Authors Posts by Nis Kildegaard

Nis Kildegaard

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4

After they’ve greeted us at the front desk, many savvy patrons of the Edgartown Library head straight for the shelves we keep stocked with books, videos, and music disks newly added to the collection. One of the joys of libraries across the Island is that you can read a review of a movie just released on DVD, or a new book or music album, and find it on your next visit to the library.

Now, buying this wonderful new material costs money, and all the Island libraries do belong to CLAMS, the regional network of libraries whose total collection amounts to some two million items. So if one town were to hit a tight budgetary year, wouldn’t it be tempting to trim the acquisitions budget and just let townspeople borrow new materials from other libraries in the network?

Here’s why doing this is a bad idea: just think what would happen if everybody did.

And since 1890, the commonwealth has set standards for libraries to ensure that they play nicely together. To keep its certification, each town library must meet standards for the purchasing of new materials, for staffing and open hours, and for total operating budget. When the state decertifies a town library for, say, skimping on new materials, that library’s patrons lose the right to borrow materials from other libraries across Massachusetts.

The state’s library standards are a classic example of rules we need to keep the game fair and square. These rules are healthy for everyone for the same reasons we place a minimum size on harvested scallops and lobsters, the same reasons we restrict the pollution that factories can release into our air.

As a society, we agree on rules like these when the rational choices of one individual or enterprise might run contrary to the best interests of the group. In his seminal essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in the journal Science in 1968, the ecologist Garrett Hardin concluded that the only solution to this conflict between individual and group is what he called “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” In other words, rules — and consequences for breaking them.

I know this might seem an unlikely leap, but I’ve been thinking about Hardin’s essay and the rules of library certification since reading Nathaniel Horwitz’s excellent piece (April 16, “Martha’s Vineyard students lag in required vaccination”), published in this newspaper in April, on the disturbingly high numbers of children in our up-Island public schools whose parents have chosen not to have them vaccinated against such diseases as mumps, measles, and whooping cough.

In the three public schools up-Island (Chilmark, West Tisbury, and Charter), The Times found, the parents of 105 students signed and submitted papers declaring that the vaccination of their children conflicts with their “sincere religious beliefs.” In addition to being an abuse of the word “sincere,” I’d suggest that this also insults the people of faith across the Island who actually do try to live by a religious creed.

I’m afraid that no amount of scientific evidence — and it is already overwhelming — will persuade those parents who have decided vaccination poses some slight statistical danger to their children. This is a subject much like global warming, where deniers of the scientific consensus will always be able to find an anecdote to support their view, an outlier scientist or afringe group’s website whose work they can cite.

As with climate change, although the deniers will always be with us, the science is settled and the consensus is strong that vaccination is a cornerstone of sound public health. It’s time for our community to consider the alarming numbers of unvaccinated children attending our schools — as many as one-third of the enrollment in Chilmark — and to apply some mutual coercion here.

For a parent to weigh the small risks of vaccinations against the serious epidemiological consequences if everyone opted out, and to opt out anyway, is a gesture of selfishness that borders on the antisocial. It’s a sort of parasitism, really, taking advantage of the healthy practices of others.

Ironically, it’s the very success of vaccination as a public health practice that enables the exempters in our community to make these wrong-headed decisions. We’ve had such success suppressing diseases like measles and whooping cough that most parents haven’t seen them, and can fixate on the imagined risks of a vaccine rather than on the real dangers of the illness it helps to prevent.

A fisherman who illegally harvests short lobsters or undersized scallops is banking on the hope that everyone else doesn’t do the same and destroy the shared resource. A parent who doesn’t immunize a child had better hope that enough other people immunize their children so that nasty and sometimes fatal childhood diseases can’t attack their community.

Right now, too many up-Island families aren’t thinking this through properly, and a real public health threat is the result. It’s time for us to agree that while parents may have the right to refuse vaccinations for their children, the community has the right to tell them that if they do, they give up the right to enroll their children in our public schools.

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For most hours of the day this summer, the Vineyard Transit Authority buses that ply Route 1 between Vineyard Haven and Edgartown will no longer run on a fixed schedule. The VTA has added a fourth bus to the route, and keeps in radio contact with the drivers to time their trips so that ideally, as two buses pass near the roundabout, the other two are departing from the endpoints.

In the transit business, this way of scheduling buses is called headway mode. What it means for riders on the Island’s most important commuter corridor is that the new service might not be as precisely predictable as before, but you should never have to wait more than seven or eight minutes for a bus.

Adding that fourth bus involved an expense, says Angie Grant, administrator of the VTA since 1996, but the good news is that public funding for transit systems has recently become more reliable. The model is shifting from funding in arrears to funding in advance, which means that administrators like Ms. Grant can spend more of their time figuring out how to serve their riders better and less worrying about what to do if their expenses aren’t covered.

No public service on Martha’s Vineyard has rocketed from nonexistent to indispensable with anything like the speed of the VTA. Year-round bus service here didn’t exist before 2006. In the fiscal year that ended just a few days ago, the VTA was on track for a record ridership of more than 1.2 million on its fixed bus routes.

