of the evening which asked voters to eliminate the option of tabling a question at town meeting, on the grounds that it deprives voters of the ability to discuss and understand the meaning of an article.

“We just saw an example of this being used incorrectly,” Ms. Rose said, referring to the earlier quorum article. “With [tabling] the minority has no remedy for the unfair use of this motion; it is used too often to stop debate.”

As if on cue, a member of the audience then made a motion to table the discussion, which was quickly seconded and approved. This brought the discussion to an abrupt close, as well as the town meeting, which clocked in at just over three hours.