Chilmark voters at their annual town meeting on Monday will take up a trim 21-article warrant comprised almost entirely of spending items, including a $7.65-million budget for fiscal year 2013, $100,000 for employee post-retirement benefits, and $24,000 to replace pilings in Menemsha harbor.
Annual town meeting begins at 7:30 pm in the Chilmark Community Center. There are 878 registered voters in town.
At the town election on Wednesday, voters will consider a pair of ballot questions to enroll both the Menemsha pond system and Chilmark pond system in the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP), a state study of the health of coastal salt ponds.
There are no electoral contests. William Rossi will run unopposed for a seat on the three-member board of selectman. Incumbent Frank Fenner chose not to seek another term. The polls will be open from 12 noon until 8 pm in the Chilmark Community Center.
At first blush, the two ballot questions to enroll the town ponds in the state program are the only potentially controversial issues for the upcoming political season. Although selectmen endorsed the spending articles, they were critical of the MEP’s track record in town and around the state.
The budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins July 1, totals $7,654,498, which is up 8.6 percent from the current year. The budget includes $2,698,372 for education, which makes up 35.3 percent of the entire budget and represents 12.3-percent increase over the current year.
The budget includes $827,541 for employee benefits and contributions, 10.8 percent of the budget; and $598,405 for the police department, 7.8 percent of the budget. Debt payments total $425,000, the Library department budget is $295,422 and the beach committee budget is $242,454.
The budget includes $172,218 for ambulance service, $163,771 for waste collection, $154,928 for the harbor department, $146,996 for building maintenance, $146,427 for highway maintenance, $140,500 for property and liability insurance, and $139,060 for the fire department.
Town accountant Emily Day said that town departments tried to budget conservatively this year. Not counting education and the increase in debt service, much of the budget increase is tied to the cost of repairing the town pier. The remainder of the budget is up 2.3 percent, she said.
There are only two ballot questions authorizing overrides of Proposition 2.5, the state law that limits the annual increase in a community’s tax levy to 2.5 percent, both of which are related to enrolling the Chilmark and Menemsha pond systems in the MEP.
The two override questions were the subject of a public hearing Tuesday during the selectmen’s regular meeting, as required by the town bylaws.
Wendy Weldon, chairman of the Squibnocket Pond district advisory committee, noted that the ballot questions to enroll Menemsha Pond in the MEP did not mention the pond system also includes Nashaquitsa, Stonewall and Squibnocket Ponds.
Ms. Weldon said the $31,767 to enroll the Menemsha pond system in the MEP has been reduced to $14,489 through private donations. Selectmen said it was too late to change the language of the ballot question, and the reduction would be explained during the town meeting.
The override question to enroll the Chilmark Pond system in the MEP is for $54,500. The total amount was initially $74,500, but was reduced by $20,000 through a contribution by the Chilmark Pond Association.
Selectman Warren Doty said the town usually tries to avoid Proposition 2.5 overrides, but he noted that this was a challenging year financially. Selectmen opted to place the two questions on the ballot for the public to decide.
“In other years it could have gotten inside our regular budget, but this year we had several extraordinary budget increases,” Mr. Doty said. “One for the school because we have more students… [and] we built the new dock in Menemsha and this is the first year of our payments for that dock.”
“But many of us feel [the override questions] are important enough to at least ask the town for their opinion,” chairman Frank Fenner said.
Back in January, selectmen agreed to put the questions to voters at town meeting at the request of the Squibnocket Pond advisory committee, despite their own concerns about the lackluster performance of the MEP in the past in its evaluation of Tisbury Great Pond.
The MEP started their study of Tisbury Great Pond nearly five years ago, although the town has yet to receive the final report. The MEP is being conducted through a collaboration of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
The MEP uses scientific analysis of plant life, water quality and the amount of nitrogen flowing from septic systems and other sources to gauge the overall health of at least 89 coastal ponds around the state.
Because Menemsha/Squibnocket is a shared system, the cost of the match will be split evenly with Aquinnah and the Wampanoag Tribe.
Selectmen were generally supportive of the override questions on Tuesday, although several people in the audience questioned the high cost of the study.
“Are we going to keep to keep studying this year after year, or will we come to the conclusion that something needs to be done?” said Charles Finnerty. “What happens after we get this information and how much will actually be applied — or are we going to end up with just more studies?”
Mr. Fenner said the town would risk losing matching funds from the state if voters did not approve funding for the ponds this year. He also said the studies could provide a baseline of information for the ponds that could make is easier to secure grant money in the future.
Ms. Weldon said the information gathered through the MEP studies will be essential for preserving and protecting the pond. “There has been lots of gathering of data, but so far nobody has known what to do to make [the ponds] healthier,” she said.
“These studies have been put to use in other towns in the last few months with some good results — it’s been really helpful,” she added. “People really didn’t know what to do and the ponds are responding in a really positive way, so these studies do wind up working.”
Harbormaster Dennis Jason noted that Squibnocket Pond has been the subject of several studies in the past, including one conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the late 1980s that cost the town around $54,000.
Ms. Weldon noted that both ponds have undergone major changes since the Woods Hole study was completed, including problems with nitrogen loading. “One of the big changes is the nitrogen issue, which was not really a problem a few years ago when other studies were done,” she said.
Voters will also consider a number of other spending articles at town meeting, including $40,000 to create a reserve fund to be administered by the finance advisory committee; of which $34,000 would come from available funds in the treasury and $6,000 would come from overlay surplus.
Voters will also consider several spending articles to upgrade equipment for the fire department; one to spend $15,000 to replace fire apparatus over 25 years old, another for $17,000 to upgrade self-contained breathing apparatus, and another for $10,000 to purchase personal protective equipment, with another $1,700 coming from the Chilmark Volunteer Firemen’s Association.
Another article asks voters to transfer $100,000 in available funds in the treasury to continue funding employee post-retirement benefits, and another to spend $24,000 for new pilings in Menemsha harbor, of which $12,000 would come from the general fund account and $12,000 would come from the waterways improvement account.