In a town well known for emotional and sometimes acrimonious town meetings, this year's two-day annual meeting in Oak Bluffs on Tuesday and Wednesday lived up to expectations, as residents debated everything from a new baseball diamond at Veira Park to the regional high school budget.
This was the year for Oak Bluffs voters to vent their long frustration at playing host to several regional institutions that pay no taxes - including the regional high school and Martha's Vineyard Hospital.
Voters defeated a request to borrow money for the engineering and design costs of a satellite sewage treatment plant on Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road that would have served the high school, Martha's Vineyard Community Services and a planned 48,000 square-foot YMCA building.
Although wastewater officials promised the town would be repaid for close to 60 per cent of the design and engineering costs, voters were unconvinced.
Voters also approved a trimmed-down assessment of $2.6 million for the town's share of the regional high school budget. The vote amounts to a rejection of the high school budget, which under complicated state rules needed approval from all six towns this year. As a result of the vote, the high school budget now returns to the drawing board.
The assessment approved by voters was based on the so-called state wealth formula, which could save the town over $400,000 over the next fiscal year. Selectmen last month agreed to separate the school assessment from the rest of the town operating budget to give voters a clear choice.
As was the case last year, the first evening saw both the biggest turnout and most heated debates; a total of 333 voters attended Tuesday's session. The number dwindled to 145 on Wednesday night.
The town meeting got off to a rancorous start soon after moderator David Richardson banged the gavel, when residents debated a request for $350,000 for design and engineering of a package wastewater treatment facility near the regional high school.
Russell Wendt said the plan was hastily prepared and vaguely misleading, and argued the plant would discharge effluent near the school athletic fields and state forest and create pollution and odor problems.
In what would quickly became the theme of the evening, Mr. Wendt said voters should reject the regional facility because the town is already home to too many Island institutions. "The only reason they come here is that we let them stay for free," he said.
Town wastewater superintendent Joseph Alosso said the regional high school is already well beyond its maximum sewage capacity, and he argued the plant was a necessity and not a luxury. He said the cost-sharing model was the best way to save the town money, and claimed the project was the subject of a smear campaign built on falsehoods and lies. "I have never represented an article I did not feel was in the best interest of this town," Mr. Alosso said.
The vote was 151-103 in favor of the request, falling far short of a needed two-thirds majority.
Mr. Alosso later withdrew an article asking if the town should adopt sections of state law that would allow the wastewater commission to hire its own staff, borrow money and take title to the wastewater facility and discharge system.
The meeting later turned argumentative again when voters took up a request to allocate $200,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to rebuild the Little League field at Veira Park. The project includes fencing along the outfield, dugouts, a concession stand and around 50 new parking spaces.
Although the article was approved by a wide margin, initial reaction to the proposal was mixed.
Anne Margetson, who lives near the baseball park, said the town should be careful about allowing another facility to move into town that would be used by the entire Island.
"I'm all for [Little League] baseball. But I think it is a terrible to disrupt a residential area with another Island-wide facility," she said.
Abutter Gail Barmakian said the town park and recreation department ignored neighbor concerns about noise, traffic and the youth baseball diamond's impact on the neighborhood. "This is not a necessity, this is a matter of convenience for an all-Island group that seeks to take away an Oak Bluffs resource," Ms. Barmakian said.
Her remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Tim Dobel, a member of the Vineyard Baseball group, who suggested some residents were having an acute case of xenophobia.
"You can't just have a baseball diamond for Oak Bluffs kids, that's not how it works. I think we should all try to look at the larger picture," he said.
The meeting took a tranquil turn until the next hot-button topic of the night: the assessment for the regional high school.
Several town officials spoke about the recent confusion surrounding assessments, and tried to explain the issue to voters in simple terms. Voters were faced with a choice: accept the assessment presented to them by the high school, based on the traditional enrollment formula, or choose to adopt a different formula promulgated by the state and reduce the assessment by some $400,000.
In the end voters chose the latter.
"For the past 18 years, Oak Bluffs has had no choice but to accept the assessments determined by the enrolment-based regional agreement," said Peter Palches, chairman of the finance advisory board. "Since some of the other towns enjoy the privileged position of having lower taxes, a greater tax base and fewer children, the likelihood of getting a change in the regional formula has been, up until now, slight to nonexistent," he said, adding:
"Under the new law, the tables are turned - and the change is huge in Oak Bluffs."
One of the few dissenters was Vineyard Haven resident Philip Combra, who asked if he could speak on behalf of his town, which stands to lose about $220,000 under the statutory formula.
Mr. Combra met resistance even before he got to speak, because he is not a town resident.
School committee member Priscilla Sylvia argued that a vote to reduce the high school assessment would put the town $400,000 under the tax levy, which would allow the town to restore funding to line items cut from this year's elementary school budget, including money for a classroom teacher and a Spanish teacher.
"We are not looking to add new positions; we are simply looking to maintain what we already have at the school. These cuts were detrimental to our needs," Mrs. Sylvia said.
When the meeting reconvened the next evening, the only real issue left was approval of the town's $18.1 million general operating budget for the coming fiscal year.
A steady stream of parents, teachers and school officials expressed support for restoring the funding to the Oak Bluffs school budget.
Vineyard schools superintendent James H. Weiss urged voters to restore the funding.
"We should be very careful about making cuts because Oak Bluffs is the only town where school enrollment continues to grow," he said.
* Approved a request for $3.5 million that has already been borrowed to install a primary clarifier at the town wastewater treatment plant, rather than a septage component and dewatering facility.
* Approved spending $200,000 for the reconstruction of the town bulkhead near the Steamship Authority terminal. The commonwealth has given the town $1 million toward the project.
* Approved the appointment of three representatives to an Islandwide advisory group that will consider drafting guidelines and regulations for a Vineyard energy district of critical planning concern. The purpose is to foster Island energy independence by regulating consumption and promoting sources of renewable energy. The vote was 95-92, one of the closest of the two nights.