Compromise percolates between Tisbury officials, water commissioners
More than a year after the Tisbury selectmen's dispute with the water commissioners over employee contracts and financial operations became a lawsuit, the Tisbury Water Works (TWW) charter review committee (CRC) presented its report November 13, with recommendations for resolving several contentious issues.
The selectmen created the CRC in November 2007, in cooperation with the TWW commissioners. The committee was charged with reviewing the TWW's 1905 charter and making recommendations concerning the authority of the water commissioners and the water system's structure and governance, employee salaries and benefits, staffing, funding, and accounting practices.
CRC members included chairman Larry Gomez, who also serves as Tisbury's finance and advisory committee chairman, selectman Tristan Israel, TWW commissioner David Schwab, and two at-large members, Roland Miller and Pamela Street.
In opening last week's meeting, Mr. Gomez noted the committee worked for nine months reviewing the water works charter and numerous policy and legal documents.
In addition, the committee interviewed more than 20 persons, including town officials, TWW past and present employees, state officials, and other municipal water operations personnel in Massachusetts.
When Tisbury voted to buy the water company in 1905, TWW was created by charter and set up as an enterprise system. Revenues are self-generated through water use fees paid by ratepayers rather than taxpayers.
The issue of TWW's autonomy and the role of the water commissioners versus the selectmen in overseeing funds, personnel, salary, and contracts have caused friction between the two boards for 20 to 30 years, noted CRC member Roland Miller, who presented the committee's four-page report.
"We didn't find any villains in this - our view of the board of selectmen and the water commissioners is that they are people trying to do the right thing, but each has a particular lens through which they look at the water operation," Mr. Miller said.
Matters of compromise
Among the report's key recommendations, the CRC advocated rescinding the 1905 charter and making TWW a separate town department, subject to Massachusetts statutes governing municipal water operations.
The committee also suggested preserving the water commissioners' historic role in overseeing and directing the department's day-to-day operations. This would include hiring and supervising personnel, reviewing and setting water rates, and developing operating and capital budgets.
Regarding finances, the committee recommended handling all revenues and expenditures under an enterprise accounting system, as established by state law. Any surplus or excess would be reserved for TWW projects, as approved by voters.
Financial operations such as payroll, accounts receivable and the like would be handled by town hall personnel. Job descriptions, salary ranges and benefits for non-union personnel will be the same as those for town employees, while union personnel will continue to be covered by the current collective bargaining process.
At the report's conclusion, Mr. Gomez encouraged the audience, which included several TWW employees, to ask questions.
"What goes on out in the field is more important to me," said employee Tim Sylvia, who also expressed concern about the current lack of an overall supervisory position in the office. Mr. Miller said personnel issues were not under the committee's purview and that the water commissioners could address those at any time.
"Who's the general?" TWW employee John Peipon asked.
"The water commissioners, Mr. Schwab, your water superintendent," answered Mr. Israel.
"The day to day operations will stay in the water department - you will see minimal change," Mr. Gomez added.
Mr. Peipon said he was disappointed at the lack of attendance by the general public at the meeting.
"As we go forward, we intend to hold public hearings," Mr. Israel assured him. "This meeting originally was scheduled for the committee to present their report to the selectmen."
"Until we get both boards' approval, it would be premature to bring the general public in," Mr. Schwab said.
Mr. Miller said the committee didn't expect the issues to be resolved in one night. Instead, he suggested the selectmen and water commissioners discuss the report in their separate board meetings, and reconvene as soon as possible to move forward.
Both boards agreed. The TWW commissioners met on Tuesday this week and the Tisbury selectmen scheduled a special meeting for November 25. A public hearing may take place in December.
Lawsuit laid low
In the meantime, a lawsuit brought by the Tisbury selectmen against the town's water commissioners, TWW superintendent Deacon Perrotta, administrator Lois Norton, and the Oak Bluffs Water District in October 2007 remains on hold, according to town administrator John Bugbee.
The events leading to the lawsuit started with the selectmen's scrutiny of the water department in March 2006, when they took notice of the salaries and benefits package the water commissioners awarded through five-year contracts to Mr. Perrotta and Ms. Norton. Overseeing both the Oak Bluffs Water District and Tisbury Water Works, at that time, the two administrators were paid over $100,000, $50,000 from each town, with more generous benefits than those given to other town employees.
The selectmen also questioned whether $1.57 million in surplus cash that was documented in the water department's annual audit, conducted separately from the town's, should either be returned to the town's general fund or the water rates should be reduced.
Although Tisbury Water Works' employee salaries are paid by the town and must be approved at the annual town meeting, they appear as a lump sum line item on the town budget. At Tisbury's April 2006 town meeting, Mr. Israel proposed amending the water works' salary line, specifically targeting wages and benefits for Mr. Perrotta and Ms. Norton.
Mr. Schwab cautioned voters about the possibility of litigation over breached contracts and the withdrawal of Oak Bluffs from the shared arrangement. The motion was defeated.
At town meetings in 2007 and 2008, however, Tisbury voters approved similar amendments made by Mr. Israel, reducing salaries and deferred compensation benefits for Mr. Perrotta and Ms. Norton.
After the 2007 town meeting, the water commissioners said they consulted their own attorney about the contracts and stood behind them. Talks between the water commissioners and selectmen stalled until October, when they agreed to form the CRC. News of Tisbury's lawsuit followed a week later.
Finding a superintendent
Mr. Perrotta resigned his positions managing the TWW and Oak Bluffs Water District as of June 30, 2008, citing the two salary cuts as the reason. The two boards bought out the remaining two years of his contract.
Mr. Schwab told The Martha's Vineyard Times last June that each town agreed to pay Mr. Perrotta $45,000, plus unused vacation time, to end his employment.
White Water Inc., based in Auburn, was hired to provide licensed personnel during the transition period. An operator is paid for 40 hours of work, at a rate of $90 per hour, plus travel costs to Martha's Vineyard. The two towns each have separate contracts with White Water, splitting the costs equally.
Mr. Schwab also told The Martha's Vineyard Times that Tisbury and Oak Bluffs would no longer combine efforts to manage their water systems. "We're going to go separate ways," he said. "DEP is not going to give us that option. They've said either the towns join together in a regional district, or they go separate ways."
Larry Bombara, president of LORINC Consulting Group in Douglas, currently is working with the water commissioners in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs to redefine job descriptions and staffing needs, and to make recommendations for improving their operations.
At last week's meeting, he said after a brief overview of TWW's operation, he concluded that, "They run a good, good department." Mr. Bombara suggested updating office operations, streamlining water and sewer billing, and developing an automatic meter reading system.
After recently conducting the first round of interviews for a water superintendent for the Oak Bluffs Water District, Mr. Bombara said he found four qualified candidates out of six applicants. He also will oversee TWW's search and hiring process for a new superintendent. "My feeling is we won't be able to hire someone for the salary you're offering," he cautioned the selectmen, noting that Oak Bluffs is offering substantially more money, in the low to mid $90,000 range.
Mr. Schwab said this week that TWW is required by DEP to have a superintendent in place by September 10. Ms. Norton is eligible to apply for the position.