Last August, the VTA carried 303,175 passengers, an increase of nearly 30 percent for that month since 2006. But even more dramatic is the doubling in ridership the VTA has seen in the dead of winter: to find a month when the service carried fewer than 20,000 people, you have to go back to February 2011.

Here’s another indicator that puts the growth of this Island service in perspective: At present, Massachusetts has only three public transit authorities operating seven days a week, year-round. They are the MBTA in Boston, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (serving two dozen towns and cities in the Springfield-Amherst region), and the VTA.

Visiting the website of the transit authority this week, I found this on the FAQ page: “Q: Do I need to bring my car to Martha’s Vineyard? A: No.” This little exchange should be a favorite for anyone who suffers the summer crawl through Five Corners in Tisbury or Upper Main in Edgartown. In fact, the VTA has an excellent page of advice for visitors interested in seeing the Vineyard in a single day without the hassle of bringing a car or the risk of renting mopeds and adding the hospital to their itinerary.

The VTA is a rural transit system for nine months of the year, and an urban system for three. Because it’s impractical to own two fleets of buses, and because the VTA has to be equipped to handle the peak load, there are times in winter when the rolling stock isn’t an ideal match for the demand — and Ms. Grant does hear occasional complaints in January about big buses with few passengers inside. But she rightly points out that even a bus with only half a dozen passengers is burning less fuel per passenger-mile, and putting fewer pollutants into our air, than if those riders were driving cars.

(The environmental benefits of public transit, by the way, are steadily improving: Today’s bus engines emit 85 percent fewer particulates than those the VTA was using just six or seven years ago.)

Looking to the future, says Ms. Grant, the VTA will continue to look for ways to improve its service to its more than one million riders each year. One of the biggest changes likely in the years ahead, she says, will be the jump to buses twice an hour on the system’s up-Island corridors during the busy season. “It’s a big jump,” admits Ms. Grant, “but it’s the next logical step.”

Meanwhile the seasonality is intense, the mix of users is diverse, and the challenge for the VTA is always to strike the best balance.

“This is an essential service, as much as we might not want to admit it,” Ms. Grant says. “We have a lot of ‘choice’ riders here, and we’re fortunate for that, but there is a transit-dependent population on Martha’s Vineyard. They might be elderly, they might be disabled, they might just not be in a position to own a vehicle because of the economics of it.”

In the end, the biggest group benefiting from the services of the Vineyard Transit Authority might be those of us who use the buses rarely or not at all. The next time you’re behind the wheel, inching into Edgartown one car-length at a time, consider how much more unpleasant your trip might be if that VTA bus ahead of you were three dozen individual cars.

5

Maybe you never heard the news about solar power, or it was drowned out by the noise of the 13-year controversy over the Cape Wind project on Horseshoe Shoal.

But if you still think that putting solar electric panels on your roof is a prohibitively costly way to declare your environmentalist bona fides, it’s time to think again.

I sat down for an eye-opening tutorial last week with Rob Meyers at South Mountain Company (SMC) in West Tisbury. Meyers is manager of the company’s fastest-growing department, energy services. Here’s some of what I learned.

The high cost of electricity on Martha’s Vineyard can be a burden or an opportunity, depending on how you look at it. Rates now stand at about 21 cents per kilowatt-hour, and they fluctuate over the short term, but over the past two decades they’ve increased by an average of 6 percent, per year.

Paying some of the highest rates in the nation, NSTAR customers on Martha’s Vineyard see big bites taken out of their pocketbooks for electricity every month. But if you look at that money as capital, here’s the opportunity: You can shift that capital, so that rather than paying NSTAR, you’re paying for the solar photovoltaic (PV) system on your own roof.

The Cape Wind project has been in front of permitting agencies for so long that its core technology has changed: Each turbine in the wind farm will generate three times more electricity than the models Cape Wind originally proposed to use in 2001. Meanwhile, over the same span of years, the changes in the solar power equation — both in the hardware and on the regulatory front — have been even more dramatic.

The Green Communities Act, enacted by Massachusetts in 2008, was a game-changer. It required that utilities and power plants in the commonwealth make renewable energy a part of their mix, and it set up a market system called the Solar Credit Clearing House Auction so power companies can bid for the right to count the electricity generated by home solar systems toward their mandated goal. When the utilities buy your solar energy credits, you get a payment every year.

The Green Communities Act also provides for net metering — allowing homeowners to hook their solar systems to the power grid and actually run the meter backward when the sun is shining. If you own a solar PV system in Massachusetts, your utility company becomes a sort of giant battery: The meter runs in reverse whenever your system is making more power than your home needs, and you collect credits that are worth within a penny or two of your retail electricity rate. At night, when your home has no solar power, the meter draws down the credits your system accumulated during the day.

Then there’s the matter of government rebates and tax credits: Massachusetts and the feds are both generous with incentives for solar home systems, currently covering about a third of a typical installation’s cost.

That covers the regulatory good news. There has also been great progress on the technological front. Expressed in terms of dollars per kilowatt, the cost of solar PV panels has fallen by two thirds in the past five years.

