Meeting in West Tisbury Marks Town Turning Point
By IAN FEIN
West Tisbury voters will gather next Wednesday night for what could mark a turning point in the rural town where landowners pay the highest average property tax bills in the region.
Voters have approved most spending requests in recent years, but two big-budget and controversial topics that highlight the 11-article special town meeting warrant are expected to generate considerable discussion: a $1.8 million cost overrun on the town hall renovation project, and a $250,000 request to cover legal bills, most of them for the ongoing tax case between town assessors and resident William W. Graham.
Town moderator F. Patrick Gregory will call the meeting to order on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the West Tisbury School.
The town finance committee will recommend that voters pay neither the town hall expenses nor the legal money. The cost of the town hall project has now spiraled to $5.5 million.
The finance committee has taken an active role recently in warning voters that the town's increased spending is not sustainable without continually raising property taxes.
The West Tisbury population increased five-fold between 1970 and 2000, making it the fastest-growing community in the commonwealth over those three decades. But the population has remained stable for the last five years, while the town's annual budget has increased more than 10 per cent a year.
According to documents from the state department of revenue, West Tisbury is the only town on the Cape and Islands with an average single-family property tax bill over $4,000.
Property taxes will likely be a topic on Wednesday night, as they were at the center of the case Mr. Graham brought against the assessors. The special town meeting will offer voters an unintended forum to express their views and ask questions about the complicated case.
Voters in one article will be asked to pay $55,000 for past due bills from the tax hearing. The bills were incurred during the previous fiscal year - prior to July 1 - and will require nine-tenths approval on town meeting floor.
A separate article, which will only require a simple majority vote for approval, requests another $200,000 to supplement the $38,000 fiscal year 2006 legal budget voters approved last spring. The bulk of the money is to pay the bills from the Graham case.
The $1.8 million town hall article has the support of building committee members, who say the money is needed to keep the $5.5 million renovation project moving forward. Bids for the project were opened late last month, and the lowest bid was well over the construction costs that had already been approved by voters.
The spending request will require a two-thirds vote for approval, and will also require a majority vote on a debt-exemption Proposition 2 1/2 override question in a special town election held the following day.
The extra money is expected to be a tough sell on town meeting floor, where only a year ago the $3.7 million town hall price tag passed with more than 90 per cent of the vote.
Building committee members have explained that the $5.5 million price tag is tied to specific bids, and if voters turn down the additional $1.8 million next week, the project will be killed and the committee will have to start again from square one.
Project manger and building committee chairman Ernest Mendenhall said yesterday that if the committee is forced to start over, the town will have in effect wasted $350,000 in architectural fees committed for the current project.
The building committee is scheduled to meet on Monday afternoon in the town hall to discuss strategy for the town meeting.
The special town meeting warrant also includes a series of smaller spending requests, including $1,800 for a past-due bill for tree service and $3,800 to regrade the Howes House and public library parking lot.
Two separate articles seek funds for the town emergency management department. The first asks for a $5,000 stipend for emergency management director Judy Sibert and a $1,000 stipend for the assistant director. If the stipend is approved by voters, the emergency management director would become one of the highest-paid volunteer positions in the town. The second request is for $3,000 to pay emergency medical technicians during a disaster. Both emergency management articles seek to use unspent funds from previous town meeting appropriations.
The ongoing debate about the fate of the Up-Island Regional School District may also resurface when voters take up a request from the finance committee for $5,000 to hire another consultant to study potential future costs if the district operates from a single site.
The additional study would serve as an appendix of sorts to the report currently under way about the cost-allocation formula of the up-Island district.
The report - a joint $25,000 effort between three member towns of the district: West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah - originally included the additional study. But the study was removed from the overall scope at the demands of Chilmark selectmen, who saw it as an attempt to justify closing the Chilmark School.
The West Tisbury finance committee, which has long argued that the town should withdraw from the district, maintains that the subsequent study would provide voters with important information.
Also on the warrant is a single article with a series of proposed zoning bylaw amendments, including one that would increase the maximum building size allowed in the mixed-business district.
The current maximum size stands at 7,000 square feet - but the town saw a project this year that included a tennis court and could not be contained within that allowance. The planning board and zoning board of appeals did not agree how they should treat the project, so they worked together to clarify the issue.
The proposed amendment would allow a 9,000-square-foot building in the mixed-business district if its use cannot be contained in 7,000 square feet, and if the larger size poses no increase in impact.
Planning board chairman Murray Frank said the amendment is important because it will specifically prohibit buildings over 9,000 square feet.
All zoning bylaw changes require a two-thirds vote for approval.
Mr. Frank said this week that considering the other controversial items on the warrant, he does not expect the bylaw changes to spark much discussion.