West Tis non-resident taxpayers make hay at town meeting
West Tisbury summer residents probed town conservation projects, school window problems, and taxes and spending at a public information meeting for non-resident taxpayers on August 12. Nearly 20 summer residents posed straightforward questions at the fast-paced one-hour session, which included some humor along the way. Some attendees evidenced great awareness of some town affairs while admitting they were baffled by others.
In particular, several people complained about the annual summertime drug enforcement agency (DEA) search for homegrown pot by agents in black National Guard helicopters flying low over their outdoor showers.
Town officials representing various town boards and departments were present for the meeting held at the Howes House as a continuance of the selectmen's regular weekly meeting convened earlier in the day.
"I guess I don't completely understand why we are here, but since we won't be here to vote at town meeting, are there any issues the town is debating now," asked resident Nancy Accola, a Cambridge resident who summers at Makonikey.
Bruce Stone, town accountant, said the town has held spending down as a result of the economic downturn, while revenues have also declined.
"The short answer is we don't really know yet what the impact will be," said selectman Richard Knabel of the financial picture.
Nancy Cole of the zoning board of appeals said wind turbine and cell phone tower zoning bylaws "may come back to us. The distributed antennae system (DAS) issue is related to our cell tower bylaw so it could come to us as well."
"There are a variety of opinions on that," Mr. Knabel said in response to a question about the pros and cons or DAS.
Former selectman Glenn Hearn drew chuckles when he advised the crowd, "Well you're likely to have better Verizon service for a couple of weeks," a reference to white House efforts to improve Up-island cell phone service while President Obama is on the Island.
Assessor Michael Colaneri said that the meeting, "an opportunity to meet town officials and ask the hard questions" had generated several calls for improved meeting notices. Several speakers prodded the local newspapers to better publicize upcoming meetings.
"I saw a tiny notice and thought 'that would be cool', then I couldn't find it again. I must have looked through the paper 10 times," someone said.
"Why don't the newspapers put these notices in their calendar sections. They put silly things in there," said another, to peals of laughter.
Old County Road resident Karen Elgart was mystified and nettled by the annual appearance of helicopters and small planes over West Tisbury fields. "Every year we get buzzed by these helicopters. Why us?"
Police sergeant Dan Rossi explained the aircraft were looking for marijuana plants in season. "We have a lot of people who grow pot on other people's property. I can't say it's not a problem on the Island, but if it's any consolation, (aerial reconnaissance) has been happening all over the state right now," he said.
"I have an outdoor shower. Couldn't they give us a warning? Like 'Don't walk around in your background naked tomorrow'?" asked another attendee as laughter erupted again.
Selectmen chairman Dianne Powers opened the meeting with an overview of the town's selectmen/open town meeting system, "often described as the purest form of democracy," she said.
"I don't understand what you do," was the first question from the floor, directed at Tony Nevin, administrative assistant to the Community Preservation Committee (CPC).
Mr. Nevin explained that his committee grants and oversees funds to protect historic places, open space, and to provide affordable housing in town. A 3-percent surcharge on town real estate tax revenues matched with Community Preservation Act (CPA) state grants endow the fund, currently at $1.1 million.
Mr. Nevin said West Tisbury benefits from a state funding process that favors smaller communities, adding it is unlikely, the town in 2010 will receive more than the 90 percent in matching funds it has received in the past, as a result of deep cuts in CPA state funding.
"Why are there no projects to protect open spaces?" asked Finbarr O'Connor, late of County Kerry, now residing on South Vine Lane and in the Philadelphia area, in attendance with his wife, Jon Ann Weiner.
"Because no one has applied for an eligible project," said Mr. Nevin, noting that state law requires 10 percent of CPA funds are reserved for the purpose. Almost $248,000 is available for open space protection, he said, adding, "If you have an idea (for a project), please contact us or use the website."
Mr. Nevin added that a public hearing would be held in September to explain how to apply for CPA funding and to review the town's CPC plan. "Nothing prohibits a private individual, including a resident living elsewhere in Massachusetts, from applying, as long as a public interest is being served. We are looking for a good proposal, " he said.
Assistant assessor Cristina Brown reported that residents probably would not see a decrease in valuations on their current tax bills since values are based on data on home sales from the previous year. She cautioned that lower valuations do not mean lower taxes, since the tax rate is adjusted to meet revenue needs. Currently, private homes are valued at 93 percent of market value, based on a list of real estate sales over two years ending June 30, 2008, she said.
West Tisbury's $4.28 tax rate falls between a low rate of $1.90 in Chilmark and a high of $5 in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, Ms. Brown said in answer to a question from Mr. O'Connor, who also asked for an explanation of "this free money that I'm reading about."
Ms. Brown and Mr. Stone explained that the term "free cash" in the budget refers to unexpended and unapplied funds from prior year budgets that are often used to reduce tax rates in the following year.
On a different topic, town officials hastened to reassure Ms. Accola that renovation work on the town hall was of high quality. Mr. Accola expressed her concern after reading that rotted windows at the West Tisbury school were installed by J.K. Scanlan, the current contractor for town hall renovation work.
Ms. Powers said that reporting that the contractor was at fault was premature and lacked proof. "That is what we are trying to determine now," she said. "The report was one point of view by an architect."
Mr. Knabel said that municipal oversight regulations have changed significantly over the past 15 years since the school work was done. "That couldn't happen today," he said.
At the conclusion of the meeting, several seasonal residents thanked town officials for the forum and Mr. O'Connor urged the town to "double whatever you spend on our library. It's fabulous." He also urged the town to move its holiday party closer to Christmas. "I read about it every year and I'm always sorry I've missed it," he said.