Just in the two years between 2008, when SMC put photovoltaics on roofs at the Jenney Way affordable housing project in Edgartown, and 2010, when the company installed a larger system at the Eliakim’s Way housing in West Tisbury, the installation cost per kilowatt fell by about 40 percent.

What this means for an Island homeowner with a suitable site is that the investment in solar no longer takes 10 years or 20 to pay for itself. Many solar systems can be cash-positive in the very first year.

Given the chance to sit down with a homeowner and talk through the workings and finances of a solar PV system, Rob Meyers said he can usually make that homeowner a customer. South Mountain put just three solar systems on Island roofs back in 2005, the first year it offered this service; now Meyers’s department is by far the Island’s largest provider of home solar systems, installing them at the rate of about one per week.

“Our two biggest competitors,” Meyers said, “are the utility company, and misinformation.”

The take-away here is that you don’t need to be an early adopter or a passionate friend of the environment to consider solar power for your Island home. This is mature technology, and the costs have plummeted. The same SunPower panels being installed across the Island right now are also making electricity for such bastions of industry as Hewlett-Packard, PG&E, FedEx, Del Monte, and Microsoft.

“When the guys in navy blue suits and red ties are saying this is a good idea,” Meyers said to me, “you know the picture has shifted from environmentalism to economics. The environmental benefits at this point — they’re the bonus.”

To state the case even more succinctly: If you own a home and pay an electric bill, you could probably profit from solar power right now.

1

I was diagnosed with mild high-frequency hearing loss as a child, probably related to early ear infections and fevers. I remember a specialist telling my parents, “He’ll be fine, but he should stay away from loud machinery.”

I went on to spend 24 years at the Vineyard Gazette, logging thousands of hours in the production room where the four-unit Goss Community press, once brought up to speed, shakes the building and sounds like a locomotive under throttle.

In June of 2006, I took a job in a quieter setting, at the Edgartown Library. That summer a parade of people came to the front desk and asked for help in their best library voices. My responses were variations on the theme of “Could you speak up, please?”

My library colleagues suggested, in the kindest terms, that I have my hearing checked — and soon I was fielding patrons’ questions more nimbly, thanks to a pair of hearing aids that set me back a month’s pay but have served me ably now for almost eight years.

Several of my Island friends, noticing the new wires and the tiny Oticons behind my ears — I will admit to being inordinately proud that they’re made in Denmark — have asked me about them, and have ended up being fitted for hearing aids themselves. And several of their spouses have made a point of thanking me. Because hearing is one of the most profoundly social senses, and when hearing is improved the benefits accrue to both the listeners and the people who speak to them.

Hearing aids have improved greatly over the past decade, but they still can’t do for hearing what eyeglasses can do for sight. You can enjoy 20/20 vision with the right optics, but even the best hearing aids don’t restore the acuity of human ears at their youthful, healthy best. I’ve become an aficionado of acoustic spaces, because one of the greatest challenges to my hearing is background noise. When we go out for dinner together, my wife and I pick restaurants as much for their quiet, which means we’ll be able to enjoy our conversation, as for their cuisine.

I’ve also become sensitized to the way hearing loss is treated as a poor stepchild in the family of disabilities. Medicare and most insurance plans generally don’t pay anything toward the considerable cost of hearing aids, which is one good reason why an estimated 80 percent of the more than 35 million Americans with hearing loss aren’t wearing them.

Across the Atlantic, the European Union has its own version of our Americans with Disabilities Act, and it requires that public spaces include a technology most Americans haven’t even heard of. It’s the hearing loop, also called the audio-frequency induction loop or AFIL, and it sends an audio signal into any pair of hearing aids fitted with a telecoil.

In a widely-circulated New York Times story three years ago, the composer Richard Einhorn described hearing a performance of the musical, “Wicked,” at the Kennedy Center in Washington after the center was fitted with a hearing loop system.

“There I was at ‘Wicked’ weeping uncontrollably — and I don’t even like musicals,” he said. “For the first time since I lost most of my hearing, live music was perfectly clear, perfectly clean and incredibly rich.”

Hearing loop systems are ubiquitous in Europe — every London taxi cab has one — and nearly all hearing aids sold there are equipped with the telecoil that receives their signals. But on this side of the water, we’re way behind the curve.

Massachusetts has just a handful of hearing loop systems in public spaces. They’re being used in half a dozen places of worship — the nearest are St. Peter’s Church in Harwich and the Cape Cod Synagogue in Hyannis. The meeting room of the Dennis Public Library uses a hearing loop; so do Logan Airport in Boston and the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.

On Martha’s Vineyard, any public space would be well served by the addition of a hearing loop. Church halls and performing arts spaces, selectmen’s meeting rooms, library program rooms, senior centers and our district court are among the prime candidates for a technology that promises to deliver clearer sound to the growing number of people with hearing aids. And as the loops become more common, hearing aids fitted with telecoils will become the standard, just as they already are in Europe.

Fortunately, the cost of this new technology is low. Most public spaces can be fitted with a hearing loop for about $10,000 — the price of two pairs of high-end hearing aids. Here’s hoping that someday soon, we’ll begin to see the hearing loop logo in the doorways of Vineyard spaces, promising help for hundreds of listeners in carving out meaning from the background of noise.

