West Tisbury voters spend easily

West Tisbury voters approved a $13,179,848 operating budget with little discussion and moved quickly through all 48 warrant articles, approving 28 unanimously.

Today voters will go to the polls from noon to 8 pm at the West Tisbury Public Safety Building. There are no contested races.

A total of 210 voters, or nine percent, of West Tisbury’s 2,267 registered voters attended the meeting held at the West Tisbury School.

Town moderator F. Patrick Gregory kept the voters moving. By the end of the evening they had approved all warrant articles, at a cost of $330,000, on top of the operating budget.

The meeting began with several tributes to retiring town employees, first among them Gloria Silva, who will retire from the West Tisbury School front office after 25 years.

Police Chief Beth Toomey, who will retire after 16 years as chief of the small town department, stood at the podium along with former selectmen John Early, John Alley and Cynthia Mitchell. John Early said that the hiring of Beth Toomey was “one of the hardest decisions and one of the best decisions I made as a selectman. ”

Chief Toomey accepted a box of long-stemmed red roses. Through her tears, she said that it was “a bittersweet moment. But it is time.” Then she paused, collected herself and continued.

“Thank you for being a very brave town for picking a woman chief,” she said.

Voters also thanked selectman Diane Powers, whose term ends with this year’s elections.

Town accountant Bruce Stone primed voters for a discussion of the budget. He said, “If everything passes here tonight, the tax levy will increase by less than two percent.” Town spending has increased by only one percent over the past two years, and the town is also expected to see a 22 percent reduction in the debt service expense, Mr. Stone said.

Mr. Gregory read through the budget line items without hearing a single voter call “check,” a request for further discussion or information.

The lengthiest discussion, nearly 40 minutes, was reserved for an article to appropriate $25,000 to “fund engineering and environmental studies preparatory to dredging and preserving the Town’s historic Mill Pond.”

Voters debated how to amend the language of article so that it would meet their requirements and still qualify for Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds.

Kent Healy, custodian of the Mill Pond, and Bob Woodruff, chairman of the Mill Pond committee, said that prior to the annual town meeting the Mill Pond committee members and Mr. Healy had agreed to set aside past differences – Mr. Healy had been a committee member – and to support the article if the wording were amended to remove the word “dredging.”

Prudy Burt, conservation commission chairman, wanted to amend the language further to include references to specific ecological tests that she said should be conducted.

Town counsel Ron Rappaport warned that the changes being suggested would not meet the letter of the law for use of CPA funds, and the debaters settled on removing the word “dredging” from the article. Amid a smattering of nay votes, the article passed on a voice vote.

A request to appropriate $150,000 from CPA funds to restore the foundation of the First Congregational Church also brought impassioned debate. Repeatedly, speakers rose to say they were uncomfortable with public financing of a church project. A member of the congregation read a long list of community organizations that often use the church as a meeting place.

“I do not care how many community activities are held there, as an individual I deeply resent having to pay taxes that go to a church,” Joan Ames said. “It goes against everything this country was founded on and is a dangerous precedent.”

Rev. Cathlin Baker, church pastor, argued for the public funds, because the church is a historic landmark. “Our denomination has also been a fighter for the rightful separation of church and state,” she said, noting that 25 churches in Massachusetts have received CPA funding.

The vote brought the loudest “nays” of the evening, but yes votes prevailed.

A lengthy amendment to the personnel bylaw that changes the grade and step classification of town year-round and seasonal employees brought a few questions: how many employees are upgraded and what will that cost? Nine employees will be upgraded resulting in an increase in payroll expenses of $21,807. Will the change in job title of the “executive secretary” to “town administrator” be a change in the job that will now include more supervisory responsibilities, and will the job be posted? No, it is not a management role, it is a title change not a job change, and Jennifer Rand will continue in the post. There was one dissenting vote heard, and the article was approved.

Voters amended the wireless communication facilities bylaw passed by a vote of 204 to 1; they changed the bylaw governing the construction and operation of wind turbines by a vote of 170 to 23; and unanimously approved $16,500 for the ambulance stabilization fund and $100,000 for the fire equipment stabilization fund.

In fiscal year 2011, which begins on July 1, there will be a new well installed for Howes House and the library, a new basketball court built at the school, a feasibility study conducted for a new police station, and a new police car purchased.

The Dukes County Regional Affordable Housing Authority will receive $34,988 for administrative expenses, $62,124 has been appropriated for reconstruction of the town’s roads, $10,000 has been set aside to maintain the town’s fire hydrants, and $3,500 has been appropriated for a new printer/copier for the police department.

John Alley, former selectman, questioned the need to appropriate free cash to conduct maintenance inspections of town buildings, create a maintenance plan and contract the services of a facilities manager to implement the maintenance plan. Mr. Alley asked, “Couldn’t the building inspector do this job?”

Town treasurer Kathy Logue, who is married to town building inspector Ernie Mendenhall, said the articles rose result from concerns of both the space needs and capital Improvement committees. “We have not done enough planning for our buildings’ maintenance needs. We have not done a good enough job to maintain buildings once we build them,” she said.

Dan Cabot questioned how much time could be purchased from a facilities manager under contract for $15,000. Another voter asked how many buildings would need to be managed. Chuck Hodgkinson said, “The school has its own maintenance staff, the town hall is brand new. So all that is left is Howes House.”

One voter said bluntly, “It’s a waste of money.” However, Eric Hammarlund called it “crazy” to try to save money while neglecting the town’s buildings where millions have been invested. Instead, he argued the town should fix things up while it is the cheapest to do so. And the voters agreed, approving both articles despite some nay votes.

When article 32 was called for discussion, Dukes County Regional Housing Authority executive director David Vigneault expected to be called upon to explain the need for $104,000 in CPA funds for the rental assistance program. But Mr. Gregory simply read the article, called for a vote, and the article passed.

By 10 pm it was over. The remaining audience members broke into applause. Mr. Gregory had said he was going to try to avoid a second night and he succeeded.