America's 'most expensive small town' holds the line
Chilmark may have been anointed this week as America's most expensive small town by BusinessWeek magazine, but the Chilmark selectmen's determination to submit a flat 2010 budget to voters at annual town meeting was unmistakable last week in their consideration of expenses ranging from library assistants to dredging in Menemsha Pond.
Library director Ebba Hierta and the selectmen had a long talk about the impact of adding a town-approved library assistant and whether the candidate should be hired at step five, as recommended by the town personnel board, or at a lower step wage scale.
While selectmen were generous in their praise of Chilmark's national award-winning library, all three were adamant that level funding budgets are the order of the day. At one point, chairman Frank Fenner said, "We are (President Harry S.) Truman. The buck stops here," a favorite quote encompassing Truman's willingness to face difficult decisions.
"Level funding, what does that mean?" asked Ms. Hierta. "Zero increase," responded Mr. Fenner, adding, "We're going to get 50 of these requests between now and finalizing the budget."
"If we are serious about level funding, then if we give here, we have to take there," selectman Warren Doty observed.
Ms. Hierta, who asked for the $5,500 position to begin July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year, to avoid impact on the current budget and to meet increased summer use, told the selectman, "We are maxed out on the budget. Two-thirds of the budget is payroll. We are squeezed. We are a lean, mean library machine."
Selectman J.B. Riggs Parker said, "There are 165 voters over the age of 70 in this town. They are not able to go and get a second job. If you get this (wage) step approved, the money will have to come from somewhere else, including COLAs (cost of living adjustment). These are perilous times."
"I would remind you that in times like these, people use libraries even more," Ms. Hierta said.
"I don't know how we're going to do this, but she's right," Mr. Parker said.
After discussion, selectmen decided to send the job description back to the personnel board for a revision. Executive secretary Tim Carroll suggested removing tasks to qualify the job for a lower wage scale.
Up next was harbormaster Dennis Jason, who disclosed plans to dredge 500 cubic yards from Menemsha Pond in the current fiscal year. Normally, the town dredges 1,000 cubic yards. The reduction may leave an estimated $5,000 to $6,000 in funds to rollover to next year's dredging and piling replacement work.
"Maybe we just found the library money," Mr. Doty said.
Selectmen also heard a request by Mr. Jason to dissolve the rescue boat loan program with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). "The program's not working. The tribe is not happy and the boat's had two repairs for the same problem. It may require a third repair," he said.
Selectmen asked Mr. Jason to meet with Brett Stearns, tribal natural resources director, and the police and fire chiefs to discuss the matter. Mr. Jason and Mr. Carroll said the town has sufficient craft to meet its rescue needs.
"This has been brought up as a problem. We should meet with Brett and the police and fire chiefs first," Mr. Doty said.
Selectmen also bored into early cost estimates for construction of six rental homes in the Middle Line Road affordable housing project, comparing informal bids for modular construction of $1.9 million to conventional "stickbuilt" bids, also informal, of $1.725 million, gathered by Chuck Hodgkinson, administrative support coordinator.
Mr. Hodgkinson offered the information as an update in advance of the formal presentation of a plan and bidding. Mr. Doty suggested the modular bids be reviewed in view of savings on local construction labor rates and the absence of architect fees required for modular homes, which are constructed in Maine.
Mr. Fenner said he was investigating the possibility of a volunteer clerk of the works, which would provide additional savings on the project.
In other action, shellfish constable Isaiah Scheffer convinced two selectmen to allow assistant shellfish constable Jeffrey Lynch to fish when off-duty from the 14-hour a week job. Mr. Parker voted against the request, saying, "He wears a badge, it's a law enforcement job."
Mr. Doty said, "The (assistant constable) job pays $250 a week. He can make $200 a day fishing. Things are going well. Let's give it a try."
Mr. Doty noted that scallop harvest to date is 646 bushels, 16 bushels greater than recorded in 2007, according to the town report. "Sixteen scallopers got their limit today - that's pretty special," he said.
The board also agreed to hire Marina Lent to administrative positions with the board of health and the personnel board and approved the appointment of Nan Doty to the Chilmark community center advisory committee.
The board also recommended a request by the planning board for a wind bylaw amendment public hearing, but included a suggestion by Mr. Fenner that higher wind towers give public notice to a greater number of neighbors, rather than abutters only, as is normally done with construction projects. "Higher towers impact more than just abutters," Mr. Fenner said.