Budget season has begun on the Vineyard. This is the time of year when the West Tisbury finance committee begins meeting with town departments and regional agencies to review their budgets, so that we can make informed recommendations to the voters of West Tisbury.
Actions at the town's last annual meeting(s) have led the finance committee to question which fiscal policies the town's voters wish to pursue. It seems that any request for increased spending is approved at town meeting. Yet, when we meet taxpayers at the Post Office or the store, they complain about high taxes. Clearly, there is a disconnect here.
Budgets continue to grow rapidly
The finance committee is very concerned with the growth in the town budget. Since 2003, the budget has grown 42 percent, much higher than the rate of inflation. If we continue this rate of growth, in five years the budget will be around $18,000,000, or $7,200 per man, woman and child in town. Do the voters wish to continue the current budget growth of seven to eight percent a year? Or, do they wish to exercise greater fiscal control?
School costs rise while school population decreases
The school budgets are essentially out of our control, especially now that only two-thirds of the towns need approve them. Also, the town meeting has shown no inclination to question or disapprove school budgets. It is highly unlikely that we will see any moderation in our largest budget item.
Town has less financial flexibility
If we continue on the same path as we have gone down these past few years, we will continue to spend 60 percent of our budget on educating our young people, 20 percent on paying town employees and six percent servicing our debt. Thus, 86 percent of the budget is largely prescribed for us. We really have only 14 percent of the total budget available for controlling expenditures, and that is not enough. We also know that, unless the recommendations of the Space Needs Committee are followed, debt service will likely increase with the renovations to town hall, a new police station, a library addition and other capital projects waiting in the wings for approval in the coming years. So, it is very likely - should we continue to increase our spending at our current rate - that there will be even less flexibility in future years, and as a consequence very little the finance committee can do to control spending.
Will we make the hard choices?
As a town, we do have choices. We can accept that the budget juggernaut is out of our control, and let it continue to grow as it has, and increase our tax burden. Or, we can begin to explore other ways of delivering town services so as to realize cost efficiencies.
A step in the right direction
We have long felt that on certain controversial issues - especially financial issues - some voters are reluctant to vote their true feelings. Therefore, we applaud the selectmen's submission of a warrant article at the April 2008 town meeting that will give all voters the opportunity to register their opinion in complete confidence; this article proposes a bylaw which enables a written ballot to be used for a particular town meeting article, should 20 or more voters request it.
All of these issues will be debated and voted on town meeting floor. The input of every West Tisbury voter is needed both at town meeting and throughout the year. The committee urges our town leaders and citizens to initiate a coherent policy of setting goals for our town's future, prioritizing them, developing a strategy and process for achieving the goals and a mechanism for measuring success.
Finally, we ask the taxpayers of West Tisbury to let us know whether they wish to continue the budget growth of recent years. Our regular meetings are on the second Tuesday at 4:30, in the Public Safety Building. During budget season, we meet far more often. Check the town website. We welcome your participation, and we urge you to come to town meeting and make your voice heard.
Al DeVito is chairman of the West Tisbury finance committee. He is writing for its members, who include Richard Knabel, the vice chairman, Brian Athearn, Sharon Estrella, and Ann Nelson