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This March, when the Patrick Administration awarded $3 million in tax credits to community development corporations across Massachusetts, 38 recipients were on the list. Just 10 organizations were funded at the highest level of $110,000 for the first year of this three-year program. Among the 10 was IHT, the Island Housing Trust.

This was a singular affirmation for IHT, the only enterprise of its kind on Martha’s Vineyard. Phillippe Jordi, founding director of the trust, has embraced the challenge of fundraising as he does all his work — with a wonky passion for the housing cause, or perhaps it’s a passionate wonkiness; after an interview with him, which is always like drinking information from a fire hose, I can’t decide which.

Spend an hour with Mr. Jordi, and you’ll come away with an armload of spreadsheets, timelines, project summaries, and long-term planning documents. You’ll also come away impressed with what this bright, energetic man has been able to accomplish with an operation  at the Vineyard Housing Office in Tisbury that employs just two people.

Last fall, with the Island Housing Needs Assessment freshly printed, and with information garnered from their own interviews with Island homeowners, renters, and town officials, Mr. Jordi and his IHT board held a retreat to sort out their priorities and draft a long-term plan. The 20-page document that resulted sets ambitious goals for IHT, but in simplest terms, it distills the organization’s mission to three central elements:

Increase community awareness and foster support for housing efforts on the Island. Produce new affordable housing. And ensure that the Island’s stock of affordable housing is well maintained for future generations.

These make for a powerful triad of central goals. The core task of the Island Housing Trust — bringing affordable housing to the Vineyard — is bracketed by community awareness, its necessary precursor, and the stewardship of properties which will be its continuing responsibility.

Cultivating awareness and support is a never-ending job, although your housing must be under a rock somewhere if you don’t appreciate the calamitous effects of the gap between Island real estate prices and incomes. At the Vineyard Housing Office, says Mr. Jordi, he’s seeing an early escalation of the housing crisis this spring. “Second homes in the lower end of the market are being bought up, and people aren’t able to rent them anymore. We’re talking about professionals and two-income families who can’t find rentals. That’s happening now, way before the season is supposed to heat up.”

And, in his conversations with social service providers such as Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, Mr. Jordi says, he’s hearing that the housing crisis is affecting not only clients, but caregivers as well. The cost of housing is making it difficult for agencies such as the Island Counseling Center to recruit clinicians.

The recipe for more affordable housing, says Mr. Jordi, boils down to three main ingredients. “One is capacity here at the organizational level. Then you need opportunities and resources — opportunities being land, and resources being funding.”

Matching up the resources with the opportunities can be tricky, because housing projects are expensive, and organizing funding from the Island’s six Community Preservation Act committees can be like herding so many cats.

But this year, a bit of heartening history is being made at the Island’s annual town meetings, one that bodes well for more regional cooperation on the affordable housing front.

Village Court is a campus of four buildings built in the 1970s behind Crane Appliance in Vineyard Haven. The Regional Housing Authority owns three of these buildings, and if you visit the site you’ll have no problem discerning which ones are RHA properties, because they look so much better.

IHT bought the fourth building at Village Court in February and is planning its renovation now with a design for six new rental units. But to make this project viable, IHT needed to raise about $400,000 — more than any one town CPA fund could afford to pay. Mr. Jordi asked Tisbury to contribute $200,000 over two years, and Tisbury agreed. And that’s when IHT stepped outside the box.

“I went to the other towns and said, ‘How about it? If we can provide you with some preference here, would you invest in this project?’ And we had positive responses from West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Edgartown.”

And so it came to pass that on this year’s warrants for the West Tisbury and Edgartown annual meetings on April 8, and for Chilmark’s meeting on April 28, voters will be asked to ratify contributions to an affordable housing initiative in Vineyard Haven.

“This is unique, and I think it’s kind of great,” says Mr. Jordi. “We’ve actually had some interesting discussions with CPA committees on how we might work together on regional projects. Because the reality is, we can’t do these things quickly enough if we’re working with just one town’s revenue. It’s much more efficient if we can work with all the towns, with the understanding that there will be reciprocity over time.”

The Island Housing Trust has 61 properties in five of the Vineyard towns — all but Chilmark — and recently has been bringing new housing to the market at a rate of about 10 units per year. The organization has set itself a goal of producing at least 15 units this year, and 23 in 2015. If you’d like to learn more about how IHT plans to accomplish this, I’d suggest you drop in on its annual meeting, at 10:30 am on Saturday, April 12, in the beautiful new program room of the West Tisbury Library.

A panel discussion is part of the meeting program. Promises Mr. Jordi: “My idea is to bring people to speak whom you might not immediately associate with affordable housing — and to begin to take the discussion of housing needs beyond what we typically hear.”

 

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The chorus rehearsed earlier this week for the two upcoming shows.

This Saturday and Sunday, April 5 and 6, director Peter Boak and the Island Community Chorus will be at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center with a full orchestra to present the St. Paul Oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn. Each member of the choir, which will number 98 for this weekend’s performance, has been toting around a 207-page copy of Mendelssohn’s choral score for the past 13 weeks, but Mr. Boak’s burden has been far heavier, because it includes the orchestral score as well.

