Trading democratic squabbles for efficiency, Edgartown voters marched resolutely through a 52-article annual town meeting warrant in just over two hours on Tuesday night, stopping briefly along the way to debate the merits of renovations to the free public library and adding a finance director to the town employee roster.
Voters said yes to the library improvements and no to the finance director.
Held in the Old Whaling Church, the meeting saw a turnout of 247 voters (the quorum requirement is 155). Moderator Philip J. Norton Jr. presided with a sure hand and characteristic self-deprecating humor.
Which began at the outset during discussion about the finance director.
Pia Webster, a voter and town employee who works for the water department, shined a light on the item that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. But there it was, buried in the wage classification scale, a new position of town finance director. Mrs. Webster pointed out that although the position had no money attached to it, it was set at grade 14 — a pay scale of some $42 an hour. “At 40 hours a week this is the equivalent of $86,000 a year. And the last time I checked with the personnel board there was no job description,” Mrs. Webster said. “That looks like an earmark to me. The town is creating a new position in a year when it cannot afford to give a pay increase to its workers, many of whom are spending their vacations working a second job to make up the difference.” She continued:
“Creating a position with no money attached is to me like hanging out with Ben and Jerry — if it’s in my freezer it is going to get eaten. I thought we were supposed to be getting slimmed down, tightening our belts . . .”
At this point Mr. Norton the respected moderator, a tall man with boyish good looks whose girth has expanded somewhat with age, interrupted. “I wish you’d stop talking about that,” he deadpanned.
As laughter subsided, Mrs. Webster returned to the point at hand. She noted that Edgartown may well be following in the footsteps of Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven, which have created positions for finance director in recent years, but she said that was not reason enough. “I like to think that in Edgartown we can think for ourselves. I don’t think this is the year to do this — and in any case this isn’t the way to do it,” she said.
Town administrator Pamela Dolby took up the defense. She said her own job has grown increasingly complex with an array of financial reporting requirements that fall somewhere between the duties of town administrator and those of the town accountant. “I don’t have time to do it all,” Mrs. Dolby said. She underscored that the position would be part-time, and that it may be possible to cobble together unused and odd accounts to fund the position. In short, she called it a small start. “We are in the baby stage, if you will, of trying to work this out,” Mrs. Dolby said. “It’s a brand new thing, we don’t know exactly where this is going,” she added.
Voters were unconvinced and decided to eliminate the new position. “We’ll go back to work,” Mrs. Dolby assured the meeting.
In other business a $25.9 million operating budget was approved for the fiscal year that begins July 1, with only minor revisions. The budget includes no cost of living increases for town employees this year, although there will be step increases.
In opening remarks, selectman and board chairman Arthur Smadbeck said if all the articles were approved, the town would be left with about $400,000 in free cash and come in about $125,000 under the levy limit imposed by Proposition 2 1/2, the state tax cap. Noting the economic climate, Mr. Smadbeck said:
“This cushion is particularly important now because of the uncertainty about state monies that we will receive.”
Voters appeared to take it all in stride, moving through the remainder of the warrant in nearly complete accord, guided by Mr. Norton who punctuated the meeting with bits of dry humor.
Voters agreed to participate in setting up a county-wide trust fund which will be used to pay for future pensions and benefits for retiring government employees. A similar article appears on other town warrants this year.
Three more ancient ways were added to the town Special Ways district of critical planning concern.
Voters agreed to spend $5,000 to improve cell phone service on Chappaquiddick and at Katama, $30,000 for town membership in the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, $45,000 to recertify property valuations, $15,000 to repair the dock at North Wharf, $25,000 to rent and care for portable toilets at South Beach, $180,000 to repave streets and sidewalks, $108,000 to repay the regional refuse district for capping the old town landfill, $11,198 for the town’s share of the county rat control program, and $19,167 for the town’s share of the county health care access program.
They also agreed to spend more than $500,000 from Community Preservation Act funds for a list of projects, including:
• Design work to convert the cafeteria at the old town grammar school into a community theatre (after some confused discussion and a language amendment);
• Rental conversion and second mortgage programs for affordable housing;
• Historic building renovations at the town hall, St. Andrew’s Church and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s Cooke House.
• Improvements at Memorial Park and the horse barn at Katama Farm.
But the smooth run snagged on a request for $195,000 in Community Preservation Act money for restoration work at the town library, a historic Carnegie building. Aided by a friends group that is raising private money, town library trustees are working on a capital campaign to renovate and expand the library. The roughly $11 million project has been approved for a $4.6 million state grant, but only if matching funds can be raised by the end of this year, an increasingly dubious prospect in the economic downturn.
The $195,000 is for rebuilding bookcases, wood flooring, trim and window work. The town community preservation committee approved the money, but the finance committee balked, voting 4-2 not to recommend the expenditure.
On Tuesday night both sides had their say.
“The finance committee did not come to this decision lightly,” said committee member Laurence A. Mercier. Reading from a town feasibility study, Mr. Mercier said the architectural structure of an old brick building is such that if renovation work is done now, and the building is later moved, as planned, the integrity of the renovation work may be compromised. He also noted that the library trustees had told a previous town meeting that they would not be returning to taxpayers to ask for more money.
Pat Rose, chairman of the library trustees, said the renovation work is needed now, and has the backing of the Community Preservation Committee. “We think this year is the time to do it,” she said.
The discussion went on, much of it straying into the value of the town public library.
“The library is falling apart — the ceiling is coming down, there is no lighting. This is a place where children go after school while their parents are at work,” said Alison Cannon.
“I don’t think the question is whether the library is doing something good — of course it does wonderful things,” countered finance committee member Tom Durawa. “The question is whether this is the right time to do this — when everyone is trying to tighten their belt — sorry, Mr. Moderator.”
In the end the library money was approved by a voice vote.