Tisbury voters face difficult budget choices
Tisbury could face a half-million dollar shortfall next year, unless spending articles on the town meeting warrant are put into proposition 2.5 overrides, warned treasurer and tax collector Tim McLean at the selectmen's meeting Tuesday night.
After giving a rundown of warrant articles for the Feb. 20 special town meeting, Selectman chairman Tristan Israel called upon Mr. McLean to provide a recap of a financial summary he made to Tisbury's Finance and Advisory Committee (FinCom) last week in what some of them dubbed a "state of Tisbury" address. Many FinCom members attended Tuesday night's meeting at the selectmen's invitation for a discussion on the town's financial status.
For fiscal year 2008, assuming everything remains as is, Mr. McLean said, the town will be right up against its levy limit, and spending $1.4 million of $1.6 million of its free cash, leaving only $200,000.
Although it is too late to change spending articles for the special town meeting, Mr. McLean said two articles proposed for the annual town meeting warrant definitely would require overrides. One is for $175,000 to purchase a new ambulance and the other for $1,650,000 for purchasing land for a proposed new emergency services facility.
Moreover, Mr. McLean reminded everyone, Tisbury is dealing with a wild card when it comes to the town's assessment for the regional school district this year. Due to changes in the allocation formula mandated by the state Department of Education (DOE), Tisbury may be scrambling to come up with an additional $223,483 for its assessment.
In January, Tisbury's FinCom began meeting weekly with town department heads to go over their budgets in detail. "We're just starting now to look at budgets, and some town departments may be surprised," warned FinCom chairman Muriel Mill. "We will have to say at town meeting we won't accept some of the articles."
The FinCom will be looking for creative ways to cut costs and whittle down spending requests, Ms. Mill said. For example, instead of buying a new ambulance, the FinCom would propose that the town buy a used one.
Mr. Israel asked whether the spending articles should all be put into overrides. Mr. McLean suggested coming up with a dollar threshold for spending articles, so that anything over the cut-off amount would require an override vote.
FinCom member Don Amaral welcomed this idea. "We're all exasperated, with our backs against the wall financially," he said. One of the plus sides of Mr. McLean's suggestion is that it would place the decision-making burden on the taxpayers by requiring them to vote on what they want, Mr. Amaral pointed out.
As Mr. McLean explained in a phone call yesterday, an override vote adds the extra expenses to the tax rate, which would save some of the free cash for next year. Overrides require separate articles and separate votes at both town meeting and on the ballot, he said. Voters can decide the merits of each one separately.
"I applaud this idea," said Tisbury fire chief John Schilling. "It gives voters a choice, to decide what they want to pay for." He suggested providing an explanation to taxpayers so they understand, for example, how much a $175,000 ambulance translates to in dollar amounts on their tax bills.
In addressing the issue of overspending, selectman Tom Pachico said the selectmen and FinCom should take a close look at free cash requests. If some town departments consistently come back to the FinCom for free cash, it is not fair to the taxpayers, he said.
"We need to tighten up," Ms. Mill agreed. Although some departments seemingly comply with a budget within the FinCom's budgetary restrictions, they may think they can make up the difference later by coming in with requests for free cash later, she said.
"We enjoy a double-A bond rating in Tisbury," Mr. Israel pointed out. "If free cash gets low, then it can affect us in a bond rating, and that costs us more when we go out to borrow. Tisbury is a solvent town, but we need to modify this trend."
Five spending articles on the February special town meeting would utilize free cash: Article 5, $100,000 for improvements to the Water Street parking lot; article 13, $25,000 for emergency repairs on the historic Water Works Spring Building; article 14, $47,500 for spraying trees on town property to protect against moths and caterpillars; article 15, $80,000 for sidewalk replacement and lighting work on Main Street; and article 16, $49,000 for underground ductwork for utilities along the Water Street parking lot and Cromwell Lane.
The selectmen voted to accept the warrant, pending approval by town counsel. Town moderator Deborah Medders set March 20 as the date to close the warrant, and reminded everyone April 24 is election day.
In town administrator John Bugbee's report, he told the selectmen he recently gave a report to the town's Community Preservation Act (CPA) Committee regarding repair funds for the town hall. However, he said he was told the CPA committee would not be putting the town hall on its list of recommended projects to be funded this year.
The CPA establishes a dedicated funding source to enable a town to create affordable housing, acquire and preserve open space, including forests, marshes, beaches, scenic areas, wildlife preserves and other conservation areas, and acquire and preserve historic buildings and sites, and further, to rehabilitate and restore such affordable housing, open space and land for recreational use.
In Tisbury, the funding source is provided by an additional property tax surcharge in the amount of three percent of taxes assessed annually on real property, matched by annual distributions made by the state from a trust fund created by the Act.
$100,000 of the assessed valuation of each taxable parcel of residential real property is exempt from the surcharge.
Although the CPA committee can contribute Tisbury's funds towards any qualifying project Island-wide, Ms. Mill told the selectmen the FinCom met with the committee and "made it clear every cent from Tisbury should be spent in Tisbury."
Mr. Israel suggested that Mr. Bugbee contact the CPA committee about sending a representative to the next selectmen's meeting to discuss the issue in more detail.
In other business, the selectmen approved a Cape Light Compact (CLC) competitive electrical supply agreement, as recommended by Tisbury's CLC representative, Peter Cabana. They also discussed working with the FinCom to come up with a more definitive process for allocating embarkation fee funds to avoid skirmishes on town meeting floor.
Next Tuesday the selectmen will hold a beer and wine licensing public hearing at 5 pm in town Hall, followed by their regular meeting.