Updated 9:40 pm
Voters in Aquinnah approved a Proposition 2½ override Wednesday by a 72-41 margin.
Polls closed at 8 pm.
The vote was made necessary to fund the tiny Island town’s school expenses, which went up because there are more children enrolled in schools.
Incumbent selectman Gary Haley was returned to office with 93 votes. He was unopposed.
In a 65-44 vote, Gerald Green won a seat on the board of health over Elaine Vanderhoop.
Town meeting approves $5.3 million budget
More than 80 Aquinnah residents showed up at town meeting Tuesday, where they approved a measure that will allocate funds to pay a company to do assessing functions, eliminating the job of full-time assessor Angela Cywinski.
This is the latest chapter in an ongoing standoff between the board of selectmen and the board of assessors about the ethics and financial merit of eliminating the in-house paid assessor position, and having a contractor do property assessments instead.
Much debate was centered around the outsourcing, with the hopes of decreasing the total tax increase the town would have to vote on.
Aquinnah’s budget hinges on the approval of $375,000 Proposition 2½ override. In order for the override to go into effect, voters had to approve it as a ballot question at Wednesday’s town election, which was happening as The Times went to press.
Assessor Elise LeBovit spoke out against the idea of outsourcing, saying it would be unwise to cut the assessors’ budget to save money if the cost is roughly equal, if not more expensive than paying a full-time employee.
But Allen Rugg, chairman of the finance committee, said the savings from cutting the assessors budget would reduce the proposed Proposition 2½ override by $90,000. “The cost of assessing now is $105,000 a year, with an additional $35,000 in warrant articles,” Rugg said. “This isn’t a perfect situation, but this town needs to figure out opportunities to reduce the budget.”
Rugg said the numbers are compelling for outsourcing, when considering the cost of salary, benefits, and retirement.
He said that the override is largely driven by the education budget involved with having nine additional students enrolled in the Up-Island district school system.
“Our allocation of education expense is calculated on the basis of how many children we have in school,” Rugg said. “This isn’t because the schools went on a spending spree, it’s because we are blessed to have nine new students in the school population.”
The education budget plus the warrant articles involved with education, Rugg said, equals $339,000, while the override is $375,000. “You can see that the issue is education, and there isn’t a lot we can do about it,” he said.
Rugg said other departments had to allow for some of their budgetary items to be cut in order to decrease the overall override cost.
“The police chief requested a new vehicle to replace an old one, but he stepped up and said, ‘Maybe this isn’t the year for to do that,’ so there are a number of articles to recapture some of this money,” Rugg said.
LeBovit made a motion to take $37,000 from the stabilization fund for the assessors’ budget.
“This would mean no COLAs (cost of living adjustments),” LeBovit said.
Selectman Jim Newman responded to LeBovit’s motion, saying, “It seems like what you are trying to do is punish our employees by taking away their COLA that they have not had for two or three years. We are also going to have to amend our override.”
Newman said Aquinnah would need to hold another special and annual town meeting to cut budget items in order to regain the money put toward the assessors’ line item.
Barbara Bassett said she is concerned that some of the town employee salaries show very large increases, but the town has said it is looking to cut costs and reduce the override.
“The police chief’s salary is asking for a 12.6 percent increase, and the fire chief, because it’s a contract increase, is 33.3 percent,” Bassett said.
Rugg explained that the finance committee is not permitted to alter contractual salaries, which is why those increases are greater.
Moderator Mike Hebert told LeBovit the money would not be able to be taken from the stabilization fund, and would have to be raised and appropriated through taxes.
Town counsel Ron Rappaport said he had anticipated a motion by the assessors, but did not think they would try to take money from the stabilization fund.
“That would be out of order,” Rappaport said. “This would need to be raised and appropriated.”
LeBovit motioned to have an Australian ballot to raise and appropriate the line item regarding the assessors budget, but it was defeated by a majority vote.
She then thanked assessor Cywinski for her 12 years serving the town. “She is an asset to this Island, and helps our board understand all sides of an issue. She is fair-minded, and one of those strange geeks that enjoys numbers,” LeBovit said.
Another major issue was what to do about the two articles concerning the formation of a Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank.
Derrill Bazzy suggested Aquinnah follow the model of West Tisbury’s amendment to their warrant articles regarding the Housing Bank.
Rappaport read language from the West Tisbury town meeting to use as a substitute article for articles concerning creation and funding.
“The town will go on record saying it supports the concept of an Island-wide Housing Bank,” Rappaport said. The issue will be deferred to a committee that includes selectmen and the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, in order to develop a home rule petition. The town will then report back to town meeting and vote to send the petition to the state legislature after it is refined.
“As long as we add the word ‘strongly,’ to say that we strongly support the concept,” Bazzy added. Bazzy’s amendment was approved by voters.
Members of Plastic Free MV gave their presentation on the dangers of plastic in our environment, and with some concern from merchants at the Aquinnah Cliffs, the article creating the bylaw was passed.
Eleanor Hebert made a motion to lower the legal budget from $90,000 to $60,000, to which town administrator Jeff Madison said, “I promised that I wouldn’t say anything tonight, and I’ve done pretty well so far, but we are faced with issues that relate to a casino here in town. We feel that legal fees are necessary so that public safety is addressed. We cannot lower this legal budget to $60,000.”
Hebert’s motion was defeated by majority vote.
Wendy Swolinsky suggested going back to a volunteer fire department when the line item regarding the fire chief’s salary came up.
“For years and years we had a volunteer fire department where the chief never got a salary — maybe he got a stipend,” Swolinsky said. “It’s not like we have fires every week, I’m not saying it’s not important, but I think a 30 percent raise to the chief’s salary is exorbitant.”
Swolinsky made a motion to reduce the chief’s salary to what it was last year, at $30,000.
Hebert informed Swolinsky that the fire chief’s salary is contractual, therefore cannot legally be changed.
“You selectmen, what are you thinking, giving a 33 percent raise in one year?” Swolinsky said.
“This isn’t the place to chastise anybody,” Hebert responded.
“Yes it is,” Swolinsky shot back.
Selectman Juli Vanderhoop said Aquinnah has very few emergency services, and if anyone deserves a raise, it’s the police and fire department.
“These guys are holding the line, they are responsible for human lives,” Vanderhoop said. “We have had fires, and we have trained lieutenants who have gone into the smoke, into the darkness of a fire, and they are trained so that our volunteers are not getting hurt.”
Vanderhoop said she is proud to pay emergency responders for what they do: “These people who go into these dangerous places should be paid for their work, Wendy.”