Finance Committee Opposes Payment of Town Legal Bills

By IAN FEIN

In a joint meeting with selectmen this week, the West Tisbury finance committee once again withheld their support for the payment of legal bills related to the costly tax case against town assessors.

Finance committee members on Wednesday night shared their ongoing frustration with the selectmen, as they prepare for the Jan. 17 special town meeting where voters will be asked to pay roughly $175,000 in bills from the case. An overflow crowd of voters rejected a similar request at a special town meeting in November, when the finance committee opposed the spending.

Selectmen met with the assessors' legal contractors this month and successfully reduced most of the requests, but finance committee members said this week that some of the larger concerns underlying the bills remain unaddressed.

"Well, we still have a lot of questions. Don't we?" finance committee chairman Sharon Estrella told the selectmen on Wednesday. "You have two weeks until this next town meeting, and the whole thing is still not much clearer today than it was on Nov. 16."

Attorneys for the town have stated that because the bills were incurred outside of the law and without previous approval from voters, the town is under no legal obligation to pay them.

Town assessors did not attend the joint meeting this week, nor any of the half-dozen meetings where selectmen have discussed the bills and the case since the November vote. Town resident William W. Graham, who brought the property tax appeal against the assessors, attended the meeting on Wednesday but did not speak.

Board of selectmen chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, who is also a finance committee member, was the only person Wednesday who recommended that voters approve payment of all the bills from the case. His unyielding position prompted fellow finance committee member Peter Costas to question which of his two hats Mr. Manter was wearing when he voted.

"I've analyzed these bills more than the rest of you," Mr. Manter said. "I have the knowledge to make what I think is a fair decision."

Mrs. Estrella opposed payment across the board, while Mr. Costas and committee member Alexander DeVito supported some and opposed others. In the end, the committee recommended money for future bills, but voted either not to recommend or to take no action on all of the previous ones.

Unlike the November town meeting, the spending requests this time will be presented to voters as separate articles for each of the assessors' three contractors. Also, each of the three requests has been reduced; the overall estimated price tag of $275,000 has been cut by roughly $35,000.

The largest bills come from attorney Ellen Hutchinson, who represents the town assessors. Although the assessors did not follow the proper procedure when they hired Ms. Hutchinson, the town has already paid her roughly $45,000 for work on the case through the first few weeks of the hearing in May. She has submitted another $83,000 in unpaid bills, and will ask for an additional $35,000 to write the briefs and carry the case through to a tax board decision.

In response to a request from selectmen, Ms. Hutchinson reduced her $83,000 request to $75,000. Some $20,000 of that was incurred during the previous fiscal year, prior to July 1, and therefore will require nine-tenths approval on town meeting floor.

Mr. DeVito supported paying Ms. Hutchinson. "I feel she has earned the money, and I think we should pay it," he said.

Mr. Costas said they could not check whether she earned it because her largest bill - which covered work during the hearing from May through August, and was not submitted until October - did not include detailed itemizations. Mr. Costas said he would consider recommending payment if he saw more of an explanation, but West Tisbury executive secretary Jennifer Rand told him that Ms. Hutchinson did not have any more detailed records about those four months of work.

"That is poor business on her part. You can't bill someone for $75,000 without more detail," Mr. Costas replied. "I work for a landscape company and we're more careful than that."

Mr. Costas did vote to recommend Ms. Hutchinson's $35,000 request for future work. But Mrs. Estrella, who along with residents at the meeting questioned whether such payment would still violate proper municipal procedure, remained opposed.

The finance committee voted this week not to recommend the $12,000 in bills from Vision Appraisal Technology Inc. of Northboro, the third party consultant hired by assessors to assist with townwide revaluations. About half of the bill was incurred during previous fiscal year, and thus will require nine-tenths approval at town meeting.

After meeting with selectmen this month, Vision president Kevin Comer agreed to cut by a third the company's previous request of $18,000. Selectman Glenn Hearn said he felt Mr. Comer was the most upfront of the three contractors they met, but Mr. Hearn acknowledged on Wednesday that he still has questions about the bill.

The $12,000 request covers some 17 days of attendance at the tax board hearing. However, Mr. DeVito and others, including Mr. Manter, have suggested that Vision attended the hearing to defend itself as much as the town. The Graham case challenged aspects of the Vision valuation system, which has also come under scrutiny in the neighboring town of Edgartown.

"I'm not so sure they did give us a good deal," Mr. DeVito said on Wednesday. "They're running the risk of losing future business. Was he in court to benefit us, or for the benefit of the company?"

Finance committee members were split on the bills from Coleman & Sons Appraisal Group, which the assessors hired to value Mr. Graham's lots and serve as an expert witness during the hearing. Company representatives originally billed for $72,000, and as of Wednesday suggested they would accept $47,000 without suing for additional money. But after some discussion at the joint meeting, the selectmen decided they would only ask voters to pay $43,000.

Mr. Costas said he reluctantly supported the bill because it was backed up by a contract signed by town assessors. However, attorneys for the town have said the assessors did not have the authority to sign the contract.

The request is set to go before voters as a single article for the current fiscal year, even though at least $10,000 of work was incurred during the previous fiscal year.

Ms. Rand also intended to ask for voters to supplement the current year's general legal account with another $25,000, but selectmen this week followed the finance committee's recommendation to reduce the request to $15,000. Some of the money will be used to cover court fees from the Graham case.

The finance committee recommended the amount be reduced as a way to create more oversight of town legal spending. "Until I see the professional level at town hall step up to the plate, I don't feel comfortable giving them another $25,000," Mr. Costas said. "The town and finance committee have been going on blind trust for decades - and it hasn't panned out."