Voters spurn FinCom in West Tisbury
West Tisbury voters at the annual town meeting Tuesday shunned all of the finance committee's (FinCom) recommendations to reduce the town budget. The FinCom had recommended freezing the school budget, withdrawing from the Up-Island Regional School District, and lowering the town employee cost of living adjustment.
The $12.8 million budget passed as presented by the selectmen, representing a 4.7 percent increase and a 3.5 percent tax levy increase.
The majority of the 315 voters at the meeting strongly favored the space needs committee's recommendation to renovate the town hall, rather than build a new one. In the process, they also voted to appropriate $150,000 for architectural and engineering planning fees to begin the project.
An $80,000 appropriation for a path along Old County Road prompted a lively debate, both pro and con, but eventually was approved. An amendment to change the Up-Island school region's method of apportioning capital costs among the three constituent towns was also approved.
Fifteen percent of the town's 2,062 voters turned out for the four-hour meeting at the West Tisbury Elementary School. By 11:15 pm, they had taken action on all 45 articles on the meeting warrant.
Moderator Pat Gregory, who kept the speakers on task and the discussion moving, was relieved the lengthy agenda with some major issues was completed in one night. "I was very pleased with the tenor of the discussion," he said. "As always, democracy prevails."
After the meeting, FinCom chairman Al DeVito, who had proposed the controversial school issues, took the defeat in stride. "We did the best we could," he said. He said it would be the last time the FinCom would address the Up-Island district issue, except for its budget. "Apparently, there are a lot of rich people in West Tisbury," he added.
Mr. DeVito's request for a secret ballot on the Up-Island school district budget was defeated, but he continued with his arguments to reduce the $5.5 million proposed town share of the budget by nearly $265,000. "FinCom is recommending what we think is best for the town," he said. "We believe in our heart of hearts this is not good for the town as a whole."
While West Tisbury's share of the district's costs have increased by more than $800,000 in the past two years, the school's population has decreased by 25 percent, to 323 students.
"To me it makes no sense to spend more money to educate fewer children," Mr. DeVito said, adding that the current per pupil cost to educate a child in the district is $21,405 and would rise to $22,000 with the new budget, making it one of the top 20 most expensive schools in the state.
"I know I'm asking you to vote against motherhood and apple pie, because basically this can't continue," Mr. DeVito concluded. "How are we going to have enough money to meet the needs? I believe this pattern will stop and has to stop."
Several school officials did not agree with Mr. DeVito, however. Dan Cabot of the regional school district committee countered, "I'm also in favor of motherhood and apple pie. I'm also in favor of the budget this year."
School superintendent James Weiss also presented arguments for the proposed budget increases. He said the school committee had already cut $109,600 from the budget, and the consequent increase was the lowest on the Island. The three percent salary increases for teachers are less than the 3.8 percent for town employees, he said.
Ed Jerome, interim principal at West Tisbury School, made arguments for keeping 18 classroom teachers and 17 teaching assistants. He said that if FinCom's budget were adopted seven teachers would have to be cut.
Resident Eric Hammarlund said he was disappointed in both FinCom and the school committee's arguments. "I don't trust either sides' numbers," he said. He said he supports the school, but would like to see "clear hard numbers, not generalities."
The amendment to lower the school budget failed on a voice vote with some resounding nay votes.
In his arguments for the town withdrawing from the Up-Island school district, Mr. DeVito cited decreasing enrollments in both the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools, as well as consultants' projected savings of $768,000 to $1 million a year if the Chilmark school were closed. He said the dream of improved efficiency through the regional system has not been realized. "We don't believe moving out will lower the quality of education," he said.
Mr. Cabot again countered that withdrawing from the district would have a tremendous effect on the district with extra legal and other costs. "The whole thing is a rat's nest," he said.
Mr. Weiss said the conflicting consultants' reports don't deal with all the issues of withdrawal. "The only thing we know for sure is the town will lose a portion of the $250,000 in state transportation aid," he said. The majority of speakers opposed withdrawing from the district.
Veteran West Tisbury teacher Fran Finnegan said she was initially against the regional system, but now favors staying in it, noting the school population won't change significantly.
