West Tisbury voters make up or down vote on courthouse windows

Windows at the Dukes County Courthouse are in serious disrepair. — Photo by Steve Myrick

West Tisbury voters threw a monkey wrench into the second phase of a project to fix windows in the Dukes County Courthouse, when they voted against using Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds for the work at their annual town meeting in April. Voters will reconsider their vote at a special town meeting scheduled for Tuesday, May 21.

Although the other five Vineyard towns approved funding for the windows project with little dissent, the language of the identical warrant articles said the project would not go forward unless all six towns approved a proportional share of the project cost.

At the April 9 annual town meeting, the town’s finance committee recommended that voters reject the county request for $10,800 because the town had previously approved money for the repairs and it was unclear if those repairs had been made, or the money spent.

The finance committee has since met with county manager Martina Thornton to discuss the project, and will recommend approval when the article comes up at special town meeting.

Surplus spending

In fiscal year 2013, West Tisbury taxpayers paid a county assessment of $87,948. The annual assessment does not appear in town budgets and cannot be debated or amended at town meeting.

Voters in West Tisbury and other towns have questioned why the county asks individual towns to fund county projects and programs, on top of the county assessment.

Those questions were amplified this spring after an independent audit showed a surplus of $572,726 in the county’s accounts.

County commissioners and the county advisory board (CAB), which has oversight responsibility for the county budget, were unaware of the large surplus until auditors delivered a draft of their fiscal year 2012 audit.

Dukes County Commission chairman Thomas Hallahan of Oak Bluffs said the courthouse repair project was underway before the reserve fund surplus came to light.

“We didn’t have the money available, and we didn’t know about the one time only amount in reserve fund,” Mr. Hallahan said.

Other commissioners were more open to funding the project from the county operating budget.

“That’s certainly a legitimate question,” commissioner Tristan Israel of Tisbury said. “I certainly think we should discuss it, it’s a valid point. It probably needs to be vetted at the CAB meeting.”

“When we first started out in getting the courthouse repaired we didn’t have the excess funds,” commissioner Melinda Loberg of Tisbury said. “This is a continuation of that plan. Now, in discovering this excess money, we are looking at the courthouse. There are so many expenditures that were delayed, the electrical system, some of things we already had on the list. Some of those expenses will be coming up in our new budget for approval.”

Window work

The second phase of the courthouse window repair project is for 26 windows on the two side additions added to the courthouse in the 1950s. The original building was constructed in 1858. The estimated cost of repairs is $72,150.

Ms. Thornton said if West Tisbury approves the final piece of the funding at its special town meeting next week, the county will issue a request for proposals and select a contractor later this year.

The first phase of the courthouse window repair project did not go smoothly. In the spring 2010 round of annual town meetings, all six towns designated CPA funds to repair or replace 21 windows in the central part of the building, which houses the courtroom and the offices below.

The towns contributed a total of $51,680, an amount based on an estimate by former county manager Russell Smith.

When Mr. Smith issued an RFP in December 2010, Campbell Construction of Peabody was the only bidder, offering to do the work for $117,420.

Mr. Smith then approached Carleton Sprague, a contractor who acts as agent for Campbell Construction, and negotiated a lower bid for a reduced scope of work. The new bid, submitted one week after the February 18 deadline by Mr. Sprague, made no reference to Campbell. The new price was $55,000.

The office of the Massachusetts Attorney General later informed county officials that the contract was invalid, because it was not properly advertised and because negotiations are not permitted with the low bidder once bids are accepted.

With seven of the 21 windows repaired, the attorney general ordered work stopped, and the contract rebid.

Irregularities with the bidding process cost Mr. Russell the support of a majority of county commissioners, and he resigned his position in what he termed a “mutual agreement.”

Last fall, Ms. Thornton issued a new RFP for the remaining 14 windows. Mr. Sprague was the only bidder, and was awarded a contract for $37,400. He is currently working on the courthouse windows, and is expected to finish by June 1. The total cost of the first phase of window repair will be $59,967, including costs for engineering, preparing the bid, and final inspection.

The final cost is $8,287 more than the towns originally contributed. Ms. Thornton said the county will pay that cost out of its operating budget.

The Community Preservation Act is funded by a 3 percent surcharge on property taxes paid by Island property owners, with the first $100,000 of property value exempt. The state supplements the funding with a partial match. In West Tisbury last year the state matched 47 percent.