55 Aquinnah voters spend $3.4 million, okay COLA

Aquinnah voters moved quickly through their annual town meeting on Tuesday, among other things approving a $3.4 million budget for fiscal year 2013 as well as a three percent cost of living adjustment for town and a 16 percent raise for the town administrator. A total of 55 voters, 14 percent of the town’s 385 registered voters, turned out and approved nearly all 23 articles on the annual town meeting warrant, as well as eight articles on a special town meeting warrant, with almost no discussion or questions. Almost all articles passed by unanimous or near unanimous votes.

Heading into the town meeting, it seemed next year’s budget – up almost $300,000 over the current year – might generate the most debate. But voters were in agreeable mood on Tuesday and went through each of the department budgets with only a handful of questions.

A number of residents questioned the proposed 16 percent raise for town administrator Adam Wilson to align the position’s salary with a personal compensation plan adopted by the town four years ago. The article was to raise Mr. Wilson’s salary from $63,537 to $75,835 in fiscal year 2013.

Several residents questioned the amount and timing of the raise. “It seems to me he was just hired at a rate a few years ago, a rate that was negotiated,” said one woman who could not be immediately identified.

But several town officials stood firmly behind the town administrator and his raise.

“When Adam was hired he was not placed on a step; that was postponed until we were sure how he was going to work out. And we now feel he should be on a step and this is part of what that salary should be,” said Jim Newman, chairman of the board of selectmen, adding:

“We feel Adam has done a remarkable job and we put on a step we felt he should be and he deserves every penny of it.”

Voters also questioned the elevated legal budget for last year and fiscal year that begins on July 1. Town counsel Ron Rappaport said the town was involved in a number of costly lawsuits last year, including one involving a Fairfield, Conn. man suing the town for the right to a beach sticker.

Mr. Rappaport said the town is also involved in two cases of residents attempting to gain access to landlocked parcels off Moshup Trail. “This is my 30th year being legal counsel . . . and it is hard to predict [the legal budget] because you can’t control who sues,” he said.

Returning to a theme from last year’s annual town meeting, several residents questioned why the town pays one-third of the budget of the Tri-Town Ambulance budget, even though it has much fewer residents then the other two member towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury.

“I read somewhere the effort to renegotiate that deal failed – that is shocking to me and a disappointment,” said Michael Stutz.

“It’s just that, they failed. Chilmark and Tisbury won’t budge on it whatsoever,” Mr. Newman said.

Several department heads also proposed amendments to lower their budgets, including Chief Randhi Belain who proposed to reduce the police wages line item by $2,000. Both the landfill drop-off district and the health insurance budget were also reduced on the floor of town meeting.

After all the amendments passed, the final budget for fiscal year 2013 stood at $3,353,531. The final budget passed unanimously.

Voters instead kicked up some dust over a number of articles that at first seemed relatively tame – including one to spend just over $2,000 to pay the town’s share of the county pest management program and another to spend $39,000 for a new four wheel drive vehicle for the police department.

Chief Belain said he planned to buy either a Chevy Tahoe or a Ford Interceptor to replace an aging sedan in the police fleet with over 100,000 miles. He said the four-wheel drive vehicles were more durable and better on the town’s dirt roads and better and for accessing remote areas.

But voters questioned the timing of the purchase, and asked if the department could go without for another year. “Is there any problem not having all four wheel drive vehicles, because it seems you have had a handful of sedans for a while,” said Jamie Vanderhoop.

The vote to buy the new vehicle was 25 in favor and 16 opposed, but failed because it required a two-thirds vote.

Another article to create a bylaw allowing police to conduct background checks on individuals applying for taxi licenses, operate an ice cream truck, and serve as the manager of the service of alcoholic beverages, and sell second hand goods among other things, was also scrutinized by voters.

Chief Belain said the town currently does not have the ability to perform such background checks on people seeking license to do things like drive a cab. He said he the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association gave him the boilerplate language of the new bylaw.

He said the state is starting to require background checks and fingerprinting for many people seeking certain licenses from the town.

But several residents said they worried the bylaw might create more problems than it solved, and might require background checks for a bus driver or someone holding a yard sale. “I think this article sets a dangerous precedent and it’s a slippery slope,” said town accountant Marjorie Spitz.

Discussion of the proposed bylaw led to the one mention all evening of the ongoing efforts by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Heads to build a casino either on or off-Island. Earlier this week it was revealed that tribe members voted to use their long unfinished community center for Class II gaming.

Class II gaming encompasses high stakes bingo, poker, pull-tab cards and associated electronic games that do not require coin slots. It is unclear if the vote represented the first step in building a casino on the Island or simply a tactic to gain leverage in the tribe’s efforts to build a casino off-Island.

There was audible grumblings when one man asked if the new bylaw would require background checks for casino managers and other gaming employees. “We wouldn’t be doing that,” Chief Belain answered quickly.

“It wouldn’t be on Aquinnah property,” Mr. Newman said referring to the location of the hypothetical casino.

“It doesn’t look like this bylaw is ready for primetime,” said Mr. Stutz, who made a motion to postpone the article indefinitely. His motion was quickly seconded and passed by a new unanimous vote with no further discussion.

During the special town meeting that preceded the annual town meeting, voters unanimously agreed 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.

Voters also approved an amendment to the town zoning bylaws that would, among other things, 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.

Another article to appropriate $15,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds for the creation of a ball field at the Aquinnah Wampanoag Community Center was indefinitely postponed.

Another article to transfer $12,500 from the waterways improvement fund for engineering costs associated with the installment of solar-powered fresh water well in the West Basin dock area passed by a wide margin but only after a prolonged discussion and questioning.

Voters also approved an article to spend $35,996 in Chapter 90 state funds on highway construction and road improvements, and another to spend $2,700 to install automated external defibrillators in the town hall campus.

Another article allocating CPA money 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, passed easily.

Discussion of this article led to perhaps the most unexpected moment of the evening when Jeffrey Madison asked why the CPA money was being allocated to the Old Aquinnah Library. Mr. Madison said the Old Library was formerly known as the Old Gay Head School.

“I went to school over there . . . my grandfather dug out underneath the town hall and that is the old library, and my grandmother served as the librarian there for 1,001 and years,” Mr. Madison said.

Derrill Bazzy then made a mostly symbolic motion to change the language so the CPA money would be used to the Old Gay House School Building, which passed unanimously to a smattering of applause.

Voters will now go the polls on Wednesday and decide seven ballot questions authorizing debt exclusions or Proposition 2.5 overrides. The polls are open from noon to 7 p.m. Results at mvtimes.com as soon as they are available.

Voters 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.