West Tisbury Finance Committee Turns Up Heat on Schools, Police

By IAN FEIN

Wielding some political clout last week, the West Tisbury finance committee assailed both the school budget and a selectmen's plan for purchasing real estate.

The move sent town officials scrambling to address the finance committee's concerns prior to next month's annual town meeting.

In a strong message of dissatisfaction, the finance committee voted last Friday to recommend an Up-Island Regional School District budget of zero dollars, and also to not recommend the selectmen's proposal to buy a North Tisbury home to serve as temporary town hall quarters and an eventual police station.

Finance committee members said they are trying to rein in a town budget that has grown from less than $9 million in 2003 to more than $12 million, the amount proposed for next year.

"The rapid growth of West Tisbury is not abating," committee chairman Sharon Estrella wrote in a March 9 letter to the selectmen.

"The costs of running the town will have increased by one-third in three years. Yet, the population has remained relatively constant. It's gone from 2,696 in February 2002 to 2,700 in February 2005. We at the finance committee believe that continuation of this rate of budget increase - 11 per cent annually - is not sustainable without continually raising property taxes," she continued.

Committee members said last week that while the lot on the corner of State and Old Stage roads is a good location for a police station, they believe it would be less expensive for the town to construct a new building on town-owned land.

If approved at town meeting and then again at the ballot, West Tisbury would pay $655,000 for the 1.65-acre lot and four bedroom Cape.

Under pressure from the finance committee, selectman John Early estimated the cost to renovate the home could run $150,000.

"This is a lot of money to ask voters to spend on top of all of the other projects and pieces of land we already own," said finance committee member Peter Costas.

Finance committee members also criticized the process, pointing out that selectmen discussed the police station concept this winter in executive session before issuing a press release announcing the plan two weeks ago.

"I think this is pie in the sky," Mrs. Estrella said last Friday. "I also don't like the way it was so hush hush and all of a sudden thrown at people. The town shouldn't be in the real estate business, especially with our track record of keeping up maintenance."

Finance committee member and selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, who spearheaded the selectmen's real estate proposal and is also a police officer, stayed true to his sergeant's badge last week - the only finance committee member to vote in favor of the house acquisition.

This week, wearing his selectman's hat, Mr. Manter offered an amendment to the warrant articles regarding the home buying proposal. If approved, a $25,000 feasibility study will now also look at other properties around West Tisbury, including ones the town already owns. If voters approve the purchase but the study finds a more suitable location for a police station, Mr. Manter's amendment would force the town either to use the house for another function or put it back on the market.

Selectmen this week also scheduled a public information session to answer questions about the warrant articles on April 7 at 7 p.m. in the Howes House. The proposed police station purchase will likely be the main topic of discussion.

Tough talk from the finance committee also prompted up-Island regional school committee members to scheduled a meeting, a joint session between the two boards on April 5 to air out differences.

Bad feelings between the two committees have festered for years; the finance committee has long maintained that West Tisbury shoulders an unfair share of the district budget. The small regional district also includes Chilmark and Aquinnah.

Of the district's proposed $7.7 million operating budget next year, West Tisbury would be assessed a little more than five million dollars.

Hoping to send a clear signal, finance committee members last Friday voted unanimously to recommend a contribution of zero dollars to the district budget.

The zero-sum recommendation was proposed by Mr. Manter, who is also a member of the school board.

"At this particular stage I think zero is the right number. We can revisit it between now and town meeting," Mr. Manter said while acting as a finance committee member. "We do truly want to spend something on education, but I think the number zero will get a lot of attention and create a lot of candid discussion about these issues."

Committee members were upset that no school board members, other than Mr. Manter, attended a meeting last Tuesday to answer questions about the district budget.

Mr. Manter believes that both up-Island schools can operate with a single principal and that a preschool proposed for the Chilmark School would inappropriately use money from West Tisbury taxpayers.

Finance committee members also want more clarification about charter school reimbursement rates, the amount of unspent funds in this year's school budget and a shared-cost formula for the tri-town district based on property values, not the number of students sent from each town.

School officials are reluctant to engage in any discussion beyond the issue of excess money leftover from this year's regional school district budget.

"We think it makes more sense to look at the kids in school, not who has the biggest trophy houses," said school board chairman Kathy Logue, who is also the West Tisbury town treasurer. "Regardless, this is not something to be rushed into two weeks before town meeting."

However, Mrs. Logue also said that the committee might be able to use some of this year's $250,000 in unanticipated state aid to lower next year's assessed budget.

"We are looking into our excess and deficiencies fund. That might be our one compromise," said Amy Tierney, assistant to the superintendent for business affairs. "If there's anything we can do to appease the situation we will try."