Tisbury voters cheered like they had just landed after a turbulent flight when the last warrant article came up just before the stroke of midnight last night, wrapping up three days and about ten and a half hours of annual town meeting, which began on Tuesday.
Demonstrating a frugal mood each night, voters turned down four major spending articles - including a request to purchase a $1.65 million parcel of land for a new fire station and emergency services building, the result of over two years of research and negotiations. With 121 for and 83 against, the land purchase was 15 votes short of the two-thirds majority required to pass it.
After an hour and forty-five minutes of debate late last night, voters approved a request to ask the state legislature for a beer and wine licensing home rule petition to allow the sale of beer and wine with meals in restaurants, including restaurants within inns or hotels. This would place the question of making the town wet on the town ballot in no less than a year's time.
Attendance and attention spans dwindled by the third consecutive night, as a weary quorum of voters finished up a 35-article warrant.
Voters are not quite done, however: at the annual town election on April 24, they will be asked to approve eight companion spending requests, because this year at the recommendation of the finance committee, the selectmen placed all non-emergency capital requests over $10,000 on the ballot as Proposition 2 1/12 override questions.
At the election, voters will see 14 spending requests on the ballot, but four did not gain town meeting approval and two were amended to use money from other funds rather than raising them from taxes.
In the second highest turnout in at least the last 25 years, attendance on the first night of town meeting was 332 people, according to town moderator Deborah Medders - 13 per cent of registered voters. After taking over three hours to get through the first 10 articles, chosen by lottery in Tisbury, the meeting adjourned to continue the next night at the same time. On Wednesday, attendance dropped to 249, and when those remaining around voted to adjourn at 10:20 p.m., there were still 10 articles left - including the two most contentious: the question of alcohol sales and the property purchase for an emergency service building.
After a motion at the beginning of last night's session by selectman Thomas Pachico to save those two articles for last failed, it seemed those lottery chips were stuck to the bottom of the moderator's ceramic pitcher anyway. Back to back, discussions for the two articles lasted from 8:15 to 11:45 p.m.
Planning board member Henry Stevenson began the land dialogue with a detailed projector presentation with maps, diagrams and satellite images of the town's options for relocating its fire department, and why the other options were eliminated, leaving the $1.65 million parcel at State Road and Surveyor's Lane next to the Oak Grove Cemetery the most viable site. A feasibility study in August 2005 concluded that the current fire station on Beach street near Five Corners intersection is not large enough and is in too poor condition for repair or renovation as a fire station.
"Minutes make a dramatic difference in building damage and life safety," assistant fire chief James J. Rogers said in regard to the favorable location of the proposed site. "Yeah, it's a lot of money. It's not our fault. We don't control real estate prices."
But many voters expressed concern about the total cost of the project - which some speculated would be as much as $7 million - although the town meeting article related solely to the land. Others suggested that the town look to regionalize the fire department instead. A standing vote failed to gain the two-thirds majority that is required to pass a borrowing article.
The debate about beer and wine licensing for restaurants immediately followed around 10 p.m. last night. The arguments were not new, but they were emotional: those who say that beer and wine licensing would boost restaurant revenue and keep vacationers in-town, and those who say that beer and wine sales would change the character of Tisbury. There are also those who don't see the town as dry in the first place.
"You can haul a keg into a restaurant and drink as much as you want," Lagoon Pond Road resident Sanford (Sandy) Nadelstein said. "I don't think it's going to change things at all, except make it easier for people to enjoy the town."
Town counsel David J. Doneski explained that the "bring your own" (BYOB) policy could still exist in restaurants that did not get a beer and wine license, unless town bylaws changed to prohibit BYOB. He also assured voters that the board of selectmen would not have the power to change the language of the home rule petition, which narrowly restricts the sale of beer and wine to restaurants whose seating capacity is at least 30 people, and then only with a meal and at a dining table. Many voters said they worried that a home rule petition was a "slippery slope" to bars and liquor stores.
If the legislature approves Tisbury's petition, the board of selectmen will draft more regulations to further define the law. For example, they could require that restaurant staff be trained in the serving of alcohol. The board has stated repeatedly that drafting the regulations would be a public process.
Once complete, the home rule law with all its regulations would go to a ballot vote for final approval by voters - no less than a year from now.
In the session on Tuesday, voters approved an $18.4 million operating budget for the coming fiscal year - up 4.7 per cent - after amending three department budgets on the floor, including the water department, whose salary line for two employees was cut by more than $38,000.
"These contracts are out of whack, they're wrong and we need to send a message," selectman and board chairman Tristan Israel told voters after moving to cut the water department budget by over $41,000.
Mr. Israel announced last week that after a year of meetings and negotiations with the town water commissioners, the two boards had made no progress in reconciling their differences over issues of authority and employee contracts. "I can't stress enough how hard we tried to come to some kind of agreement," Mr. Israel said.
Water commission chairman David Schwab argued to preserve the salaries as written in the budget. "It seems like we're punishing two employees," he said.
James H.K. Norton said the dispute should be resolved between the two boards. But another voter disagreed, saying that it is a matter of town money and fairness to other town employees.
In the end, voters approved the budget cuts by a voice vote.
Voters approved the regional high school budget with little discussion, but with the understanding that they may have to consider a different assessment at a special town meeting before July 1.
"I don't have any illusions," Mr. Israel said on Tuesday night. "The whole thing is insane, I just wanted everyone to know it's insane and stay tuned."
In other action at town meeting, voters approved transferring $500,000 from the unreserved fund balance to reduce property taxes. The move left $490,000 in free cash.
Hubert Knipmeyer set the tone for the meeting on Tuesday evening, paraphrasing the 19th century words of Chief Justice John Marshall that the power to tax is the power to destroy. He urged voters to consider each expenditure carefully.
On the first night, three large spending requests were voted down, including $100,000 for a William street reconstruction project, $70,000 to repair and repaint the police station and $40,000 to build a sidewalk on Franklin street.
Voters did approve borrowing $135,000 to buy and equip a new ambulance, and agreed to spend $50,000 to work on obtaining an easement for a connector road between Edgartown and State roads. Public works director Fred LaPiana assured voters that the connector road cannot be built without further approval at town meeting. "I'm not asking for approval of this project at this time," he said.
Police chief John Cashin withdrew a request for $5,000 to lease a motorcycle for his department, saying he had found another way to fund it.
Following a long presentation by fire chief John Schilling on Wednesday, voters agreed to make the chief a full-time position, along with a salary of $52,800 per year plus benefits.
Last night, Tisbury voters rejected supporting the nomination of an Island-wide district of critical planning concern to conserve energy and foster energy independence on the Island. The rejection followed an amendment to the article, which also failed, that would have changed the article to simply appoint three Tisbury people to an Islandwide committee to research the issue for the next year and come back with a recommendation at next year's annual town meeting.
A series of spending requests totaling $530,000 from the town Community Preservation Committee were approved.
But the selectmen's recommendations for spending about $97,000 collected from ferry embarkation fees drew many questions, as well as the suggestion that the selectmen appoint a committee to appropriate the money in the future.
A request to spend $21,000 from the embarkation fund on various items like external defibrillators and a computer data system was rejected by voters. Two other appropriations did win approval: $35,000 for the public works department to pave and re-stripe Water street and $41,000 for a new police cruiser, Homeland Security training and the establishment of an Islandwide containment team.
Planning board member L. Anthony Peak asked for an explanation of the term.
"I'm sorry Tony, I just made that up," Chief Cashin said. "I thought by now you'd be so tired you'd just let it pass."