There was a palpable pre-meeting giddiness to Edgartown voters as they filed into the Old Whaling Church to pass a $25 million budget in under three hours Tuesday evening. In this town’s recent past, the thrill of participating in the democratic process at annual town meetings has not been marred by drawn-out floor debates or consecutive nights of warrant reading.
But soon after the 237 voters settled and moderator Philip J. Norton Jr. called the meeting to order, finance committee member Fred Condon — who stood to announce a future of vanishing state funds and growing fixed costs both beyond town control — spoiled the mood.
“I, for one, don’t like negative surprises,” he said, “so I wanted to get out in front of this and maybe this will help you be more sharing with your feelings.”
Though the $25.3 million operating budget approved Tuesday night is down two per cent on last year and marks a second year of reductions, Mr. Condon predicted the emergence of an opposite trend, warning of a possible $30 million budget at the next annual town meeting.
“I’m quite concerned going forward about the budget, particularly that so little of it is under our control,” said Mr. Condon, who pointed to upcoming costs such as GASB 45 — a retirement benefit liability approved Tuesday night — and to vast areas of the budget decided without the involvement of the finance committee.
Kitt Johnson, representative of the Cape Light Compact for Edgartown, added to the gloomy prognosis in his own report.
“Expect your energy costs to go up by another 20 per cent in the coming year,” he said, prompting a collective intake of breath from voters. Mr. Johnson warned that residents need to become more efficient in their energy use. He recommended that everyone ask for an energy audit on homes from Cape Light Compact. “It can cut your energy costs by 10 per cent overnight,” he said.
Alan Gowell, a town assessor, apologized for the delay in delivering the property tax report, a delay which judging from their laughter, had not hit voters hard. He added that while figures were yet to be finalized, those with inland property could expect no significant changes, while in town house value would increase slightly and seafront property considerably. Overall he estimated a drop of around 20 cent on the fiscal year 2007 tax rate of $2.85 for every thousand dollars of property value.
If voters were deflated by Mr. Condon and Mr. Johnson’s reports they did not let it affect their spending choices on a night which drew a single no vote on a single article from an unidentified voter.
A request for $26,000 to rent two portable toilets at South Beach drew one of the only frugally-minded comments from the crowd. Voter Susan Sellers asked why Edgartown didn’t buy portable toilet facilities instead of renting. Town administrator Pamela Dolby agreed that the idea was a good one and that the town would look into it.
Robert Fynbo, a first time candidate for selectman, proposed an amendment to an article which introduced a bylaw formally outlawing the abuse of drugs by municipal employees, arguing that language in the bill should be clearer. Perhaps indulging in a light display of politicking, he pointedly added that he did not want a repeat of a recent shellfish committee hearing. In February the selectmen went against a shellfish committee recommendation to suspend a license, when a fisherman over his scallop quota. “We want to avoid something like this appearing in the paper again,” he said.
The amendment went to a standing vote, but was rejected 107 to 89.
Mr. Norton guided voters through the warrant’s middle section at a brisk pace, accompanied only by the click of knitting needles worked by several multi-tasking voters, the occasional cell phone ring, and steady chants of “aye.”
The next significant discussion addressed continued funding for the town dredge program. Several members of the dredge and finance committees spoke on the issue. The finance committee was split on the main article, which called for $221,000 to fund the program in the coming year and which was given Proposition 2 1/2 exempt status and also appeared on yesterday’s town election ballot.
Financial advisory committee member Malcolm Reed spoke against the dredge, arguing that it is exactly the type of program which is expendable in a period of low growth.
“This is an excellent program to take off the books,” he said, adding: “Before 1996 [when the dredge was bought] the town worked well. The thing is, once you own a dredge you have to fund work for a dredge.”
Dredge committee member Steve Ewing maintained the dredge program was fiscally responsible.
“In general terms, I can assure you we’ve got our money’s worth,” he said, adding: “The town was built around our water bodies and we have to keep them clean.”
Voters greeted Mr. Ewing’s report with a round of applause and — with one “no” vote — approved the article.
Voter concern that work — financed in 2005 — on the Dark Woods parking lot would be completed by summer was addressed in an efficient exchange between Mr. Norton and highway superintendent Stuart Fuller:
“You gonna get that lot ready?”
Voters approved a further $5,600 to cover rental and maintenance of portable toilets at the site.
Two articles were removed on town floor. A wastewater proposal for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, recently shelved by the high school committee after being put forward to towns in February, was postponed indefinitely, as was a request from the byways committee for two surveillance cameras to watch for trash dumping on ancient ways recently granted special environmental protection. Members of the Hall family, whose 87 acres of property are crossed at various points the paths, are taking legal action against the town over a bylaw classifying the paths as public property. With the final step in this process taken last week at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport, keen not to complicate the matter, advised against putting surveillance cameras out in the woods at this time.
“Let’s see if the bylaw is effective first,” he said after the meeting,
Voters approved the salary for a new full-time I.T. staff person at town hall. Adam Darack, who began full-time work in October, is putting finishing touches on a redesigned Web site, which will go live in the next few weeks. Mr. Darack has sought to give residents and visitors easier access to information. The new site will allow town departments to manage their own content. There is a last-minute competition among Island school children to design a banner for the site. The 35 year-old Massachusetts native has also reorganized purchasing practices for a range of costs from printer toner cartridges to telephone calls.
With Mr. Johnson’s forewarning of nightmare energy costs still fresh, town voters agreed to apply for membership in the Cape and Vineyard electric cooperative, which negotiates energy purchases for a cooperative of towns in Barnstable and Dukes County. Another article granted permission for selectmen to negotiate Edgartown’s terms of membership in the group.
The town library was granted a further $22,000 to complete repairs on the North Water street building, which was damaged in a puffback incident last December when the furnace burst. The town has allocated a total $152,000 to the repairs ahead of a final agreement from Massamont insurance, who so far have paid just $75,000. Results from air quality tests are due within the next few days. The library also needs a replacement rug, a new set of computers and must make repairs to a fire alarm system damaged during the cleaning process. Library director Felicia Cheney hopes to reopen by May 1.