West Tisbury Voters Veto Legal Bills in Tax Case, Reject Town Hall Funds

By IAN FEIN

An overflow crowd of West Tisbury voters this week delivered a stinging mandate to town officials, rejecting a $1.8 million cost overrun on the town hall renovation project and $250,000 in legal bills for the ongoing tax case between town assessors and resident William W. Graham.

The special town meeting on Wednesday night saw a record turnout of 288 voters, more than attended the annual town meeting in April.

The discussion went on for nearly three hours, and remained civil throughout. But when it was all over the town hall renovation project was effectively dead and voter dissatisfaction over unchecked legal bills associated with the Graham tax case was clear.

"I think tonight's town meeting has been a referendum on fiscal responsibility - fiscal responsibility of the selectmen, and fiscal responsibility of the assessors," Pond Road resident Larry Greenberg said at the the close of the meeting. "We cannot afford to pay for things that we cannot afford."

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The town hall article, which required a two-thirds vote for approval, failed 200-25.

At a special election yesterday, voters rejected the additional town hall renovation money for a second time, 360-56.

The town hall building committee - which includes all three selectmen - said the additional $1.8 million was needed to keep the $5.5 million renovation project moving forward.

But opposition to the additional expense of the project on Wednesday was widespread.

"I have always been proud of [this town], but I have doubts now," said longtime town resident James Alley. "I served for many years on the board of selectmen with Nelson Bryant [Sr.], and I'm telling you right now he's rolling over in his grave."

The late Mr. Bryant was a town selectman for 35 years and also a town assessor.

Mr. Alley told town leaders that they might need to sell the town hall building.

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"Go with the [Martha's Vineyard] Preservation Trust - or eBay – or wherever you gotta go," Mr. Alley said. "I don't think taxpayers in this town can afford [this project] - not with all the other things they've got over their heads."

At a special town meeting almost exactly one year ago, voters approved a $3.7 million price tag for the project, but the overall cost shot up 50 per cent this year after the former architect's estimate proved to be wrong when the project went out to bid.

On Wednesday night many voters wondered how the previous estimate could have been off by so much.

"In another life, I had the opportunity to bid on many large building projects. But I have never seen a project that was over by 50 per cent," said Les Cutler. "What it tells you is that the original project was deeply, deeply flawed."

Some voters expressed a desire to keep the town hall in the village center, while others wanted to explore sites elsewhere in town. But most who spoke urged the town to stick to the $3.7 million figure. More than one resident said the current project design was too big.

Former selectman and well-known architect Benjamin Moore spoke about a feasibility study he did for the town hall renovation in 1998, when the scope was smaller and the price was estimated at $1 million. Mr. Moore also pointed to the Chilmark town hall renovation project, which he designed. That project was completed in the summer of 2004 for about $1.5 million. Mr. Moore questioned why the proposed West Tisbury design was almost twice the size of the Chilmark building, which houses roughly the same number of employees.

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"I am still of the opinion that this building is bigger than it needs to be," Mr. Moore said, drawing applause.

Before the final vote on the town hall project, voters took up the thorny question of $250,000 in legal bills, most of them associated with the Graham tax case, which has been ongoing since May. Mr. Graham, who owns 235 acres at Mohu off Lambert's Cove Road, is challenging his assessments from fiscal years 2003 and 2004, when he paid the town more than a half-million dollars in property taxes. Attorneys for Mr. Graham have argued that the system town assessors use to determine land values and property taxes is fundamentally flawed.

The legal bills were split into two separate warrant articles: one request for $50,000 to pay for past-due bills from the previous fiscal year, and a second request for $200,000 to cover the current year's legal budget.

Wednesday marked the first time a town assessor spoke publicly about the case. Board chairman Michael Colaneri in a prepared statement described it as a first-of-its-kind case that challenged how assessors conducted their townwide revaluations.

"This case went to trial because the gap between the parties was too great and because of the far-reaching implications of the charges made," he said. "While we are sorry for the cost, the board of assessors will not apologize for defending its methods or for acting in best interests of not one West Tisbury taxpayer, but all of them."

Mr. Graham attended the meeting as a voter but did not speak.

Discussion over the legal bills revealed a deeply divided electorate with anxious questions about some of the decisions made by town leaders in the tax case - including the decision to end mediation last spring and allow the case to go to a formal legal hearing before the state appellate tax board in Boston. Also there has been tension between town selectmen and assessors over the legal bills, which were not submitted by Ellen Hutchinson, the attorney for the assessors, until the first week in October.

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On Wednesday night the legal bills discussion quickly became a forum on town leadership, where voters were asked whether they trusted the selectmen and assessors to resolve their differences. Selectmen Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter and Glenn Hearn urged voters to approve the spending, but pledged they would not sign the bills until all of their questions had been answered.

Voters disagreed at first over how to proceed.

"We're going to have to take it on good faith that the town will work this out to the best interest of everyone," said T.J. Hegarty. "If we don't, it's only going to cost the town more and divide the town more. It's time to let the elected officials work it out. If you don't like the way they handle it - vote them out."

But finance committee chairman Sharon Estrella and others said they did not share the same faith in town leaders.

"I'm not comfortable voting for an amount of money and then waiting for them to decide whether to pay," Mrs. Estrella said. "I would rather let the selectmen and assessors get things right, then have them come back and ask us for the money. Because right now I don't think they're ready for this. And I don't think we are either."

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Also at the outset town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport, who was involved in the mediation and has represented Mr. Graham in the past, stepped aside on the legal bills matter and introduced a municipal finance expert from the Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray to serve as special counsel. Attorney Richard Manley echoed remarks Mr. Rappaport made at a selectmen's meeting the previous week - namely, that assessors had no authority to incur most of the bills in the Graham tax case without prior town meeting approval, and therefore the town is not legally required to pay the bills.

"The legal issue is actually a fairly clear one," Mr. Manley said. "To the extent that there is no available appropriation, there is no liability to pay."

Some voters argued that even if the town had no legal obligation to pay the bills, it did have a moral obligation.

"The town cannot not pay its bills," said William Haynes. "If you do this, you will start calling for a plumber to fix a leak and people won't respond. You do not want to get a reputation for not paying your bills."

Finance committee member Peter Costas disagreed.

"What it will say is: if you're going to charge the town a large bill, then you better have your i's dotted and your t's crossed," Mr. Costas said. "If you're going to send us a six-figure bill, then for God's sake make sure that the fathers of the town know what they're doing."

Cynthia Riggs said she did not believe the town even had a moral obligation to pay the bills.

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"The town did not commit itself to this bill; it was the board of assessors that did," Ms. Riggs said. "My understanding is that Mr. Graham offered at least three times to settle the case forgiving what was in the past, simply to have things go forward with a clearer understanding of what the situation was."

John Abrams urged voters to defeat the legal bill requests and pressure selectmen to settle the case.

"I think there needs to be some serious incentive for selectmen to take the bull by the horns and finally figure out a way to settle this case - as it should have been settled by the assessors long ago," said Mr. Abrams.

In the end voters defeated both articles. The request for $50,000 to pay prior year bills failed to win a necessary nine-tenths vote, although only by a small margin. The second request for $200,000 required a simple majority but also failed.