Tisbury Town Meeting

By COLE LOUISON

Affordable housing, Island health care, and the cost of education were a few of the hot spots Tisbury voters endured at their annual town meeting Tuesday evening.

Citizens plowed through 18 articles and four hours of discussion inside the Tisbury School gymnasium in a meeting which began at 7:30 and at continued past 11 p.m., when the floor voted down the option to take a recess.

Aside from the three articles, which took a major chunk of the available discussion time, voters approved proposals to create a new lieutenant position in the police department as well as a new position of assistant health agent/food inspector in the health department. They voted down a proposal that ended Tisbury's membership in the Cape Light Compact.

The meeting began with an hour of fiery dialog over the Community Preservation Act (CPA), which voters eventually turned down. The CPA would have established a fund for acquiring and protecting open spaces, historic districts, and affordable housing. Funding would come from a property tax surcharge of two percent, with a state match of 75 per cent.

Opponents of the article argued that both the town and Island were already equipped with organizations and sanctions designed to aid the causes outlined in the CPA. If passed, this meant more unneeded taxes, critics said.

"This is a very costly proposal, which may or may not provide any of the expected benefits," said George Balco, chairman of the finance committee, which did not recommend passage of the article. "Tisbury is already making progress on affordable housing and will continue to do so without burdening taxpayers."

Selectman Tristan Israel proposed an amendment to the article that would lower the surcharge to one percent, but was voted down.

"I would like to see us do this but I don't think we need to go the whole enchilada," he said. "I like the intent of this article. I would like to see the town move forward with this, but two per cent is just too high."

Supporters of the proposal felt that problems like affordable housing needed all of the attention and funding possible, and argued that the surcharge for the average home owner was minimal.

"I've got four kids at home, and I can come up with $80 a year," said selectman Tom Pachico. "It's a way that we can get moving. The town can develop affordable housing properties without putting the burden on tax payers."

Town resident Jean Hay said the affordable housing crisis was costing the town its character, and that the present organizations were not enough to slow the problems that were driving residents out of Tisbury.

"What drew me here 20 years ago was that this was a mixed community," she said. "I don't think it's going to stay that way.

"We may have the land, but we don't have the funds," she continued. "I would like to see us as a community say ‘yes' to the kind of community we have now."

A voice vote rejected the article, and the floor hardly had time to cool before Deborah Medders randomly selected another article that has been a lingering source of controversy in town.

The article gives the school committee the go-ahead to use a surplus $750,000 to purchase materials and services for the current year, and has already reached the needed approval from four Vineyard towns. Although it will go into effect, Tisbury voters endured a long dialogue with a final symbolic decision to vote the proposal down.

The hefty nest egg comes from the state's Chapter 70 fund, which distributes money to schools based on projected budgets. Because the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School projected spending was less than actual spending, the school found itself with a surplus, and needed permission to spend the surplus money. Without permission from the towns, funds that are not spent during the school year go into an excess and efficiency fund that works to decrease the budgets of all Island towns. The school would get five percent of the original sum.

"They want to spend $750,000 before they have to give it back to you in July," said Mr. Pachico, kicking off the discussion.

"This is a reimbursement of the money you have already paid," he said. "I think this needs a little more thought and needs to be a lot more honest."

Ralph Friedman, the school committee's chair, led the argument supporting the article, and explained that expenses covered until the end of June were both beneficial to future students and badly needed at present.

"This money was designated by the legislature to help fund educational purposes for the regional high school," he said, pointing out that the proposal has been approved by four other towns.

"The high school is a growing school. We have a great influx of students. It's overcrowded and this money is being used for textbooks and for adding spaces."

School superintendent Kriner Cash spoke about the unavoidable high costs of education and the high taxes in Tisbury, but urged citizens to take a step back.

"This isn't a ‘we versus them' issue," he said. "We all participate in the high school and it is the greatest resource on the Island.

"It's a bigger picture here. You're saving pennies and throwing away dollars. Why are we building schools that are full the day they open? We're out of space at the high school, just six years after the renovation process."

Later in the evening, voters approved an amendment to the high school budget, lowering spending from $2,389,612 to $2,296,280.

Later in the evening, after two trend-breaking decisions, voters followed suit with other Island towns to approve a two-article request for public aid to the privately-owned, nonprofit Martha's Vineyard Hospital. Under the article, each Island town would contribute a lump sum - Tisbury's is $74,000 - towards a $500,000 grant that would help offset hospital spending, mainly debt racked up by the emergency room. Tisbury's approval was the fifth and final vote the proposal needed to become effective. Under the three-year contract, $500,000 will go exclusively to the hospital for the next fiscal year; and in subsequent years, under the guidance of a committee of Island representatives, may go to local health agencies like the AIDS Alliance.

Although the amendment and the original article were both approved with a voice vote followed by generous applause, the issue had sparked some of the evening's sharpest and most polarized commentary.

Town resident Dennis Lopez said it was "unorthodox, inappropriate, and outrageous" for taxpayers to fund a private entity.

"Judging from the past, the hospital is no trustworthy financial custodian," he continued. "And this is a blank check. The barn doors will be open and they will never be closed."

Mr. Balco announced that the finance committee did not support the article, as the town stood to neither gain nor lose from its decision.

"There is absolutely nothing that will be offered to us here if we pay that $74,000, and nothing that will be offered here if we don't."

His criticism was checked with a brief but passionate speech from Dr. Alan Hirshberg, director of emergency room services.

"Every year, the income that's coming into the hospital is getting less," he began. "We've been building more with less since 1997."

He argued that the hospital's overspending has not come from bad decision making, but followed an area, state and national trend in health care.

"The problems we're facing here we see all over," he continued. "All we're asking at this point is [for you] to help us with the amount of services. We've been working very hard."

Alden Besse further drove the argument.

"Quite a bit has been said about ‘can we afford the hospital?' " he said. "I simply don't think we can afford not to."

"These people are working passionately and they're doing a tremendous job," said Dr. Gerald Yukevich. "It's a grant that you can support by this symbolized and actual gift."