West Tisbury voters dispensed with the business of town government in exactly three hours on Tuesday night, pecking at various spending proposals but ultimately approving every one in front of them by wide margins.
Just over 200 people streamed into the town elementary school on a rain-soaked evening. The annual gathering opened with the reading of a poem, Our Town, by Emma Young, this year’s poet laureate.
In a meeting notable for its lack of serious conflict, moderator Dan Waters called for a show of hands only when a vote demanded two-thirds approval; otherwise every warrant article sailed through on a voice vote. It was a respectful crowd; an eruption of applause when the plastic bag ban was decisively approved toward the end of the evening was one of the few outbursts of emotion.
School funding was expected to be a fractious subject after the finance committee voted not to recommend the school spending portion of the town’s $17.5 million proposed budget. Finance committee chairman Katherine Triantafillou, asked to explain the committee’s concerns, focused on what she said was the repeated failure of the up-Island and high school committees to deal with unfunded employee benefit liabilities.
“We have a growing and steady concern about these liabilities,” she said, adding that the school groups had specifically declined the finance committee’s request to use excess and deficiency funds to help pay these down.
But two members of the Up-Island school committee, Kate DeVane and chairman Michael Marcus, said the group was only reluctant to allocate the funds early in case they were needed for emergency purposes. The committee has since agreed to review these funds at the end of every year and give priority to using them to reduce the liability, Mr. Marcus added. Voters seemed to be satisfied with that answer, as the ayes dominated in a voice vote.
To highlight the importance of its role, Mr. Waters asked the finance committee to share the stage with the board of selectmen for the first time.
“These folks work very hard throughout the year. They think a lot about how to spend the town’s money,” he said. “I hope putting them on stage will encourage dialogue.”
But it was town employees who for the most part walked voters through the spending proposals and the justification for them. Voters were greeted at the door with a large graph showing that growth in West Tisbury’s tax levy over the past 10 years has lagged every other Island town and the state average.
Town accountant Bruce Stone set the table for a series of capital requests, noting that spending on infrastructure projects had been planned in advance so carefully that they had no impact on the tax levy, which he said would rise by 4.4 per cent if all warrant articles and anticipated amendments were approved.
“Everything that has been done capital-wise was according to the original plan,” he said. “All those new buildings and debt on them came on board as other debt has been retired.”
The largest capital request, for an $857,000 highway department building, was approved by a 175-13 vote. Both police chief Dan Rossi and superintendent of streets Richie Olsen described the building as a necessity, not a luxury, answering scattered concerns about the project’s cost and attention to energy conservation. Because the expenditure would put the town over its spending limit under Proposition 2 1/2, the building project was subject to a second approval by voters at Thursday’s annual election. It was the only item on the ballot.
An amendment offered by Bea Phear of the Community Preservation Committee lowered the cost of a request to renovate the West Tisbury School playground from $160,000 to $145,000 and changed the source of the funds to community preservation money earmarked for open space projects. Principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt said the school has already raised $110,000 in private donations to replace the aging “Big Toy” apparatus and expects to raise the balance needed from non-town sources. The article passed easily on voice vote.
Ironically, the smallest appropriation request caused some of the most vigorous debate of the night. The Community Preservation Committee asked the town to allocate $7,500 in community preservation funds to contract with Island Housing Trust to create an informational campaign advising homeowners how to take advantage of the town’s accessory apartment bylaw to encourage affordable housing. Voters questioned the amount of money, the use of the money and whether West Tisbury would be in effect subsidizing the education of people in other towns. An amendment to cut the funds in half failed, and voters ultimately approved the article.
The meeting adjourned just after 10 p.m.