Tisbury Voters Agree to Spend, but Argue Long on Sewer Plan


After breezing through a 40-minute special town meeting last week, voters in Tisbury had little problem approving all 21 articles at the annual town meeting Tuesday night, saying yes to everything from $600,000 in capital expenditures to a $17.5 million operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

And while voters also supported a town-sponsored plan to allocate $271,500 in embarkation fee money, the evening was not entirely without debate.

An exchange regarding the salaries for the two supervisors of the Tisbury Water Works and Oak Bluffs Water District systems turned contentious, as did discussion of an amendment to sewer flow regulations. The water works contracts have been in the spotlight since early March, when the Tisbury selectmen challenged the legality of the multi-year contracts and raised concerns about the high-priced compensation packages.

Together the debates accounted for most of the night's discussion.

One hundred and fifty-three voters - 5.6 per cent of the 2,709 registered voters in Tisbury - turned out for the annual town meeting, held in the Tisbury School gymnasium. Moderator Deborah Medders opened the meeting at 7:35 p.m. It lasted just under three hours.

Police chief Theodore (Ted) Saulnier dedicated the evening to Frank Williams, the Tisbury police officer who died last week; he praised Mr. Williams for his dedication and professionalism before observing a moment of silence.

Like last Tuesday, voters flew through the first half of the warrant.

The first 13 articles, including 11 capital appropriations, were approved within an hour - most unanimously and without discussion. The only two that garnered public comment were also the two most expensive: a request for $250,000 to bury all utility wires on Union street and a $165,000 request to begin renovations and repairs to the town hall, which also houses the historic Katharine Cornell Theatre.

Voters then rolled through a dozen articles, approving requests that included $200,000 for refuse and recycling operations, $27,639 for the town's share of operating the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority and $5,000 to lease a new motorcycle for the police department. They also agreed to take no action on an article sponsored by the school committee to grant an easement to the Manter Trust over town-owned land. A similar article was rejected in November.

Momentum slowed, however, when discussion turned to allocation of the $271,500 in embarkation fee revenue. The fee is a 50-cent surcharge that is tacked onto the price of each one-way passenger ticket on ferries that ply the routes between the Cape and Islands. Town administrator John Bugbee explained the proposed spending, which was divided into four areas of concern: 20 per cent for Steamship Authority terminal area beautification, 25 per cent for safety equipment and operations, 20 per cent for infrastructure and 35 per cent for capital expenditures. Several people spoke apprehensively about the requests, including Clarence (Tripp) Barnes 3rd, who wanted to see the town's plan for beautifying the area around the terminal before approving the funding. At one point he referred to the $55,000 earmarked for beautification as a slush fund.

But selectman Thomas Pachico argued the money was a necessity to clean up the Water street area, which he described as a mess. After bringing it to a vote, the article passed unanimously.

Moving on to the operating budget, voters approved an amended budget of $17.5 million - but not before selectman Tristan Israel sparked a lengthy debate by trying to change the water department budget.

Mr. Israel proposed reducing the wages and benefits for water superintendent Deacon Perrotta and water systems administrator Lois Norton. He proposed cutting the water department salaries and expense line items by a total of $41,216 - a figure he admitted was an estimate but was intended to reflect the discrepancy between their contracts and those of comparable town employees.

Mr. Perrotta and Ms. Norton work for both Tisbury and Oak Bluffs and are paid jointly by both towns. Under the terms of the contracts, which were signed by both towns' water commissioners, Mr. Perrotta and Ms. Norton each are being paid $100,000 annually. The current salaries are being paid under five-year contracts negotiated last April by the two commissions with the two employees. The contracts took effect July 1.

"This is not something I relish doing, but I feel like I would be remiss if I didn't say something," Mr. Israel said, introducing his amendment. "This is not about personnel, it is about money, and it is the amount of salaries and benefits that I found disturbing."

Water commissioner David Schwab defended the commission's approval of the contract, arguing that Ms. Norton and Mr. Perrotta essentially work two jobs each and that the contracts were designed to reflect that. He also added that by agreeing to these contracts, the towns are actually saving an estimated $374,000 over the five-year life of the contract.

"We know what they do and the work they get done," Mr. Schwab said. "We see a lot of value there."

After several rounds of debate, in which Mr. Schwab broached the possibility of a prolonged legal battle reminiscent of the one between the Dukes County Commission and the Martha's Vineyard Airport Commission, voters defeated Mr. Israel's amendment in a 76-61 standing vote.

An article to change the sewer flow allocation table sparked some debate between John Best and John Thayer, chairman of the public works board of commissioners. More than anything, however, the lengthy discussion served to cloud the issue - and in the end a somewhat confused crowd voted in favor of the article.

The last two articles took less than five minutes to be approved unanimously, and the meeting was adjourned.