West Tisbury voters face expensive choices
On Wednesday next week, West Tisbury voters will assemble to make some hard and important choices. Last on the agenda but first in voter interest will be a proposal to add $1.8 million to the $3.7 million already approved for renovations to the town hall. Voters will have to decide whether scrapping the project (and losing the funds already spent) makes more sense than paying its increased cost.
When bids were opened last month, the West Tisbury town hall building committee learned bad news. The original cost estimate, on which the committee and then the voters had based their judgments a year ago, was off by nearly 50 percent. Bids from Barr, Inc., of Putnam, Conn., and J.K. Scanlon of Falmouth were within two thousand dollars of each other at around $4.5 million. Other fees, fixtures, furniture, and relocation expenses run the cost to $5.5 million.
A two-thirds majority is required to approve the warrant article, and the following day the companion ballot question needs a simple majority to pass.
"The numbers were as staggering to the building committee as to the town," groaned committee chairman Ernest Mendenhall.
Asked by The Times if the project could somehow be reduced in order to lower the price, Mr. Mendenhall and committee member Lanny McDowell responded that any major change in the plans would require new architect's blueprints and new contractors' bids, setting the process back many months, perhaps costing almost as much as the changes would save. However, a few changes are possible without new fees. Sheetrock walls could be substituted for hard plaster, and an emergency generator could be eliminated from the plan. Together, those items total about $100,000. Also, if the basement meeting room were left an unfinished bare cellar, another $260,000 could be saved, but without the meeting room, bathrooms, and other fixtures planned for that space. The committee has no plans to introduce such options, but would not object to motions made from the floor.
Costs either way
Town treasurer Katherine Logue estimates that over the 20-year life of the bond, adding $1.8 million to the debt would cost in an average year an additional $30.60 for a property assessed at $450,000. The added amount would bring the same taxpayer's whole bill for the town hall to $91.75 per year for 20 years, or about half again what the original estimate would have cost.
However, Mr. Mendenhall explained that there is a chance some of these costs could be reduced by using funds generated from the Community Preservation Act (CPA). At least 10 percent each year ($50,000 out of an estimated $500,000) must to be spent on historic preservation, for which the town hall qualifies, and voters could choose to spend more than 10 percent of CPA funds that way.
The town finance committee (fincom) voted 3-0-1 (with the fifth member absent) not to recommend the article. If the voters follow the fincom's recommendation, the taxpayers will save $5.5 million, but voting "nay" has its own price tag. The voters have already authorized about $355,000 for architects' fees and other expenses, of which only $115,000 has actually been paid. The balance, about $240,000, must be paid in FY06 and will immediately add 11 cents per thousand to the tax rate for this year. According to Mr. Mendenhall, the $355,000 will have been wasted, as the town will be "back to square one" on the problem of repairing the decaying town hall and making it accessible and usable. The current blueprints are not transferable to another building, and the town will have to hire an architect and begin again.
Other warrant articles
Another proposal which may provoke debate is $5,000 for a separate contract with the Abrahams Group, the consultant hired by a three-town task group to evaluate the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD). The separate contract was suggested by the fincom, which had wanted the consultant to calculate any savings which might be realized by operating the UIRSD in one facility, presumably the West Tisbury School. The Chilmark selectmen objected to paying for a study of closing their school, which they say they would never do, and the West Tisbury selectmen agreed to drop the item from the request for proposals written by the task group. The fincom's warrant article now asks that West Tisbury pay for that analysis on its own.
Selectman John Early was not in favor of a separate contract. In his view, "It would not be acting in good faith" with Chilmark, and the same information could be derived from the data supplied by the consultant. Chairman of selectmen Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter (also a member of the fincom) and selectman Glenn Hearn, however, wanted the independent consultant to interpret the data. The fincom, of course, concurs.
Other hot issues in town surround the suit brought by William Graham before the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board and may spur discussion when articles 3 and 10 are voted. Article 3 would transfer $55,844 from free cash to cover bills incurred in FY05 in the town's defense; a nine-tenths vote is required. Article 10 proposes to add $200,000 (beyond the $37,900 already appropriated) to the line item for legal fees in FY06. Most of the additional funds will be needed for the Graham case. The fincom recommends both articles by a 3-1 vote.
Warrant articles that might be described as housekeeping include paying a past-due bill, regrading the library parking lot, and redirecting unspent funds for other purposes.
A lengthy article proposes several changes to the zoning bylaws, most of which add the wording "eligible lessee" to "eligible purchaser" in the requirements for affordable housing. The proposal also defines "large-scale structures" and "low-impact" use, as well as making other minor changes.
The West Tisbury special town meeting will be held at 7 pm at the West Tisbury School on Wednesday, Nov. 17. Balloting on the single borrowing question will be on Thursday, Nov. 18, from noon to 8 pm.