Mendelssohn’s two great oratorios are like bookends of the great composer’s career: his St. Paul Oratorio, written in 1836, and his Elijah, 10 years later. When Mr. Boak led the chorus in a performance of the Elijah Oratorio in the spring of 2008, it was the most ambitious musical project he and the chorus had ever undertaken. This year, he and the chorus are revisiting that challenge.

“When I first got my score for St. Paul,” recalled Mr. Boak, “I thought, oh my goodness, I’m

Director Peter Boak will lead the chorus in the St. Paul Oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn.

Director Peter Boak will lead the chorus in the St. Paul Oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn. — Photo by Nis Kildegaard

never going to be able to learn this thing. It’s a massive piece of music — but it’s actually not quite as scary this time, because I can remember the Elijah experience, how we prepared for it and how we performed it successfully, and I’ve been using some of the same strategies to get this performance ready.”

For the chorus, preparing for this weekend has meant practices every Monday night (with only occasional interruptions by winter storms) since early January. Mr. Boak’s preparation has involved a discipline of three hours’ study, every day, to master a program that will last just over two hours, with an intermission.

Mendelssohn’s oratorios are like opera in almost every respect, but with more emphasis on the choir and without staging or costumes. The St. Paul Oratorio is based on both New Testament and Old Testament texts, treating the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, the conversion of Saint Paul, and the apostle’s subsequent career. The work is punctuated by four chorales, lush settings of hymns straight from the traditional Lutheran hymnody and harmonized in the manner of Bach. “But they’re more romantic than the chorales of Bach,” Mr. Boak said, “with more chromaticism, more emotion and drama than you get in the music of Bach.”

For members of the Island Community Chorus, a project like the St. Paul Oratorio is an opportunity to build new musical muscles by tackling a piece from the very heart of the classical repertoire. The semester of rehearsal, when it goes well, follows a wonderful arc from being overwhelmed at the outset to hearing the emergence of real musicality as the concert dates approach.

Said Mr. Boak: “I had one chorus member come up to me after our rehearsal last Monday and say, ‘You know, I can remember thinking in January that I’m not sure we can do this. But we’ve really pulled this together. It’s not like we’re just managing to sing the right notes at the right time — we’re making music.’”

Joining the chorus at the Performing Arts Center this weekend will be four solo singers. The women are two of the Island’s great soprano voices, Abigail Southard Chandler and Molly Conole. The men, both from Boston, are tenor Ray Bauwens and baritone Michael Pritchard. The orchestra of violins, viola, cello, flutes, oboes, clarinet, bassoons, French horns, trombones, timpani, and organ comprises professional musicians from Martha’s Vineyard, New York, Boston, New Bedford, and Rhode Island.

Chorus and orchestra will rehearse together for only one night, on Friday before the concert performances, but this doesn’t worry Mr. Boak. “These musicians in the orchestra are top-notch players and this is their business — this is what they do,” he said. “The choir will be ready to go, and I’ve met with our concertmistress, Susan McGhee, and Abigail to go over the recitatives, so we’re all on the same channel.”

Mr. Boak took heart from the chorus’s rehearsal on March 24 when the group’s stalwart accompanist, Garrett Brown, was ill and couldn’t attend. Making the best of the situation, Mr. Boak conducted from the piano, suggesting that this would be a perfect night for singers to point out spots where they were struggling with an entrance or an interval.

“That was so much fun — people were polishing up these little places they were having trouble with,” he said. “It was a really great rehearsal, and I was actually surprised there wasn’t more of an onslaught of requests. People are feeling pretty much in control of this music, I think.”

The Island Community Chorus, directed by Peter Boak, with accompanist Garrett Brown and orchestra, presents the St. Paul Oratorio at 7:30 pm on Saturday, April 5, and 3 pm on Sunday, April 6, at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center, in Oak Bluffs. A $15 donation at the door is suggested. For more information, visit islandchorus.org.

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When Peter and Nancy Shemeth were wed in 1975, he married not just into a family but also into an important piece of Edgartown’s civic life. Nancy’s father, Alfred Doyle, was fire chief. So it seemed only natural for young Peter, then 23 years old, to join the Edgartown Volunteer Fire Department in 1976.

“A lot of the people I associated with socially were also members of the fire department,” recalled Chief Shemeth, who has led the Edgartown department now for eight years, in a conversation at the department’s offices last Friday that also included Deputy Chief Alex Schaeffer. “It was just the natural next step to join. And from there, it was a progression.”

Mr. Shemeth was assigned to the department’s aerial ladder truck — a Farrar model bought by the town in 1971 — and worked his way up to lieutenant and to captain of the ladder truck for some 25 years. He served as assistant chief under Antone Bettencourt, and became chief of the department in 2006.

The continuities in a small town volunteer fire department run deep. Today, as when he first joined up, said Chief Shemeth, “It’s a brotherhood.”

