Aquinnah voters support change to assessors

Town voters vote on warrant articles at Aquinnah special town meeting.

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West Tisbury school students ready to present their case to town voters. — Brian Dowd

Aquinnah voters approved a proposal to change the town’s board of assessors from an elected position to an appointed position with a 32-10 vote at Tuesday’s special town meeting.

Selectmen and members of the board of assessors have had a contentious relationship over the past few years as there has been conflict over their roles in the town.

“It has been a difficult relationship,” selectman Jim Newman said to voters. “We were losing control of how things were being done.” Newman cited town resident complaints and uncooperative behavior of the assessors as reasons for the change.

Opposition to the article came from town voters who thought the article might give the selectmen too much control and leave the voters without a say.

A debate over a computer modem ensued, as town voters took issue with two articles concerning the board of assessors. One article was to see if the town would vote to transfer $1,424.08 from the assessor’s expense account to a fund to be used as a startup for town-operated lighthouse tours. The other article asked the town to vote to transfer $1,170 from the town’s available funds to pay for a modem with additional bandwidth for the town assessors.

Town voters didn’t understand why the board of assessors shouldn’t use its own funds to purchase the modem they wanted, and why the town didn’t use available funds for the lighthouse startup fund. Town voters voted to amend the article for the lighthouse startup fund so the funds needed would be taken from the town’s available funds, not the assessors’ account. Voters also decided to postpone an article asking the voters to pay for a new modem.

Chatter and commotion from members of the public filled the Aquinnah town hall during the special town meeting, but not much could be heard from a group of West Tisbury middle school students who waited quietly in the back of the room for their turn to speak.

When invited to speak by moderator Michael Hebert, two of the students walked up to the front of the room and gave a speech. Sam Fetters, one of the students who gave the speech, started by asking town voters, “What on this Island matters to you?” Sam then explained in detail the dangers and harm balloons, released into the air, can do to marine life.

The students were met with a round of applause, and with questions. The students were asked why it should be made into a law, instead of doing more with educational awareness and outreach. The students were quick to respond, saying they had set up a Facebook page and Instagram page detailing the harmful effects of released balloons, and that now it was time to put a change into place. The students were aware balloons can drift onshore from the Cape, but they wanted to join in an effort to prevent it from happening on the Island.

Town voters unanimously passed the article to ban the intentional release of balloons into the air, with a violation of the law to result in a $100 fine.
An article for a stabilization fund set up to fund capital projects for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School District passed with a 40-2 vote. The fund would be set up to fund projects that cost between $100,000 and $1 million.

While the vote for the article passed, Newman said he could not support the fund because town voters would not have enough say in how the money would be used.

Several articles on the town warrant called for the transfer of funds to pay for several projects. Town voters passed an article that would pay John Keene Excavation $2,958.73 for fixing the walkway up to the lighthouse in Aquinnah Circle, and pay $250 to Island Water Source. Both would be paid with money from the town’s available funds.

Town voters also agreed to pass an article allowing $20,000 from available funds to be used to construct a walkway from the shops at the Aquinnah Cliffs to the lighthouse.

An article that would transfer $25,000 of available funds was postponed indefinitely because some voters wanted more information about what the railing would look like.

Three articles dealing with changes to senior taxes were met with confusion by town voters. The confusion came from the wording of the tax articles and how it would affect taxpayers who were not seniors.

Two of the articles passed: one raising the senior income limit for a tax deferral, and the other providing a tax exemption to seniors who qualify for low-income housing.

One of the tax articles was amended by town voters and then passed. The amendment lowered the age eligibility for a senior tax exemption from 70 years old to 65, and changed the exemption percentage from 20 percent to 10 percent.

Selectman Juli Vanderhoop expressed her support of the articles. “It’s going to allow seniors who don’t have high incomes to extend their life here,” she said. “This is why we need six weeks to understand this.” The town must hold two votes — one at the special town meeting and one during the annual election, at least 60 days apart.

Members of the board of assessors said they would hold an information session for town voters to educate them on the tax articles. All three tax measures will be put on the ballot for the annual town election on May 9.