Selectmen in West Tisbury Fret as Legal Bills Begin to Mount

By RACHEL KOVAC

West Tisbury needs more money to pay its legal bills, and this week selectmen expressed growing concern over the amount of money being spent on attorneys' fees this year. At the regular board meeting Wednesday, executive secretary Jennifer Rand advised the selectmen that the town will not be able to cover its legal costs under the current year's budget.

The total town legal budget for the year is $60,000. As of April 20 West Tisbury had incurred more than $30,000 alone in bills from the ongoing tax case between resident William W. Graham and the town assessors. The bills are for work prior to the start of the legal hearing in the case. The hearing began in Boston in May and is still ongoing.

The fiscal year ends June 30. All bills for services incurred during this fiscal year must be submitted to the town by July 15. Any bills that come in after that date require a nine tenths majority vote at a special town meeting before they can be paid.

But even if attorney Ellen Hutchinson, who is representing the town in the tax case, submits all her bills by July 15, there will not be enough money in the town legal budget to pay them.

Board members said this week that they will meet with the town finance committee next week to discuss the problem.

Selectmen Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter said a detailed accounting is in order.

"We've got to get some sort of handle on how much this is costing us," Mr. Manter said. "I'm not sure what the numbers are but I know they're getting some zeroes behind them."

The hearing before the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board is now in its fifth week.

Mr. Graham, who owns 235 acres at Mohu off Lambert's Cove Road, is appealing his assessments for fiscal years 2003 and 2004, when he paid more than $500,000 in town property taxes. Attorneys for Mr. Graham have charged that the fundamental system West Tisbury assessors use to determine land values and property taxes throughout the town is flawed.

Ms. Hutchinson has maintained that Mr. Graham's assessments are fair and accurate, and that other real estate sales in the area have justified the values.

As the case drags on, billable hours are piling up for the town of West Tisbury.

"We're going to need to get money from somewhere because we don't have it," Ms. Rand told the selectmen Wednesday.

West Tisbury's legal spending has increased over the past several years and Ms. Rand said she sees this as only the beginning of the trend. She said legal spending will likely continue to increase and she said the time has come to get a better handle on how other town boards use lawyers and spend money from the town's legal budget.

"We need to develop a solid policy on legal spending," Ms. Rand said. She said she will approach town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport to create a training session to advise the selectmen and other town boards on legal spending.