Aquinnah voters take up $3.4 million budget, up 9 percent

— File photo by Tim Johnson

Aquinnah voters will face a number of tough financial decisions when they gather for a special and annual town meeting Tuesday. First and foremost is a $3.367-million operating budget for the next fiscal year (FY2013), a nine-percent increase.

Voters will also confront seven ballot questions authorizing debt exclusions or Proposition 2.5 overrides at the polls Wednesday. There are no electoral contests.

Town meeting begins at 6:45 pm on Tuesday in the Old Town Hall. The polls will be open Wednesday from 12 noon until 7 pm.

Voters at town meeting and again at the polls will be asked to authorize general Prop 2.5 overrides of $175,000 to meet the general operating expenses for next year, and $25,016 for the purchase of new air packs and cylinders for the fire department.

A series of ballot questions would authorize debt exclusions for a variety of education-related items that include repairs at the West Tisbury School and the purchase of new school busses.

The eight-article special town meeting warrant includes a lengthy article that contains three pages of amendments to the town’s zoning bylaws.

Budget spikes and overrides

The budget for FY2013, which begins on July 1, 2012 totals $3,367,946, up $298,622 from the current budget.

Town administrator Adam Wilson said the overrides and the large budget increase can be traced to a number of factors. For example, last year’s budget was supplemented by $175,000 in free cash, and this year the town only has $40,000 in free cash to offset the budget, he said.

The selectmen, who also serve as the town finance committee, also made the decision this year to award town employees with a three-percent cost of living adjustment (COLA). The town has not given employees a COLA for at least five years, Mr. Wilson said.

“Because of the economic climate, selectmen opted not to give [a COLA] for a number of years. But they felt it was time to make up for that. Over those five years the cost of gasoline, food — you name it — has increased substantially, and they felt three percent was a fair number,” he said.

Meanwhile the budgets for a number of departments have spiked next year. The proposed fire department budget is up 27 percent, largely because of the selectmen’s decision to double the stipend for the fire chief from $5,000 to $10,000.

This week selectmen formally named Simon Bollin as the new permanent fire chief.

Meanwhile selectmen made the decision to increase the town legal budget 38 percent, from $37,000 to $60,000. In recent years selectmen have allocated a smaller amount for legal services, which is usually depleted over the course of the year.

The increase is viewed as a proactive move by selectmen and not tied to any specific litigation, Mr. Wilson said. “Year after year the selectmen have set aside something like $35,000 for the year for legal expenses, and it’s never enough,” he said.

Selectmen have also proposed the creation of a community review board administrative assistant, who is expected to serve as the planning board administrative assistant while also assisting the conservation commission and zoning board.

The budget for the town accountant is up 11 percent, because she will be working additional hours each week. The town administrator salary is up 16 percent, to align the position’s salary with a personal compensation plan adopted by the town four years ago.

Mr. Wilson’s salary will increase from $63,537 to $75,835 in fiscal year 2013.

The town’s assessment for the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) will increase from $563,383 to $739,637, a spike of just over 31 percent. The substantial increase is tied to an increase in the number of Aquinnah students in the Chilmark and West Tisbury schools, and also a new food service program at the West Tisbury School.

The UIRSD committee this year voted to break ties with Chartwells, the contractor that has served food at the district’s two schools in West Tisbury and Chilmark since 1992. The committee instead voted to spend $100,000 to renovate the kitchen at the West Tisbury School.

Conversely the town’s share of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) budget decreased considerably, largely because of a decrease in the enrollment of Aquinnah students at that school. The assessment fell from $252,011 last year to $176,253 in fiscal year 2013.

The decrease in the high school assessment helped offset the increase in the UIRSD assessment, for a net education increase of just over $100,000.

Mr. Wilson said selectmen tried to take a more proactive approach to financing this year.

“I think the last three years the selectmen had a very frugal approach when it came to budgeting – and for good reason. We were coming through some very tough economic times. I think the prevalent attitude was to toe the line and run a tight ship,” he said, adding

“But this year their attitude was there should be an effort to take care of the people who have made sacrifices in the past, and also make purchases we have put off and fund certain line items and adjust the pay and hours of some of our employees.”

Overrides and debt exclusions

Voters will decide a total of seven override and debt exclusion questions when they go to the polls Wednesday.

There are five ballot questions authorizing debt exclusions for the town’s share of projects at the UIRSD and the MVRHS. Town accountant Marjorie Spitz said the questions seek a total of around $45,000 in debt exclusions for FY2013.

The various questions would authorize debt exclusions for the town’s share of an addition to the West Tisbury School, construction costs at the Chilmark School, window repair at the West Tisbury School, and new busses for the UIRSD and MVRHS.

Ms. Spitz said the town is already committed to pay its share of these school projects, and in recent years has paid its share out of the general operating budget, more specifically the education assessment.

But selectmen this year made the decision to fund these school projects through debt exclusions. “We could really use the relief right now,” Ms. Spitz said. “This is just good accounting procedure.”

The debt exclusions will not create a permanent increase in the town tax levy, and will only increase the levy for the duration of the loan.

In addition, voters will also decide a non-binding ballot question asking whether the controversial roundabout project should be built at the blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs.

Other business

During the special town meeting, voters will decide whether to transfer $50,400 from the town’s general fund for engineering fees and construction costs to repair the town landfill’s storm water drainage system. The article requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

Also during the special town meeting, voters will consider an amendment to the town zoning bylaws that would speed up the approval process for projects that have “no negative impact” on the natural resources by requiring a simple zoning determination rather than a special permit.

Voters will also decide whether to appropriate $15,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds for the creation of a ball field at the Aquinnah Wampanoag Community Center.

Air Force reservists from a civil engineering squadron on a training exercise came to the Vineyard in 2004 to erect the community center’s steel frame. It remains unfinished. Town leaders said the money article would be pulled if the ball field is not available at all times to the general public.

Another article asks voters to transfer $12,500 from the waterways improvement fund for engineering costs associated with the installment of a solar powered fresh water well in the West Basin dock area.

During the annual town meeting, voters will consider spending $35,996 in Chapter 90 state funds on highway construction and road improvements, and spend $2,700 to install automated external defibrillators in the town hall campus.

Voters will consider an article to appropriate $39,000 to purchase and equip a new police vehicle, and another to appropriate $50,000 for the Dukes County Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB).

Another article asks voters to appropriate CPA funding for historic preservation; including $25,000 for the preservation of the Gay Head Lighthouse, $2,500 to study erosion at the Gay Head Cliffs relating to the lighthouse preservation and $10,540 to restore the Old Aquinnah Library.

The same article would also allocate $13,640 in CPA funds for the acquisition of the Edwin DeVries Vanderhoop homestead, $3,000 for the preservation of archives at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and $4,000 for engineering relating to the restoration of the Menemsha Pond bulkhead.

Voters will also be asked to authorize the police department to conduct background checks on individuals applying for licenses to drive a taxi, operate an ice cream truck, and serve as the manager of the service of alcoholic beverages, among other things.