West Tisbury will meet under new quorum rule
On April 11, West Tisbury voters will consider a FY07 budget only slightly larger than last year's, and 46 articles in two warrants (the regular meeting and a special town meeting called for the same evening). Ten candidates will vie for four town positions in balloting on April 13, and there are also 12 uncontested races.
The meetings will be the first under a new quorum bylaw requiring the presence of five percent of registered voters. A handful of controversial items may help to generate the required turn-out: legal budgets, purchases of a new police cruiser and a new jaws-of-life, the taking of Old Stage Road, zoning bylaw changes, and the on-going problem of what to do about town hall. Also making a buzz in town is a citizens' petition, which would limit to one the number of keyboards a person may sit on.
But the main attraction may turn out to be reports from the consultant hired to evaluate the financing of the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD). (See related story on Page 1.)
The fiscal year 2007 budget is for $12,189,319, with every dollar endorsed by the finance committee. The total is $300,000 higher than FY06, giving the appearance of a 2.6 percent increase. However, a change in the accounting for police coverage at the airport adds a phantom $150,000 to the salaries line for the police department. This sum will be offset by the addition of a nearly identical sum to the receipts portion of the balance sheet. No changes in airport security are contemplated, only in the accounting of the federal money paid to West Tisbury for it. Thus the actual total budget increase is less than 1.5 percent. This will come as a relief to taxpayers who have been close to revolt over recent increases of more than 10 percent per year.
Even if all the "raise and appropriate" warrant articles are also passed, there will be no need for a Proposition 2.5 override, and none is planned.
It is the practice in West Tisbury to page through the budget early in the meeting, giving everyone an opportunity to designate line items for discussion, debate, and possible amendment from the floor.
Voters will note, and perhaps want to debate, a dramatic increase in legal budgets for FY07, including new legal expense lines for three departments.
The assessors have never had their own legal expense line, preferring to use the general legal expenses line in the selectmen's budget. That system failed in the Graham Appellate Tax Board (ATB) case, and the FinCom and the financial management team propose that a separate line item for the assessors will better control legal expenses for that board ($30,000 in FY 07). If another big case should come up, the assessors would need to go to a town meeting for additional funds.
In case any of the pending ATB cases should come to trial in the remaining months of FY06, Article 2 in the special town meeting warrant asks that the voters transfer $15,000 from free cash to be used by the assessors for ATB cases. As an added precaution, newly appointed assessor Cynthia Mitchell last week asked the selectmen to authorize $1,000, if necessary, to cover the days between then and town meeting. Although it is unlikely that any new ATB cases will begin hearings until after the Graham case is decided by the ATB, which will probably not be before July 1, town officials are being careful. The $15,000 in the special town meeting warrant will not go away if not spent in this fiscal year, and so the total asked for the assessors is $45,000.
Legal line items for the selectmen, tax title foreclosure, and the board of appeals total $65,950 and together with the assessors' $45,000 make an increase of 60 percent more than the actual FY05 expenditures ($69,845). In each case, the department has offered a "worst-case" figure, and the full $110,950 may not all be needed. Only $37,960 was budgeted last year - but the lengthy Graham case will drive the FY06 legal costs more than $200,000.
West Tisbury's share of the school budgets is down a fraction this year. The overall operating budgets are up slightly (2.7 percent), but because West Tisbury has fewer students at the high school, that assessment is down almost $260,000. A higher proportion of West Tisbury students attend the UIRSD, and that assessment is up, but not as much as the high school assessment is down. The West Tisbury school was able to reduce operating expenses slightly.
Most other town departments were able to keep their requests level with FY06 or even decrease them, but voters will note that in addition to the items mentioned above, a few departments' requests are up. Line items for emergency management, the fire department, and veterans' benefits all will increase because of costs not previously necessary.
The town hall
Several warrant articles concern the town hall.
Article 1 on the special town meeting warrant is perhaps the last opportunity for the voters to approve a reduced version of the town's expensive plans for the renovation of the old academy building. It asks that voters transfer $36,000 from free cash to complete the estimating phase of a down-sized plan. The town hall building committee hopes that the estimate will be within the money left from the original $3.7-million appropriation. The original plan turned out to cost $5.5 million, and voters declined to spend more than their original appropriation. More than $250,000 of the $3.7 million has already been spent on architects' fees and bidding protocols.
However, a citizens' petition (Article 38 on the annual warrant) asks the town to rescind the vote of October 2004, the $3.7 million appropriation. If that article is approved, the town could still pay $36,000 from free cash to have estimating plans drawn, but there would be no money to spend on any version of the project without returning to the voters for a new appropriation.
Another citizens' petition (Article 39 on the annual warrant) would authorize the selectmen to investigate giving the present town hall building to a not-for-profit organization (such as the Preservation Trust) with the intention of leasing it back once renovation and restoration were done.
A fourth article (19 on the annual warrant) would take the town hall problem back to square one and make it part of a town-wide space-needs and feasibility study. The study would consider not only the town hall but also all other town-owned spaces and the needs of all town departments - fire, police, parks and rec, schools, and library as well as town hall offices. This ambitious project is listed in the printed warrant at $100,000, but Kathy Logue, a member of the capital improvement committee, has told The Times that a much more measured approach will be offered by the committee in an amendment from the floor. Beginning with an initial price tag of $5,000, the amended article will ask the selectmen to appoint volunteers to the committee in order to assess town needs and survey town-owned properties before any money is spent to hire a consultant.
Old Stage Road
Old Stage Road, the lane from State Road to the Local Drop-Off for trash and recyclables (formerly known as the dump) is not a town road but a right-of-way over privately owned land. Two articles on the annual warrant (26 and 27) would transform the road to a town road, thus making it eligible for state highway funds.
According to chairman of selectmen Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter, the owners of the road presently receive no benefit from it and have a certain amount of liability. No land not presently in the road layout would be taken in the eminent domain proceedings. At a public hearing two weeks ago, none of the abutters present voiced an objection to the town's taking over the road.
A third citizens' petition (article 37) might generate some lively debate. It asks the voters to enact a by-law limiting the number of elected positions in town an individual might hold. The bylaw, based on one in effect in Chilmark since 1987, would prohibit a person from sitting on more than one of the following: board of selectmen, board of assessors, board of health, the finance committee, planning board, zoning board of appeals, and the up-Island regional school committee. Presently Mr. Manter sits on three of these boards, and selectman Glenn Hearn is a candidate for assessor. The wording of the petition has generated some confusion about whether it applies to already elected officials, and the article may be amended from the floor.
The planning board proposes bylaw changes to ban signboards at the corner by Parsonage Pond (Article 34) and to increase the permitted floor area of some structures if they are of low impact to the district (Article 41).
Old hands at the West Tisbury town meeting will remember that some free cash funds (money left over from FY05 plus cherry sheet funds) are usually designated to "reduce the tax levy." That was always an easy warrant article to vote for. After all, everyone wants taxes reduced. However, the reduction has always been more symbolic than generous, only a penny or two on the tax rate. This year, Article 29 instead asks voters to transfer an approximately equal amount of free cash ($175,000) to the stabilization fund. According to town treasurer Kathy Logue, the fund is important, not only as a "rainy day" fund in case an unexpected large expense comes up (a new furnace for a town building, for example), but also to convince lenders of West Tisbury's financial stability and raise the town's bond rating, which in turn lowers the interest the town pays on loans. The $175,000 would increase the stabilization fund from 2.1 percent of the annual budget to 3.7 percent, a significant jump toward the selectmen's goal of 5 percent. The financial management team thinks that a significant gain in the stabilization fund is more important than a tiny reduction in the tax rate.