South Mountain confirms leaving 401 State Road project

Town holiday party to return; West Tisbury prepares for budget season.

West Tisbury preps for budget season. — Rich Saltzberg

Correspondence shared during the West Tisbury select board meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 17, confirmed South Mountain Co.’s withdrawal from the 401 State Road affordable housing project. A Nov. 4 letter from South Mountain Co. CEO John Abrams to Island Housing Trust (IHT) CEO Philippe Jordi shared two reasons to remain withdrawn from the project, which South Mountain originally parted from in September. The November letter stated that South Mountain hoped withdrawing would “bring attention to the problems with the West Tisbury affordable housing committee,” which it claimed was successful. However, while South Mountain is excited about the project, it does not “feel that our participation is necessary.” The first reason listed was that the Rhode Island–based Union Studio Architects is interested in the project, a firm which South Mountain believes will have a “productive and successful” collaboration with IHT. The other reason was because of “changing circumstances.”

“In the nearly half a year since our RFP submission, it has become even more difficult to obtain housing for those of our employees who need it. We are committed to doing everything we can to keep these important members of our community on the Island; we will steer our resources in that direction, and in the service of other Island affordable housing initiatives we value. We can do more for affordable housing if our limited resources are not dedicated to 401 State Road,” Abrams wrote. “We think it’s an all-around win for our town and our people.”

In another matter relating to affordable housing, the board unanimously approved sending the Housing Bank warrant article to the state legislature. Originally voted in by the towns, this version will have three amendments. The first amendment restructures the town advisory boards’ membership from two housing committee members to one, with the other spot being filled by a board of assessors member. The second amendment made an “editorial change” to the language. The third amendment clarified that “grants or gifts of money or other assets” will need to follow any rules and guidelines in the Housing Bank legislation, and be subject to any restrictions placed by the donor or grant giver. 

In other business, West Tisbury is anticipating another year of strong free cash availability during fiscal year 2024. “For the second year in a row, we will have $1.2 million of free cash, which is about twice what we normally used to get,” West Tisbury town accountant Bruce Stone said. 

Stone continued by saying free cash amounts grow because “you get revenue to the general fund above what you estimated when you sent the tax rate, or you have budget and warrant article line items that aren’t expended that get closed out at the end of the fiscal year.” There were several contributors to the large free cash amount, such as the room excise tax bringing in $206,575 above the estimated revenue, and the Up-Island Regional School District’s assessment being reduced by $83,597 due to using excess and deficiencies funds. These contributors, including unused free cash from the previous year, added up to $817,066. 

“A very strong free cash number, again, that we can work with going into the fiscal year when we consider the total budget and how it’s going to affect the tax levy,” Stone said. 

Another source of free cash funding for West Tisbury came from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the COVID-19 stimulus package, from which the town received $303,957. According to Stone, the U.S. Department of the Treasury allows municipalities that receive less than $10 million in ARPA funds can be considered “recovering lost revenue,” and can use it for “any municipal use you want, with just a couple exceptions,” such as debt services or putting it away in a pension fund. 

“I guess for the federal government, $10 million is a small, insignificant amount of money,” Stone said. Stone recommended using the ARPA funds for town projects, and to reduce “the amount we would have to raise in taxes for it.”

Other factors that may impact West Tisbury’s budget next year include the possibility of the excess levy capacity exceeding $450,000, or the 4.4 percent increase in town employees’ wages (about $176,000 added to the budget). Stone also highlighted that the enrollment numbers of West Tisbury students in the up-Island school district and high school district could affect the budget. 

The two school districts and town personnel make up around 75 percent of the West Tisbury budget. Stone said these three categories are estimated to contribute between a $650,000 to $700,000 increase to the budget, “which is a little over 3 percent.” 

A copy of the budget preview from which Stone presented information is available on the West Tisbury website

Stone was concerned about the anticipated legal budget increase request from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to the towns, and when payments for the Tri-Town Ambulance debt services will start. “But overall, the budget I’m looking at, not a huge unmanageable increase,” he said. In particular, Stone said the free cash can be used to pay off one-time items, and he expects some to be left over for next year. 

West Tisbury treasurer Kathy Logue said Stone “tends to be optimistic this time of year,” and reminded the board that “all kinds of warrant articles and surprises we didn’t think of” arrive in December and January. Board member Skipper Manter agreed with Logue.

“I think what we have to decide, probably now, is whether there’s any message we want to send as a board to the various departments,” board chair Cynthia Mitchell said. 

West Tisbury town administrator Jennifer Rand said she did not think a letter would be necessary, since the town departments “do a very, very, very good job at writing tight budgets.”

After more discussion, Mitchell suggested having any needed budgetary messages to the town departments go through Rand, Stone, or Logue, who are usually contacted for advice on the budgets, rather than “putting it in bold letters.” Town officials agreed with this idea. 

Meanwhile, the select board unanimously accepted Omar Johnson’s resignation from the West Tisbury task force against discrimination. The board unanimously appointed Ted Jochsberger and Arielle Faria to the task force. The board also voted 2-0 to appoint Manter to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee. Manter abstained from voting. 

West Tisbury will be holding its town holiday party at the Agricultural Hall on Thursday, Dec. 8, from 5 to 7 pm. Rand told The Times in an email, “Everyone should bring a dish to share.” During the Wednesday meeting, West Tisbury finance committee administrative assistant Janice Haynes volunteered to organize the festivities.