Tisbury Approves $15.9 Million Budget; School Funds Win Town Meeting Vote

By JONATHAN BURKE

Tisbury residents kicked off the Island's season of annual town meetings Tuesday with a bow to education and an endorsement of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.

The police department had the roughest time during the two-night annual town meeting. Following a narrowly approved request to upgrade from 45-calibre sidearms to Glocks, voters defeated the department's $58,000 request for two new cruisers.

A motion to reconsider the police cruiser article on night two did not achieve the necessary two-thirds vote. Also coming up short Wednesday night was a $50,000 town infrastructure study sponsored by the town's cabinet.

Most items on the 22-article warrant passed without debate.

On night one, attended by 271 of the town's 2,531 registered voters, residents took care of the big money articles. The $15,856,073 fiscal year 2004 budget, with a much anticipated $190,721 amendment to the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School's $2.5 million line item, was approved along with $422,900 in capital appropriations.

Money was flowing too freely for some folks.

Bill Nash, arguing against a $25,000 sidewalk along Oak Grove Cemetery, said voters were being "fast and loose" with town money.

Nat Benjamin also felt residents should be thriftier. When a request for a $90,000 street sweeper came up, Mr. Benjamin said, "My concern is taxes. I think a lot of us here are not willing to see our taxes rise."

On the police department's request for two new cruisers, Mr. Benjamin said that during the national oil crisis in the 1970s, police officers drove VW bugs and rode bikes with no impact on public safety.

The police department's request for new cruisers was defeated 93-67; the cemetery sidewalk was defeated in a voice vote; voters backed the new street sweeper for the Department of Public Works.

The most discussed item of the annual town meeting was education. Some two dozen students attended night one in a show of support for the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School's budget requests.

At the town meeting's outset, Paul Brissette made a motion to take up the town's budget article, which included the high school line, first. By bylaw, the order of the warrant articles normally is determined by drawing numbered beads from a hat. But Mr. Brissette, an art teacher at the high school, said that the students should not be required to wait through the lottery system.

Most people agreed.

"Last year, the budget wasn't reached until 10 o'clock at night on the second day. By that time, many people who had attended the meeting had left," said John Amabile, a town resident.

Following Deborah Medders' read-through of the $15,856,073 annual budget, Ralph Friedman, high school committee member, moved a $190,721 amendment to the high school's $2,492,014 line item.

"In the event that Chapter 70 or any other school aid funds historically paid by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School District are paid in the first instance to the town rather than the high school district ... then any such funds so appropriated ... and received by the town (up to the maximum of $190,721) shall be appropriated by this vote to meet Tisbury's share of the high school district fiscal 2004 budget (as approved by a vote of the school committee on Dec. 9, 2002)," read Mr. Friedman from a prepared statement.

According to a purple leaflet being handed out prior to the meeting, if the high school does not get additional funding from the towns, "class sizes will balloon, and programs and electives will be cut."

High school officials are appearing before all towns to claim a portion of so-called transitional mitigation funds from the state. The TMF funds cannot be entirely counted upon, but are designed to help towns adjust to a drop in state aid that is expected to continue in future years.

George Balco, chairman of the Tisbury finance and advisory board, opposed the amendment.

"We're very disappointed and sad that the high school committee does not realize the seriousness of the town's financial picture," he said. He said the town was losing state aid just like the high school, and that "everybody needs to give a little bit."

Tom Pachico, selectman, asked whether Tisbury would be obligated to come up with additional money to pay teachers even if the state does not come up with the transitional funds.

Kriner Cash, superintendent of Island schools, painted a bleak picture. "If this doesn't pass we have to go into a full RIF [reduction in force] procedural mode," he said. In response to another question, Mr. Cash took a shot at the state house. He said, "These are governor Romney's ideas to the budget. He's new to the state."

Mr. Friedman's amendment was accepted. Following a brief discussion on the selectmen's budget, town voters passed the budget unanimously.

A request to fund a share of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority's administrative expenses, the second most heralded article on the town meeting warrant, received voter approval on night two. In attendance were 121 voters, not quite 5 per cent of the voting populace.

Joanna Jernegan, assistant to the town clerk and personally familiar with affordable housing needs, spoke against the article.

"The need for affordable housing here on Martha's Vineyard is only too obvious and too painful for too many people of which I used to be one - I moved 31 times in eight and a half years and was homeless with my children more than once," she said, reading from a prepared statement.

But Ms. Jernegan said the housing authority has failed to prove itself to the community. "If we start giving them money in spite of doubts as to their viability and in spite of their failure to become self-sustaining, we would also be sending our tax dollars to a group over which we have virtually no control and no oversight," she said.

Many people, however, spoke in support of the housing authority.

Tony Peak, chairman of the planning board, said the housing authority exists not just to create affordable housing but also to handle the administrative hurdles of running affordable housing such as monitoring apartments, screening applicants and checking leases. "All of these things are going to take a fair amount of time," he said.

The article passed.

The town sleeper article this year was the police department's $10,000 request for new handguns. Chief Theodore Saulnier wanted to upgrade the department's 45-calibre guns to Glocks. Wear and tear from roadside euthanizations and target practice had reduced the dependability of the weapons, he said.

Many voters questioned the need for new firearms in a town where people cannot remember a time when a weapon was discharged during the commission of a crime.

"We are not an urban society," said Dennis Lopez.

But arguments for officer safety prevailed. Police officers should not be required to take the chance that their gun may not discharge when it is needed. Guns are tools of the trade and should be up to grade, people reasoned. The article passed 111-74.

A proposed $50,000 infrastructure study was widely criticized. Ray LaPorte and Tom Pachico, selectmen, were unable to gain voter support for the item.

For the finance board, Mr. Balco said, "We certainly do agree that the town's infrastructure needs study. However we have seen no numbers or estimates as to whether $50,000 is an appropriate number. Frankly, it seems high."

Mr. Peak said, "We all know what we have in the way of infrastructure. We know we have a fire station falling down. We know we have a police department in constant need of repairs."

But he said it was too early for an infrastructure study. He said the planning is still tabulating results to its master plan survey. The survey results will help direct an infrastructure study, he said.

Ayes were hard to hear when the article came up for a vote.

Other funding items considered and approved on night one were new staff positions for the department of public works (DPW), site remediation of the former DPW garage at 173 Spring St., the certification of real and personal property, a motorcycle lease for the police department, training for two new police officers and training for a intermediate emergency medical technician.

On night two, voters also approved funding for refuse operations, the Islandwide drug grant, a town hall survey and casualty insurance. Voters also agreed to accept $38,000 from the Steamship Authority, to appropriate $1.3 million in free cash to pay prior-year bills, to increase fire inspection fees for smoke detectors and to establish residency requirements for certain positions in the DPW.

And after one hot discussion, voters, 63-37, approved a bylaw to set the hours for public business from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at town hall. Ms. Jernegan led the charge for the bylaw.

She said a number of times, people have wandered into town hall on Friday afternoons asking why nobody was in the annex office, across the street from the Tisbury School playground.