West Tisbury voters look at tough choices
West Tisbury voters will tackle several contentious and long-running issues when they gather Tuesday for annual town meeting. The Up-Island Regional School District, the school budget, and new town hall plans are among the challenges on the 45-article warrant.
West Tisbury voters will also be asked to approve a 2008 fiscal year town operating budget of $12,778,107, an increase of $577,788, or 4.5 percent over the current fiscal year that ends on June 30. The actual tax levy increase will be 3.5 percent, town accountant Bruce Stone said this week.
The total recommended tax levy is $11,218,000, which is almost $300,000 below the allowable levy limit, Mr. Stone said. A warrant article proposes that the town appropriate $200,000 from free cash to reduce that tax levy.
The town finance committee (FinCom) has recommended that the town withdraw from the Up-Island Regional School District and not increase next year's district budget. It is also recommending a lower cost of living increase for town employees than was proposed by the personnel board.
These articles, along with a proposal to renovate the town hall, are likely to be most debated topics at next Tuesday's annual town meeting, several town officials agreed. The town meeting will begin at 7 pm at the West Tisbury Elementary School.
The space needs committee's proposal to renovate town hall and to establish a building committee with an appropriation of $150,000 to begin that process also could result in a long discussion, selectmen Glenn Hearn and Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter agreed. Mr. Manter said he favored the proposal to renovate the 150-year-old town hall building, where he went to school. Mr. Hearn did not commit on the issue.
A third hot topic Tuesday, Mr. Hearn said, could be the FinCom's recommendation not to increase town employees' cost of living adjustment by 3.8 percent. The FinCom is recommending a 3 percent increase.
If the voters agree with the FinCom's unanimous recommendation of no increase in the school district budget, that decision will reduce the district school budget by $264,542, from a recommended $5.5 million.
The bigger issue, however, may be FinCom's unanimous recommendation to withdraw from the three-town school district. Although the topic has been debated for several years, this will be the first time in recent history that a motion to withdraw from the district will be debated and voted on at town meeting, according to FinCom chairman Al DeVito. A nonbonding question on the issue passed last year, and a vote to engage a consultant to study the financial issues related to withdrawal from the district was approved in 2004, he said.
Mr. DiVito said Monday he couldn't be sure how the town will vote on the school district withdrawal. "There are clearly people who support us and people who don't," he said. "I'm hopeful the town will see that we're right.
"I think all of us have reached a stage - let's get this over with one way of other," Mr. DiVito added.
Mr. Manter supports a vote for withdrawal from the school district, saying it might send a message to the district about the town's frustration over the issue. Without saying how he stands on the district withdrawal, Mr. Hearn said, "FinCom has done a lot of research trying to get the best numbers," But, he added, "The voters don't always go along."
West Tisbury's share of the Up-Island school district's cost has increased by more than $800,000 in the past two years, the FinCom said in its comments on the town meeting warrant articles. It said the district's costs are the highest on the Vineyard and among the highest in the state. Unless the costs are lowered, the committee warned, more than 40 cents of every West Tisbury tax dollar will go to the school district.
FinCom also noted a leveling off of state support for regional school districts in recent years; however, withdrawal could also mean foregoing $422,000 in state grants. Withdrawal from the district would mean West Tisbury would not have to support the Chilmark School. If all children were housed in one school, the estimated savings would be $700,000, according to the Harkins-Kelly report.
A vote to withdraw from the district would not be final, however. A second vote would be required - no sooner than six months later - unless Chilmark and Aquinnah agree to let West Tisbury opt out of the regional agreement.
Another article pertaining to the Up-Island school district calls for a change in the district agreements on capital expenses. The amendment would require the town that owns a school to pay 80 percent of the capital costs regardless of its enrollment in that building. The remainder would be paid by the two other towns in the district, based on their share of the enrollment. Previously, the capital costs were apportioned to each member based upon the percentage of its student population in a school building.
The town hall question
The space needs committee's proposal to renovate the town hall at an estimated cost of $4.8 million to $5.4 million also could be a controversial topic, Mr. Hearn said, because the cost is so close to the previous estimate of $5.5 million that voters previously rejected.
At the town meeting, the space needs committee will propose an amendment to the current warrant article, which asks for the building committee appropriation. The amendment will recommend that the town proceed with a town hall renovation project instead of building a new town hall at an estimated cost between $4.1 million and $4.6 million.
The space needs committee has worked for the past nine months to come up with a recommendation, which resulted in a vote of six in favor and one abstention. "Now it's up to the voters," committee chairman Chuck Hodgkinson said last week.
In its final report, the committee cited the "social cost" of keeping the present town hall: keeping the historic district and town center alive, close proximity to other town services and features, adequate parking space, septic and water capacity. It also expressed concerns about further development and sprawl if a new town hall were to be built at a town owned Lambert's Cove Road and State Road parcel. The report has been mailed to all town voters.
Several town employees' salaries show increases ranging from 5.4 percent to 10.4 percent. The salaries include the personnel board's recommended cost of living adjustment of 3.8 percent.
"The town is very generous to its employees," Mr. Hearn commented. The employees get grade increases based on their job status, step increases up to their seventh year, plus annual cost of living increases. In addition, the town pays 75 percent of the employees' health insurance premiums.
Town employee benefits total $636,770 in the proposed budget, up 3.4 percent from this year.
FinCom's recommendation to limit the cost of living increase is based on a comparison with the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index for the Northeast Urban region, which was 3 percent on Dec. 31, 2006. "The committee feels that an increase of 3.8 percent is excessive," the report said.
An article that will not immediately affect the budget, but could draw some discussion is a proposal to designate nine building lots in the Stony Hill Farms development to be considered for affordable housing. The affordable housing committee has confirmed that the town owns the lots, which were acquired as a result of foreclosures, Mr. Hearn said.
Not all the lots would be used for affordable housing, but perhaps three could be developed, he said. "I hope the town is going to support the article," he added.
The 45th and final article on the town meeting warrant was brought by a local citizens' petition. It proposes a new bylaw that would not allow a person to be a member of more than one of the following boards and committees at the same time: the boards of selectmen, assessors, health, planning, and appeals, and the finance committee and Up-Island Regional School District Committee. If approved, the bylaw would go into effect after Nov. 2, 2010.