Linda Sibley, a resident and member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, said withdrawing from the district would do substantial harm to the town's relationship with Chilmark. "It would be a terrible slap in the face," she said.
Selectman Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter favored withdrawal, saying, "Things have changed, and the cost to the West Tisbury taxpayer has increased substantially." He said he believes some changes could be made in the district during the next six months before a second required vote on the issue.
Town treasurer Katherine Logue summed up the majority opinion succinctly and drew a collective laugh, saying, "Like our federal government, we have no exit strategy." The FinCom's motion failed on a fairly close voice vote.
The FinCom's proposal to decrease the requested town employees' cost of living adjustment from 3.8 percent to three percent failed to garner any support. Norman Perry, personnel board chairman, said adjustments were based on an average of all the Island towns. "We feel it's fair and reflects the performance," he said. That motion was also defeated.
The space needs committee's recommendations for the town hall came late in the evening, but still prompted passionate remarks on both sides.
Committee chairman Chuck Hodgkinson proposed an amendment to the original warrant article that asked for a building committee and funds to support it. The amendment called for developing plans to renovate the town hall at an estimated capped cost of $4.9 million to $5.2 million. The higher figure would include maximizing the building's energy efficiency.
The cost of a new town hall on town property at Lambert's Cove and State roads was estimated at $3.8 million. Mr. Hodgkinson focused on small differences in costs between the two options, noting that use of Conservation Preservation Act funds for the old town hall would lower the town's debt service.
Then he added a personal comment, saying that six generations of West Tisbury residents have used the town hall, "and it would be wrong to take it away from the next six generations."
Sharon Estrella, as the only FinCom member not in favor of the town hall recommendation, said she believed the committee went beyond its original purpose by coming up with one option that should have been the purview of the building committee. She also said she wanted more solid proof of what was being voted on. "We're voting blind here. There are no drawings, no prints," she said. "I want to see what we're going to get."
Mr. Hodgkinson said the committee was asked to make a recommendation and the building committee's purpose is to work out the details. He said the difference between this and a previous rejected proposal for town hall is, "we're giving a budget. You know what it's going to cost."
Les Cutler, the abstainer on the space needs committee's recommendation, called the estimated $750 to $850 per square-foot cost of the renovation "extremely expensive." He also said he didn't believe the 6,000-square-foot option would be enough for the renovated town hall. He favored selling the town hall for $1 million and using the profit to pay for a future police station.
Selectmen John Early and Glenn Hearn presented strong comments supporting the proposal. Mr. Early, who had been honored earlier in the evening with a standing ovation for his 30 years on the board, noted how the town hall issue had been in the works for a dozen years. He commended the committee for being "focused, effective and on schedule."
Mr. Early said that a recommendation by the committee was needed and that, as a contractor, he was not surprised by the construction costs on Martha's Vineyard. "I'm concerned not only about the cost, but about the people who work in this building," he said. "We've got to get going. If we stay with the cap, I think we can do it."
Mr. Hearn noted the historical significance of the 150-year-old building as the centerpiece of West Tisbury. The voters approved the town hall renovation amendment as well as the original building committee proposal with resounding voice votes.
The path committee's request for $80,000 for a future path along the east side of Old County Road brought committee chairman Bill Haynes to the microphone several times to explain the project. He said the $80,000 would cover half the total cost of the 4,200-foot long, four-foot wide paved path from the junction of State and Old County roads to Hopps Road. The committee would ask for the rest of the money next year.
When one resident questioned why a path would be put in that area, Mr. Haynes said there are hundreds of houses in the area, and the path would allow children to walk to the school and could be used for baby strollers, roller skaters, and bikers.
One voter outlined several reasons why she opposed any more paved paths in town, saying they were destroying trees and the town's rural character. Ebba Hierta said she could not support the walking path in that location because an actual bike path was needed more.
She and others asked the committee to prepare more detailed plans for the paths projects to residents before they are asked to vote on them. Despite the objections, the article passed easily.
Another article that passed with no objections was the appointment of three representatives to an all-Island advisory group that would consider an Island-wide energy District of Critical Planning Concern.
An article brought by a citizens' petition to create a bylaw that would not allow a person to be a member of more than one of certain town boards was defeated with little discussion.
All other articles on the warrant passed easily.