But forces of change have also been at work. One dramatic difference today is the amount of training involved in becoming a volunteer firefighter. When he first joined the department, Chief Shemeth said, “There wasn’t the formal training we have today. You were taken through your truck until you knew everything about it, and then every once in a while you’d have an all-department practice. Now, the state says you have to be Firefighter One trained; you have to be first responder trained; you have to have CPR and hazmat training. Realistically, it probably takes two years to go through all the training.”

A second big difference relates to the rhythms of Island life. “Everybody back then had a lot more time on their hands than they do now,” Chief Shemeth said. “Young people now are working one job and possibly two, trying to make ends meet.”

Combine the new training requirements with the more hectic pace of Vineyard life, and the result is that Island fire departments are finding it more difficult every year to recruit the volunteers they need. Chief Shemeth doesn’t blame the younger generation: “As for the volunteer aspect of it, I think the majority of people still have that: they still want to get involved and give back to the community. But it’s becoming harder and harder to give the amount of time that’s required.”

Since 1970, the population served by our Island fire departments (and the numbers of flammable structures dotting our landscape) have more than tripled, even as the ranks of volunteer firefighters have begun to ebb. Fortunately, another generational change has come along to make firefighting on the Island more effective: The separate town departments work together more closely, and more smoothly, than they did just a couple of decades ago.

Chief Shemeth recalls how, during his early years with the Edgartown department, calling for mutual aid from another town was rare, something to be avoided. “You didn’t want to call in mutual aid from another town, because that meant you couldn’t handle the situation yourselves,” he said. “You just didn’t call another town unless it was hitting the fan.

“Now that’s changed, because people are so much busier, you don’t have the luxury anymore of everyone being available to show up during the daytime. Now, if Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven or West Tisbury gets a working structure fire, it’s a mutual aid call for one of the neighboring towns — that’s just standard procedure now.

“I look at it, whatever we can do for another department, I’m more than happy to send our personnel and our equipment. Because I know when I need them, there’s not a question: they’ll be here. Now, when we even think we might need mutual aid, we’ll call them and put them on standby.”

So the Island fire departments have met some of the impact of the changes felt in recent years by working better together. But if present trends continue, Chief Shemeth says, we may have to look at adjustments, much like those our emergency medical services have already seen — a shift to a heavier reliance on paid staff.

Neither Chief Shemeth nor Deputy Chief Schaeffer looks forward to this. “The heartbreak that I see in the loss of volunteers in the mix,” said the deputy chief, “is the loss of diversity in the department. I mean, beyond just the camaraderie and the social aspect of it all. Right now, when we have 44 volunteers show up at a scene, we have 44 different perspectives of people who work in different fields and are expert in those fields. You have the builder who knows the framing; you have the plumber who knows the heating system. You have all this knowledge at your disposal at any given time, and that’s tremendously useful.”

The 1971 Farrar ladder truck that Peter Shemeth captained for so many years was replaced in 1995 by a new model. Mounted on the front bumper of that truck is the silver bell that adorned the Farrar and dates back to its predecessor, the 1938 City Service Mack that served the town for more than three decades.

Handed down like that silver bell, the Shemeth family tradition of service continues in the generation of Peter and Nancy’s daughters, Kara and Justine. Kara is a member of the Edgartown Fire Department and an EMT. Justine’s husband, Paulo DeOliveira, is also an Edgartown firefighter and EMT.

Chief Shemeth loves these continuities, and he cherishes the traditions of volunteer service that run through all the Vineyard’s fire departments. “You want to keep the volunteer system as long as it’s viable,” he says. “But we do have to start planning for the future. Because there will come a day.”

7

In 2011, with an Edgartown Library building project on the town meeting warrant, I was hired to help prepare an informational brochure for voters. For the back cover, I asked several town leaders for endorsements of the library plan. They were universally willing to help — well, almost universally.

The only person to turn me down, flatly refusing to endorse the plan for a new library on the site of the former 1924 elementary school, was Pat Rose — chairman of the library trustees and a director of ELF, the Edgartown Library Foundation

Site of the new Edgartown Public Library.

Site of the new Edgartown Public Library. — File photo by Michelle Gross

This was three years ago, when the ink was hardly dry on plans for a new library at the school site. Bitter opposition to the abandonment of the North Water Street site still ran deep in some quarters — including the library trustees and the leadership of ELF, which had been raising money for a new library on that site for years.

A pause, here, for full disclosure. In addition to serving as Edgartown’s reference librarian since the summer of 2006, and working in a freelance capacity on copy for that informational mailing in 2011, I also did a brief but intense stint of work on the wholesale rewriting of Edgartown’s $5 million state grant after the decision, in late 2010, to build at the 1924 school site. Looking back on the drama of the past seven years, and ahead to the prospect of breaking ground later this month for a new Edgartown Library, I must say that in my more than three decades on the Island, I’ve not seen a more fraught public process with a more wonderful final outcome.

ELF’s most successful fundraising years, according to its own tax filings, spanned from 2007 through 2011, when it raised a total of $606,284. After expenses and grants to the library, ELF reported $462,809 in its coffers at the end of 2011.

Edgartown Public Library on North Water Street.

