Aquinnah voters face $3.8 million budget, up 12 percent

The fate of the Gay Head light will loom large at annual town meeting Tuesday. — File photo by Ezra Newick

Aquinnah voters will take up a number of important financial questions when they meet for annual town meeting on Tuesday, May 14. The warrant includes a $3,760,863 operating budget for fiscal year 2014 — 12 percent more than the current year — and a $230,000 budget override to fund school costs.

Voters will first take action on an 11-article special town meeting warrant that begins at 6:45 pm at the old town hall, and then will turn to a 30-article warrant at the annual town meeting to follow.

Town administrator Adam Wilson said the budget increase is largely driven by a sharp increase in the town’s assessment for the Up-Island School district, which includes the towns of Aquinnah, West Tisbury, and Chilmark.

“There are other factors driving the budget up, but clearly the Up-Island School district assessment is the main reason for the 12 percent increase,” he said. “Our assessment is up a quarter of a million dollars. That’s a lot for us.”

The larger assessment is tied to an increase in the number of Aquinnah students at the Chilmark School and the West Tisbury School, the two elementary schools in the district.

There are now 10 Aquinnah students at the Chilmark School and 20 at the West Tisbury School.

The assessment for the Up-Island School district went from $739,637 last year to $995,500 for fiscal year 2014, an increase of $255,863 or 35 percent. The assessment for the high school is up from $176,253 to $194,943 next year.

Because of the sharp increase in the Up-Island School district assessment, voters will consider a $230,000 override of Proposition 2.5, the state law limiting the annual increase to a community’s tax levy to 2.5 percent.

Voters last year approved a general override of $175,000. This year override specifically authorizes an increase in the town’s tax levy to cover the increase in the assessment.

Voters must also approve the override at the annual town election on Wednesday, May 15. Polls will be open from noon to 7 pm.

Mr. Wilson said other factors are driving the increase in the budget to a lesser extent. For example, voters will consider a cost of living increase of 2.5 percent for town employees, following a cost of living increase of three percent approved by voters last year.

“Last year was the first time in five years town employees received any kind of raise,” he said. “This year we took a look at the [cost of living adjustment] being given by other towns and came up with this average.”

The budget for legal counsel will also increase from $60,000 to $100,000 for fiscal year 2014. An article at the special town meeting asks voters to approve an additional $14,000 to pay legal bills for the current fiscal year.

Mr. Wilson said the town’s legal expenses have steadily increased the past few years. “We have to increase our legal line item each year, two years ago it was $30,000 and this year its $60,000 and that’s not nearly enough,” he said.

Mr. Wilson said the increase in legal bills is tied to several ongoing legal cases, including one involving a property off Moshup Trail. “I don’t expect the trend to reverse… Legal expenses will likely continue to increase,” he said.

Spending questions

All of the articles on the special town meeting warrant are financial questions that will transfer money between line items, take from free cash, or appropriate funding during the current fiscal year that ends on June 30.

By state law voters can only approve financial changes to the town budget during the current fiscal year at a special town meeting, while voters can only decide the budget for the next fiscal year at their annual town meeting.

The articles include a request to appropriate $10,000 from free cash to “purchase necessary public relations materials” to be used to begin a fundraising campaign to rehabilitate and relocate the Gay Head Lighthouse.

The lighthouse currently sits 50 feet from the edge of a cliff that is receding about two feet every year due to erosion. The town is now moving quickly to raise funds and attain required permits to move the historic beacon to another location.

Mr. Wilson said the $10,000 would be used as seed money to promote a fundraising campaign that will seek to rise as much as $2 million or more to relocate the lighthouse. He said time was of the essence.

“We have been told by [engineering firm] International Chimney that there is only a three-year window to put the necessary equipment around the lighthouse to be able to move it away,” Mr. Wilson said.

Annual warrant

Voters will consider a number of financial questions during the annual town meeting, including a request for $50,000 to help fund post-retirement benefits for town employees.

Additional spending requests include $39,000 for the town’s share of a new ambulance for Tri-Town Ambulance, $34,5000 to purchase and equip a new vehicle for the town police department, and $2,000 to convert the old bunk room in the town police station to a new office space for police chief Rhandi Belain.

The old bunk room, sometimes used as an overnight sleeping quarters by officers working the overnight shift, has since been moved to the second floor of the fire department headquarters.

Voters will also consider an article to appropriate $7,928 for the town’s share of the county-run Vineyard Health Care access program, and another to appropriate $1,903 for the town’s share of the county pest management program.

West Tisbury voters rejected funding the pest management program at their annual town meeting last month.

A series of articles authorizes community preservation act (CPA) funds for a wide variety of projects, including $25,000 for restoration and repairs for the Gay Head Lighthouse and $6,000 for site development and access to a proposed new playground at the town center.

There are also a series of articles asking voters to make changes to the town’s personal by-laws, as recommended by the newly constituted personnel committee.

The committee was created around six years ago but hit some turbulence a few years ago after several members quit in protest after disagreements with selectmen.

Mr. Wilson said the board has new members and has been hard at work the last year.

One proposed change would amend the bylaws to allow a fill-time, non-salaried employee to exceed their normal number of work hours in exchange for taking equivalent compensatory time off.

Marijuana question

Finally, voters will consider an article enacting a new bylaw to prohibit anyone from publically consuming marijuana in public that would include any street, sidewalk, public way, bridge, park, playground, school, or cemetery.

The article states the new bylaw may be enforced through a criminal indictment or by a non-criminal disposition that could result in a fine of $300 for each offense.

Mr. Wilson said town officials had previously considered an amendment to the zoning bylaws to establish a one-year moratorium on Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers (MTCCs) in town.

Officials considered the amendment after voters approved a ballot question last year to allow cannabis use for medical purposes in the state and for medical marijuana to be legally sold at MTCCs.

Mr. Wilson said officials held a public hearing on the amendment where there was a general consensus that an MMTC was not economically viable in town, and therefore the amendment was unnecessary.

“Aquinnah does not have any commercial zones,” he said. “You would have do it as home business. I think everyone agreed that there wouldn’t be a lot of demand for one of these [MMTC] in town.”