In West Tisbury, Debt Payments Pile High

By IAN FEIN

West Tisbury voters have been running up their collective credit card balance in recent years. Now the bills are starting to pile up in the town budget.

The proposed $12.1 million town budget for fiscal year 2006, which will go before voters at the annual town meeting in April and takes effect in July, includes $850,000 in debt spending - up $375,000, or almost 80 per cent, from the current fiscal year.

The overall budget is up 11 per cent, or $1.2 million, from this year.

Voters have approved a series of expensive capital projects in town over the last few years - including the $1.8 million public safety building in 1999, the $1.1 million highway resurfacing last April and, most recently, the $3.7 million town hall renovation last fall.

With the debts adding up, the town is now shifting from short-term to long-term borrowing for the older projects, and must pay off more principal on top of the interest.

The principal debt service line item in the town budget has gone from $190,000 in 2004, to $310,000 in 2005, to a proposed $525,000 next year. The long term and short term debt line items have jumped substantially.

Treasurer Kathy Logue said that the town's debt spending will likely continue to rise through 2009 before it levels off or goes down.

"The goal is to try to keep debt service as level as possible, but we're going to have a little bit of a peak until we get into more of a plateau situation because of the fact that so many of these projects were delayed for so long," Mrs. Logue explained. "Five years from now it should level off or even decline depending on what's on the horizon then."

As the town's debt has increased in recent years, so has its overall budget, which has gone up at a rate of about 10 per cent each year for the last six years. The fiscal year 2001 budget was roughly $7 million, while next year's proposed budget tops $12 million.

Selectmen this week attributed the steady increase to the capital projects, as well as rising costs for energy, personnel, health insurance and benefits.

To cover part of next year's budget jump, voters will be asked to approve three Proposition 2 1/2 overrides: $130,000 for a new brush breaker fire truck, $17,000 for paramedic training, and $12,500 for a feasibility study of the old firehouse on Old Courthouse Road.

Selectman John Early said the proposed override this year is relatively small, noting that this marks the first time in a number of years that the town will not need a general override for the entire budget.

Proposition 2 1/2 is a state law that restricts annual increases in a town's property tax levy. Although West Tisbury's proposed budget for next year represents a substantial jump, a big portion of the increase has already been approved by voters through previous overrides or debt exclusion ballot questions.

Over the last four years West Tisbury residents have approved more than 30 overrides, with a total price tag of almost $9 million, while they have rejected only four, which totaled about $135,000.

On top of the fire truck override, the fire department is seeking an increase of more than 30 per cent to its budget, up another $21,000 from this year's budget of $69,000. The fire department budget has gone up an average of 17 per cent in each of the last three years.

Fire chief Manuel Estrella said the proposed increase will cover a raise for the town's volunteer firefighters, who currently receive a stipend of $600 per year. That amount has not changed since 1998, so Chief Estrella is asking the town to raise the stipend to $1,000 per year.

The West Tisbury police department is also seeking another increase next year - up $61,000, or almost 12 per cent, from this year's $520,000 budget.

More than $40,000 of the proposed increase would go toward hiring a patrol officer to replace one that the department lost more than two years ago. Police chief Beth Toomey said mandatory cost of living and step increases are also reflected in the jump.

"I just don't have enough people to get everything done that we need done," Chief Toomey said. "We're getting to the point where the calls are such that I'm not comfortable having one person on any more, and there are other shifts where I need at least two people on."

Chief Toomey said the department has so many veteran officers who receive training and time off that she is left one officer short for five months of the year.

In a separate warrant article, the department will ask voters to appropriate $25,000 from free cash for a new Crown Victoria police cruiser. The department replaced one of its cruisers last year, and Chief Toomey said they need to replace the other, which is a 1996 model and has well over 100,000 miles, this year.

Another department with a notable increase is that of the building inspector and zoning officer, Ernest Mendenhall, who is asking for a 40 per cent increase, from $70,000 to almost $100,000.

Part of the raise would go to Mr. Mendenhall, whose workload and salary will increase for the next few years, since he was hired as project manager for the town hall renovation. Mr. Mendenhall estimates he will be working 40 hours a week, instead of his regular 30, until the project is complete.

The budget increase would also include the hiring of a part-time clerical assistant, which Mr. Mendenhall would share with the board of health. The position would likely be for 20 hours a week, with 10 hours spent in each department.

Mr. Mendenhall said the amount of mandated paperwork has grown too large, and that a clerical assistant will allow him to do more inspections and less data entry.