Edgartown Public Library on North Water Street. — File photo by Susan Safford

But remember, this money had been raised during a time when most library supporters thought the new building would be on North Water Street, with the historic 1904 Carnegie library as its centerpiece. And during this period, because ELF’s leadership included library trustees and even the library director, the foundation felt comfortable making promises to donors about “naming opportunities” — a common practice in the library fundraising game.

West Tisbury has a clear policy on naming opportunities, and its library foundation has raised $750,000 in pledges for the building now nearing completion. But Edgartown never adopted written guidelines on naming opportunities. And now ELF claims it can’t hand over some $300,000 it has raised because of promises it made back in the day, absent clear guidelines, but with the understanding that because ELF and the trustees had this overlapping membership, things would somehow all work out.

Well, things haven’t worked out. The library trustees most resistant to the new school site were swept from office in Edgartown’s 2011 elections — but they still hold the foundation’s purse-strings.

If you’re following the math, ELF does have a certain amount of unrestricted money, and in fact, the foundation was poised to hand $175,000 over to Edgartown at a wine-tasting at Lattanzi’s last year. But just days before that event, the foundation directors — in a sharply divided vote and arguably one of the dumbest moves in the organization’s history — decided not to write the check. This is when the real political hardball began.

Almost immediately, the new library trustees asked ELF to stop raising money for the library, to stop representing itself as the library’s fundraising organization, and to turn over its funds to the town. Edgartown instructed its counsel to ask the state attorney general whether ELF can be compelled to hand over what it has raised.

Meanwhile, since that moment at the end of 2011 when ELF reported net assets of $462,809, those funds have been steadily shrinking. In 2012, the foundation’s two fundraising events raised $32,000, but cost $36,000. (Maybe we should call them fund-losers?) And in 2013, ELF spent an undisclosed amount of its unrestricted funds — in what has to be this story’s ironic high point — on attorney’s fees, defending its right to withhold its money from the very institution for which that money had been raised.

What an incredibly hollow victory for ELF to say look, we’ve been vindicated — we don’t have to give this money to the library now if we don’t want to. I’d say it’s time for the directors to engage in some somber reflection on their organization’s mission statement. (It’s also past time, incidentally, for ELF to spend some time on its website, which proclaims, “2012 should be an exciting year!”)

Only by talking to some of the players, as I have done, can you appreciate how deep the animosity runs on both sides of this controversy. To date, playing hardball has cost both Edgartown and ELF money that could have been spent on library services for townspeople. Lawyers may ultimately be needed to help sort out how to use the restricted $300,000 in ways that honor the intent of the donors. But what’s needed now is not more adversarial litigation.

It’s time for ELF to put all its funds squarely on the table, and to work with the town toward a solution. Something as simple as a plaque in the new library’s entryway, and some conversations with donors, might be all that’s needed to resolve this mess.

Finally, with all this said, a bit of perspective. The disputed $300,000 represents less than three percent of the new library building project, which has been funded equally by the taxpayers of Edgartown and by a gift from the state. Groundbreaking for the new library will take place in the weeks ahead, and Edgartown should be enjoying a fantastic new facility sometime in the summer of 2015. And if you’re a library supporter wondering how you can express your support for the building project at this moment of estrangement between the foundation and the town, there’s an easy answer: Edgartown has set up a municipal fund to accept your gifts.

0

Stop & Shop’s proposal to shoehorn a new, 30,477-square-foot building into 29,047 square feet of land on Water Street in Tisbury has been under scrutiny ever since last February, when it was referred to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Recently we’ve heard members of the MVC complaining that the review process is dragging on, but wait a minute: if ever there was a case to be made for measuring twice and cutting once, this is it. This location is the unavoidable, un-drive-aroundable, year-round entryway to the Island, and its traffic empties directly into Five Corners, the failed intersection so complicated and congested in the summer that (with apologies to Yogi Berra) nobody goes there any more — it’s too crowded.

So thank you, Martha’s Vineyard Commission, for taking a few extra months to look at this project carefully.

Traffic and building scale have emerged as primary concerns in the MVC’s deliberations, and understandably so. But I’m equally concerned about an issue that’s being eclipsed by the supermarket’s proximity to Five Corners, the Island’s black hole of traffic physics.

The issue that resonates so strongly with this proposal from Stop & Shop — a business that is at once one of the Island’s largest employers, and one of the poorest-paying — is affordable housing.

Just two months ago, the Wal-Mart retail chain made national news when the press got hold of a photo from the staff area of a Canton, Ohio, store. “Please donate food items here,” said the sign, “so Associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.” Here was the nation’s largest retailer, seemingly admitting that its workers need a canned food drive to get by on their paltry wages.

In a way, the Island’s Stop & Shop stores are our very own Wal-Marts. The Stop & Shop chain is owned by the giant Dutch supermarket company Ahold, which lately has been posting net profits of more than $1 billion per year.

According to documents filed by Stop & Shop with the MVC, the Tisbury supermarket currently employs 96 people in-season — 85 of them part-time workers and just 11 full-time. The chain proposes to employ some 160 people in-season at its new, larger store. Again, more than 80 percent of them will be part-timers. So the expanded store does mean more Island jobs, but very few of them will be the sort of jobs the Vineyard economy urgently needs.

