West Tisbury voters reject town hall, legal expenses
No, no, no said the West Tisbury voters to big money questions on last week's town meeting warrant. Photos by Ralph Stewart
In what may be a record for a special town meeting in West Tisbury, 288 voters - 13.6 percent of 2,115 registered - turned out last week and voted no on four of nine warrant articles. They turned down proposals to meet the increased cost of renovations to the town hall ($1.8 million) and to pay past and future legal expenses associated with the town's defense of a suit brought by William Graham before the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board ($55,000 and $200,000).
Voters passed five less costly spending articles, but a proposal to make revisions to the zoning bylaw failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority.
The town hall proposal was last on the agenda, but very few voters had left when moderator Pat Gregory put it on the floor. It was clearly the main attraction. Proponents of the article argued that the old town hall in the center of town is worth preserving. Ernest Mendenhall, chairman of the town hall building committee, said that the committee had worked to design a building that would last longer than the 20 years it would take to pay for it, follow the wishes of the townspeople, and meet all legal and structural demands. He reminded the voters that they had approved the same plans a year ago, when the architect's estimate was $3.7 million.
William Graham's appeal of his property valuation has led to large legal bills for the town.
Sharon Estrella, chairman of the finance committee (fincom), spoke for the opposition when she said that the $3.7 million voted a year ago was enough to spend. She compared the cost to other municipal projects on the Island - the new Oak Bluffs library and the Chilmark town hall - and suggested that the $3.7 million could build a town hall elsewhere on land already owned by the town, perhaps at the corner of Lambert's Cove Road and State Road.
Proponents of the article, including Mr. Mendenhall, suggested that after another year's delay, the costs of a reduced restoration would be similar for less building. He and others argued that a town hall in another location might not be as much less expensive as opponents claimed, and there would still be the problem of what to do with the present building.
In response to questions about what to do with the present building, former selectmen John Alley quoted Christopher Scott, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, as saying in a phone call, "Should West Tisbury decide to go in a different direction, the Trust would be very interested in acquiring and preserving the old building."
Subsequent speakers were not happy to think that yet another building in the historic district would pass to the Trust - it now owns Alley's Store, the Grange Hall, and the former library on Music Street. But even among those who valued the old building and its history, there were many who put cost above sentiment. Bringing the obsolete building up to code, they said, often sadly, might be just too expensive.
Numbers were against the proposal. Architect Ben Moore compared the size of the Chilmark town hall with the present plans for West Tisbury. The proposed renovation is almost double the size for only slightly more workers, he said. He also compared the square-footage costs: Chilmark, $266 per square foot; the West Tisbury proposal, $550 per square foot. Another speaker calculated the cost at $500,000 per office. Even those who said they planned to vote for the proposal sighed about its cost.
In the end, only 26 voters voted in favor of the article, which needed a two-thirds majority. The balloting the following day at the Public Safety Building defeated the proposal: 56 yes - 416 no.
Sharon Estrella, chairman of the finance committee, delivered the committee's negative recommendations.
Articles about legal expenses
The two articles requesting money to pay the lawyers and appraisers working for the town in the Graham case generated even more discussion than the town hall proposal. Much of the debate and the final outcome reflected voters' annoyance with the selectmen and the assessors.
The fincom had originally endorsed the proposals, but reversed itself in the last week before the meeting. Peter Costas of the fincom explained: "Questions started arising as to the validity of the bills, how the bills were arrived at, whether there were some credits since then. . . . We didn't really feel we could wholeheartedly tell the average voter in town yes, it's okay to pay this bill."
Mr. Costas questioned the validity of the bills because the selectmen and the assessors had neglected to come to a town meeting to budget the money, as specified in state law, which meant that the expenditures were technically illegal. Municipal finance expert Rick Manley, brought to the meeting by town counsel Ronald Rappaport, assured the voters that appropriating the money retroactively was an acceptable way to fix the problem. Town budgets often cannot anticipate large expenditures. "It happens all the time," he said.
