Tisbury voters agree to spend $17.5M
Tisbury voters argued at length over water department salaries and sewage, but when everything had been said, they approved all the articles they confronted at the annual town meeting Tuesday. The small turnout also approved a $17.5 million fiscal year 2007 operating budget with barely a murmur.
A total of 153 voters, just 5.6 percent of Tisbury's 2,709 registered voters, were present at the start of the meeting. The town will hold annual elections on April 18.
Controversy over the wages and benefits of the town's two top water department employees boiled over into the evening's longest debate, sharply dividing voters who narrowly passed the department's budget.
Most of the articles elicited no comment. While embarkation fee expenditures generated a few questions and some confusion among voters, the discussion about sewage regulations made the last half of the three-hour meeting move like sludge.
Town moderator Deborah Medders opened the meeting at 7:35 with a tribute to deceased community members. Police Chief Ted Saulnier dedicated the meeting to the memory of Officer Frank Williams, a 19-year veteran of the Tisbury Police Department who died last week.
The first article taken up by voters under Tisbury's lottery system was article four, one of the meatiest questions, a list of capital appropriations. Voters approved a laundry list of spending items that included $165,000 for repairs to town hall, $90,000 for a new dump truck and $250,000 to place utility wiring underground on Union Street, a measure that will also require a Proposition 2.5 override vote at the town election.
About a half hour into the meeting, several firefighters left to respond to a fire in a greenhouse a short distance away on William Street. They returned a short time later to witness sparks of a different sort, generated by discussion of Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel's proposed amendment to reduce the water department's FY 2007 budget by $42,216.
Mr. Israel specifically targeted the wages and benefits for Deacon Perrotta, water superintendent, and Lois Norton, water systems administrator. He questioned the validity and generous terms contained in five-year contracts negotiated with Mr. Perrota and Ms. Norton, who jointly manage the water supplies of both Tisbury and Oak Bluffs.
Mr. Israel insisted the salaries are supposed to be appropriated at town meeting each year, a process that does not allow for a five-year contract.
He also said that their contracts, negotiated by the two towns' water commissioners without the Tisbury selectmen's oversight, do not reflect equitable salaries and benefits compared to those of other town employees.
David Schwab, water commission chairman, urged voters to leave the department's FY 2007 budget as is. "If you decide to approve this amendment, it puts us in an odd position with Oak Bluffs. Everyone has agreed to fund their half. I don't know if Oak Bluffs might want to pull out of this arrangement," he said.
Cautioning voters about the possible fallout from a lawsuit, Mr. Schwab advised, "If we go this route, we go down the road of litigation. Take the route of waiting a year."
With a voice vote on the amendment too close to call, Ms. Medders took a head count. It was defeated, 76 to 61.
Don Amaral, a member of Tisbury's finance and advisory committee (FinCom), commented afterwards, "While I sympathize with the selectmen and the water board, I don't sympathize with the method by which this was done. It should have been discussed between the selectmen and the water department before it was brought to town meeting."
Article 18, which addressed embarkation fee expenditures through a formula-based plan approved last week at a special town meeting, also inspired some questions from voters. The plan specifies percentages and dollar amounts for Water Street/Union Street beautification, safety equipment/operations, infrastructure, and capital expenditures. Tisbury will receive $271,500 this year from the 50-cent per head passenger fee.
The spending plan allotted $55,000 for beautification for the Water Street and Union Street area. Peter Goodale of Goodale Construction questioned whether a portion of the beautification funds could be used to offset the costs of the project to put utility wires underground on Union Street. Town administrator John Bugbee said that would wipe out all of the beautification funds, leaving an additional $195,000 still needed to complete the Union Street project, which actually will be a one-time debt exclusion.
"I'm curious to see a plan for beautification before we okay a plan for beautification," said Clarence "Trip" Barnes, owner of Barnes Moving and Storage. Referring to the embarkation fees as a tax, he asked, "Why take this tax money that could go to the hospital or something better? We should be able to come up with a better plan to spend this money. We should be ashamed of ourselves."
No town officials pointed out that the embarkation fee derives from legislation that stipulates money must be spent to mitigate the impact of ferry service on ports.
"We're trying to get people up to Main Street to spend money," said selectman Tom Pachico, summing up the beautification issue succinctly. The article passed.
Discussions about sewage regulations and the process for allocating sewer flow amounts bogged down the meeting about halfway through. John Best, who previously served on the town's Wastewater Advisory Committee, protested the DPW's vote to change regulations allowing flow change requests to bypass town meeting.
John Thayer, DPW board chairman, assured him that the rationale behind the change was to remove politics from the process, and that requests for sewer extensions still must go before town meeting. He gave a detailed explanation about the history of the town's sewage treatment plant, the sewer flow board, and the regulations, which voters applauded.
At 10:31 pm, with two articles left to go, Ms. Medders asked voters if they wanted to continue and several shouted, "Go! Go!" The meeting adjourned three minutes later.