To the Editor:
For the past 10 years, the West Tisbury finance committee has written an opinion editorial prior to the annual West Tisbury town meeting. Recommendations are the result of discussion within the finance committee, and from information we gather by attending the meetings of the capital improvements committee, the school committees, the select board, Community Preservation committee, and other boards and committees whose work impacts our town’s annual budget. Each year the discussions have become more complex as our town grows, and with that growth comes the need and desire for more services.
In 2004, our annual town budget was approximately $10,000,000. As of late February 2021, the budget for West Tisbury stands at well over $20,000,000. Our town budget is growing far faster than inflation, and at a faster rate than the town’s population. The FY2022 proposed budget will increase further, dependent on the number of warrant articles with financial elements that are approved at the annual town meeting.
In the past year, the finance committee has given special attention to the following areas:
School budgets represent the most significant impact to the overall budget. Excluding warrant articles, school budgets comprise more than $11,300,000, or 56.5 percent, of the proposed $20,000,000 budget. Additionally, nine warrant articles proposed by the school administration would, if approved, add another $525,000 to this amount.
According to information from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Up-Island School District and the Regional High School are among the most expensive school systems in the commonwealth — approximately two times the state average per pupil.
Parts of the Regional High School are more than 60 years old. Even newer systems need updating and replacement. However, after years of discussion, we are frustrated that no long-term capital plan for the high school has been presented to the towns for consideration. In the absence of any concrete proposal, we are left with costs rumored to be in the many tens of millions of dollars. We need a long-term plan for capital repairs and replacement, shared with the towns for their consideration, in order to avoid an unplanned, and potentially crippling, capital expenditure.
As a town, through the efforts of the financial management team, the capital improvements committee, and the finance committee, West Tisbury manages its annual budget and is able to anticipate and plan for future expenses. Similar planning by school administration will greatly help this effort, and allow us to prepare for future capital projects. The longer we wait, the more it will cost.
As a town, the scope and number of town services we provide continue to grow, driven by state and federal regulations, as well as the reasonable expectations of town residents. This growth of services often requires new employees. Each new employee adds a salary, but in addition will add benefits that must be paid, including medical insurance and retirement benefits. A full-time town employee, at a salary of $35,000 a year, may actually cost the town more than $60,000 per year after health and retirement benefits. These costs often continue after retirement. As a town, we need to balance the services our residents require against the total costs of staffing.
When considering the annual budget, the finance committee also looks at revenue growth. Part of our revenue projections includes fees charged for licenses and permits. Although these fees have a smaller impact than excise or property tax, they do help decrease the money the town needs to raise each year. We feel that fees charged for specific services should be examined on a regular schedule and, with consideration given to similar fees charged by other towns, adjusted appropriately.
COVID has changed the lives of everyone the past year. Many things in town are not the same, from the way we hold our meetings to anticipating costs and expenses that the pandemic has altered, and to trying to project the future. Happily, most COVID-related costs the town has borne have been covered by federal relief funds. We have worked, and will continue to work, with many of the town departments to project the needs of West Tisbury going forward.
It is you, the voters, who decide the financial direction of the town. As your elected officials, we ask you to consider our recommendations for our annual town budget. As an advisory committee, we only vote to recommend or not recommend. The final decisions whether to approve town budgets and warrant articles are, and should be, your choice to make. We ask that you weigh and consider the financial implications of these budgets and warrant articles before you vote to create new programs or add to existing programs.
West Tisbury finance committee meetings are held monthly; access information is posted on the West Tisbury town website. Presently they are held on Zoom and, once we get past COVID, will again be held at Howes House. We invite you to attend and to participate.
Greg Orcutt, chairperson
West Tisbury finance committee