Mr. Costas also questioned the bills themselves. Two weeks earlier, selectman Glenn Hearn had first raised challenges to some of the items in the bills from the independent appraiser, Kenneth Croft, and from the town's re-valuation consulting firm, Vision Appraisal Technologies. At a selectmen's meeting two weeks before, Mr. Hearn said that in scrutinizing those itemized bills, he found charges about which he had questions.
Although chairman of selectmen Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter and Mr. Hearn assured voters that they would not sign off on the bills until such questions were answered, Ms. Estrella responded, "I'm not comfortable voting an amount of money and then waiting for [the selectmen] to decide whether or not it's okay to pay. I would rather wait, answer the questions, get everything right . . . come back to us and ask us for the money."
Voters defeated amendments offered by Patti Moore and Jonathan Revere to postpone the articles.
No one at the meeting challenged the bills from Ellen Hutchinson, the assessors' attorney in the Graham case, and amendments to both articles were offered from the floor to separate her bills from those of Vision Appraisals and Mr. Croft. However, they were defeated.
The selectmen warned that voting no on these articles might result in lawsuits by those not paid for work done. Although Mr. Manley commented that those who contract with the town when there is no legal appropriation run the risk of not being paid, selectman John Early argued that the town will almost certainly face further lawsuits. Even more worrisome, he echoed Michael Colaneri, chairman of the assessors, in warning that Ellen Hutchinson, the lawyer to the assessors since 1999, might resign, and it would be very expensive for another lawyer to pick
up the case after many months of trial.
Alexander DeVito of the finance committee agreed. "If we do not pay for the lawyer," he said, "I suspect there will be chaos."
Mr. Manter also commented that the town needs Ms. Hutchinson to go after the bills from the appraisers.
Others argued that even if the town is technically not liable, it has a moral obligation to pay bills assumed in good faith. William Haynes argued, "The town cannot not pay bills that they have obligated themselves for. You do not want to get the reputation of not paying your bills."
Town treasurer Kathy Logue warned that even beyond the town's reputation in the community, failure to pay sizeable bills would have to be disclosed to the financial community, which might lower the town's bond rating and increase the interest it must pay to get loans.
However, Mr. Costas disagreed on both counts. "I don't think a no vote is going to affect our credit rating. I don't think it's going to affect whether people come to fix the plumbing or pave the streets or cut down trees. What it is going to say is that if you're going to charge the town 50, 60, 80, 150, 200 thousand dollars, you better have your i's dotted and your t's crossed," he said, to scattered applause.
In the end, the finance committee prevailed. Article 3, which was to pay legal expenses from FY05 and required a nine-tenths approval, failed when 61 voters voted against it. Article 10, which needed a simple majority, failed on a voice vote.
A long list of proposed changes to the zoning by-laws gained a simple majority, 138-108, but failed to achieve the two-thirds necessary to pass. Opposition focused on a provision to allow special exemptions of up to 9,000 square feet in the mixed business district. Mr. Mendenhall complained as the building inspector that a regulation governing light pollution from indoor lighting was an enforcement nightmare.
Voters approved, with little discussion and a voice vote, articles to transfer funds from free cash to pay a past-due bill from Bartlett Tree Service ($1,834) and to work on the library parking lot ($3,800).
After a brief debate, voters approved spending $5,000 from free cash to hire a separate study by the consultant evaluating the finances of the Up-Island Regional School District. The separate study will consider the savings which might be achieved if the district used only the West Tisbury school building, a task removed from the original evaluation at the request of the Chilmark selectmen. Mr. Manter and Frank Ferro argued for the article; Ms. Logue, chairman of the West Tisbury school committee, argued against it. The article passed 153 to 99.
Two other articles transferred unspent funds from other departments to pay a $5,000 stipend to emergency management director Judy Sibert and $1,000 to an assistant; and $3,000 for emergency medical service coverage during a disaster. Both passed on nearly unanimous voice votes.
Mr. Gregory adjourned the meeting, which had started 20 minutes late at 7:20 to accomplish signing in the unexpectedly large crowd, at 10 pm.