Wages of ten bucks an hour, even working full-time, simply can’t sustain a decent life on Martha’s Vineyard. By loading up on part-timers whose access to benefits and collective bargaining is limited, part-timers whose hours can be cut back just when the hard winter months begin, Stop & Shop manages to simultaneously bolster its corporate profits and shift the burden to the Island community.

The directors of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, in letters to the MVC, have asked for better numbers on how Stop & Shop employment practices impact the Island’s housing needs. The Commission can require the applicant to mitigate the impact of its building expansion on the Island’s housing problem, but to date I’ve seen nothing that reassures me that the agency has looked hard at this issue. Notably, in the MVC’s November staff report on the Stop & Shop application, the historic value of the house at 15 Cromwell Lane makes the short list of key planning concerns to be considered — but housing impacts do not.

David Vigneault, executive director of the regional housing authority, tried to raise awareness of this issue in an August letter to the MVC. “At any point in time over the last decade,” he noted, “a minimum of six to twelve S&S employees have utilized affordable rentals offered by the DCHRA and other Island housing organizations, with another half-dozen using rental assistance of one sort or another.”

We all need groceries, and we all need cashiers at the check-out lines to take our money and bag our food. Right now, those cashiers receive an unlivable wage, and the community pitches in with property tax dollars to help pay for the housing our Stop & Shop employees can’t afford.

All across the country, this shifting of costs from the private to the public sector is the Wal-Mart way. But do we really want it to be the Island way?

0

Let’s try to connect the dots between a new book on public health policy, a promising new program at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and some numbers from a century-old Edgartown annual town report.

First, the book. In “The American Health Care Paradox,” by Dr. Elizabeth Bradley, director of the Global Health Leadership Institute at Yale University, investigates how the United States manages to spend more per person on health care than any other nation on earth, yet ranks back in the pack in measures of outcomes such as longevity and infant mortality. One reason for this apparent paradox, Dr. Bradley argues, is that we’ve defined health care far too narrowly.

When you look at human services more broadly — including things like public education, housing support, job training and unemployment benefits, daycare for children, pensions and other programs caring for the elderly — our poor outcomes in the United States line up very well with our poor patterns of public spending. We might not think of these non-medical services as health-related, but in fact unmet social needs have very direct impacts on public health.

Even in the field of medical care, where so much of our money is spent, the realization is growing that health outcomes improve when we expand our vision to include the social world in which patients live their lives. At the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, a new program called Integrated Care Management was launched in April to reach into the Island community and support people whose cases involve chronic and medically complicated conditions. Since a great deal is actually known about how to manage chronic ailments such as heart disease and diabetes, an outreach program can support people in the good habits that prevent the sorts of costly medical train wrecks that happen when a condition, left unmanaged, repeatedly requires hospitalization.

The Vineyard hospital’s Integrated Care Management program is based on a pilot project developed at Massachusetts General Hospital that showed great promise in achieving the prized twin goals of modern day health care reform: better health in the community with lower costs of care. The guess here is that the Island’s version of this program will accomplish exactly the same things.

Next, a bit of history. Recently, reading in the Edgartown annual town reports of a century ago, I was surprised to see a large portion of the municipal budget being spent every year in a category labeled “Support of Poor.” In Edgartown in 1914, “Support of Poor” accounted for some $2,500, nearly 11 percent of the town’s operating budget.

Digging further, I discovered that the town, as the unit of government responsible for basic social services, is a New England tradition that goes back to English law, where the care of the needy was the duty of the local parish. Under Massachusetts law dating to the late 1700s, larger towns appointed overseers of the poor, while selectmen in smaller towns like ours also held that post as a second responsibility. In 1914, Edgartown paid Edwin Coffin, William C. Nevin, and Alfred A. Averill $170 each for their work as selectmen and overseers of the poor.

The town report’s itemization of expenses suggests the range of social services supported in this category. Fully half the money, more than a thousand dollars, went to rent subsidies. Money also went for groceries, winter fuel, clothing, medical care and other basic needs — including $15.20 to Silva Shoe Co. for shoes and $38 to Francis W. Pent for burial services.

Such basic human services haven’t been funded by property taxes around here for many years — and you could make an argument that in some ways, it’s a pity. Now we have huge federal and state programs ministering to some of the Island’s social needs, and a diverse, dedicated but always needy network of nonprofit agencies at work here. Too many of the state programs are headed with the label, “Cape-and-Islands,” code language for agencies headquartered on the mainland and better at requiring paperwork than at providing access to services for the people here who need them. Meanwhile, our nonprofits have their boots on the Island ground and a deep, nuanced understanding of local needs, though seldom the resources to address them fully.

I’d love to see our towns, in a tip of the hat to the way Islanders cared for each other a century ago, apply a property surtax of one or two percent each year and pass that along to the agencies on the front lines of social services here. But until that happens, we need to provide in our holiday giving for those Island organizations that labor every day on the social front lines, delivering the human services that hold this community together.