Voters Approve Aquinnah Budget; School Money Faces Override Vote

By JOSHUA SABATINI

At a town meeting marked by lengthy debate and intermittent confusion, Aquinnah voters approved a $1.78 million general operating budget and agreed to put $271,000 of the budget for the elementary school to a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote before deciding to cut the meeting short about two hours in.

Voters at town hall approved a motion to adjourn for the evening and reconvene on June 20 in response to objections by residents who wanted to know how much free cash the town has before proceeding. By that date, both the results of the override and the exact free cash amount will be known.

The final 10 articles of the 16 on Tuesday night's warrant sought to draw on about $129,000 of Aquinnah's free cash, which represents excess revenue from the last fiscal year. Town accountant Marjorie Spitz told the Gazette that the state Department of Revenue has not yet certified the amount of free cash because she was late in filing the balance sheets.

Adding to the confusion was the decision to seek the Proposition 2 1/2 override. The question was not on the town warrant posted before the meeting.

Carl Widdiss, chairman of the board of selectmen, explained that they are seeking the override because over the years the school budget has consistently increased, and cannot be met within the confines of Proposition 2 1/2. The elementary school assessment rose from about $517,000 last year to a proposed $635,000.

In all, the overall town operating budget, which includes the school budget, rose by seven per cent.

"Now is the time to face the reality of the situation," he said.

Finance committee chairman Elizabeth Carroll backed the selectmen's request for the override, saying the committee had reversed its earlier stance opposing any 2 1/2 override. She pointed out that Aquinnah has not had an override since 1998 and has turned instead to back taxes and free cash to keep the tax levy below the proposition's requirements.

"It's miraculous that we were able to go that long," said Miss Carroll, "but that well has dried."

Moderator Walter Delaney read an amendment proposed by selectmen to cut the elementary school budget to $359,563, allowing voters to approve what the town could afford and put the remaining $275,000 up for the override vote. The amendment carried with 25 in favor and 15 opposed.

But the numbers were altered slightly later on due to accounting errors. In total, the elementary school budget was decreased by about $5,000, which dropped the necessary override amount to $271,000. The vote for the override passed unanimously.

Roxanne Ackerman, Aquinnah's representative on the Up-Island Regional School Committee, said it was "unfair" to target the school budget for an override.

Another voter agreed, calling the choice of the elementary school for an override "blatant manipulation by the selectmen" and suggesting that a different section of the budget be subject to the override.

School superintendent Kriner Cash was on hand to see the outcome of the school budget. Mr. Cash said the decision was difficult for his office to deal with, and wondered out loud what the selectmen would do if the override ballot question is defeated on June 18, just 13 days before the start of the fiscal year.

West Tisbury and Chilmark, which join Aquinnah in the regional school district, have already approved their school budgets.

Some voters present had opposed proceeding with the meeting at all because of the free cash question. A motion at the meeting's outset to adjourn drew vocal support from Michael Stutz:

"We are gathered here tonight to decide how much money to budget for the coming year, but we don't know how much money we have," he said. "We are the last town to hold a town meeting. The other towns know how much money they are coming to the town meeting with, but we don't.

"Is it responsible for the town to ask the citizenry to make these decisions without knowing how much money we have?

"My decision whether or not to go for an override may be affected by the amount of free cash," Mr. Stutz said later. "With all due respect, I would like to have that information before I make this very important decision."

But Miss Spitz said the motion to postpone the entire meeting was frivolous. "There are no issues of free cash in the [budget] line items," said Miss Carroll. "Everything is covered right now except for the school."

Elise LeBovit of the community programs committee said she is already ordering supplies and is in the process of hiring a staff. "Let's do what we can tonight," she said.

Mr. Widdiss agreed, saying it was "imperative" to take some action. "We have been fortunate over the years to have free cash," he said. "If you take the free cash out of the mix and look at the reality of the situation and the constant increase in education you see a pattern," said Mr. Widdiss. "All we are asking tonight is, realize the pattern and make the adjustment to meet the tax levy."

"Killing this meeting makes no sense," said selectman Karl Burgess. "We will have a minimum of $100,000 of free cash. . . . We are here tonight to get some of the town business done. I wouldn't worry about the free cash tonight."

Voters defeated the initial motion to adjourn but proved more amenable to the notion later in the evening once they reached the articles that were specifically to be funded with free cash.

Before adjourning, the town dealt with three other articles, first appropriating $9,391 for highway construction, a sum that will be reimbursed by the state. Voters also authorized the community preservation committee to spend $54,000 in its preservation fund and approved a partnership with the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, which will attempt to pass legislation on the town's behalf to enforce housing needs covenants aimed at keeping properties affordable in perpetuity.

Fifty-six of the town's 354 registered voters attended the meeting. They will now vote on June 18 on the ballot question that, if approved, would permit the town to assess an additional $271,000 in real estate and personal property taxes for a portion of the elementary school budget.

In other political news, 65 of the town's 354 registered voters turned out at the polls Wednesday and returned to office its incumbent leaders, including Mr. Widdiss, who were all in uncontested races.