Aquinnah special approves spending for Philbin Beach and the Circle

Cash from previous fiscal year pays bills and funds capital improvements.

Aquinnah recently held a special town meeting. – File photo by Michael Cummo

An Aquinnah special town meeting was held on Nov. 29, after money held over from the previous fiscal year became available to spend. The meeting had been postponed from Nov. 15 because a quorum was not reached at the earlier date. Several of the warrant articles involved capital improvements proposed for the Philbin Beach wooden walkway and the area around Aquinnah Circle.

Adam Wilson, the town administrator for Aquinnah, explained in a phone conversation after the event that a special town meeting is called in order to discuss important monetary matters, and that this most recent one came in response to the state Department of Revenue’s (DOR) certification of the town’s “free cash,” which is money that the town has left over from the previous fiscal year.

The town reports this sum — this year it was $413,022 — to the DOR, which then examines the town’s records before giving them permission to spend the money in their current fiscal year. Mr. Wilson said that it was unusual for the certification to come this early, but that because Aquinnah is a small town, the DOR could go through its records relatively quickly.

Once a town discovers it has free cash, the town administrator explained, they can take a percentage of it and put it into stabilization funds — for example, those put aside for maintenance of buildings and grounds and those used to make contributions to employees’ retirement funds.

Mr. Wilson said that the amount of free cash fluctuates from year to year, depending on how much revenue the town raises versus how much it spends. In January 2015 a special town meeting was called when unpaid property taxes caused a budget shortfall []. During the last fiscal year the town identified several properties with taxes in arrears. Aquinnah sent notices, he said, to several property owners and informed them that their properties were being “put into tax title,” an initial step toward foreclosure and a method of collecting what the town is owed in taxes. Properties in this circumstance cannot be sold, which Mr. Wilson said prompted many Aquinnah landowners who were thinking of selling to catch up with their tax payments. He described the result as a bit of a windfall for the town finances.

An additional $55,000 was approved for work on the Philbin Beach boardwalk, and will come out of the free cash largely derived from the collection of tardy taxes. “We were way off in our estimate of the cost of the project,” Mr. Wilson said, “so we had to allocate more.” Only $30,000 had been allocated previously.

A project that prompted more discussion at the special town meeting was a request to borrow $300,000 from the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) to pay for improvements to infrastructure and buildings surrounding Aquinnah Circle. The CPC funds, Mr. Wilson explained, are derived from a surcharge on property taxes that is matched by the state as part of the Community Preservation Act (CPA). Money that is used from CPC funds is reimbursed through future CPA allocations. The board of selectmen and the CPC oversee the fund.

There was general agreement over spending money on a property near the Gay Head Lighthouse once owned by the Manning family, formerly a restaurant. There was more discussion about other buildings that were not in good condition, according to Mr. Wilson, but because the money was available from the CPC and would be reliably replenished by future CPA allocations, the $300,000 request was granted to make general improvements on the buildings and to complete specific projects such as burying utility cables.

The meeting also addressed the problem of septic systems that need to be replaced. Mr. Wilson said that in the past, it was possible to borrow money through the state to fix household sewage-disposal problems. It was an income-based application, he said, and the loans were repaid to the town to replenish the revolving fund.

“Septic systems are not a big problem in the town,” Mr. Wilson said. The problem in town, he said, is due to people “aging in place” in houses they have owned for many years. “They find that their cesspools need to be upgraded to Title V systems,” Mr. Wilson said, “and that is an expense they didn’t expect.”

Aquinnah health agent Julie Sierputowski said by phone that the topic was brought up at the special town meeting in order to get permission from town residents to investigate existing state loan programs. The programs described by Mr. Wilson are no longer in place, so the board of health will now identify new sources of funding that are available to update septic systems.

Finally, voters agreed to pass rules that require town employees to publicly post the hours they are in their offices. “Only the town treasurer and I are full-time employees,” Mr. Wilson said. Going forward, part-time Town of Aquinnah employees — including the assessor, tax collector, and the clerk — will be in their offices on a regular schedule from week to week. The office hours are now posted at the town website.