West Tisbury Voters Acquiesce on Bills

By IAN FEIN

West Tisbury voters at a special town meeting this week reversed their previous opposition and agreed to pay $150,000 in legal bills associated with the Graham property tax case against town assessors. The vote came almost exactly two months after a town meeting where voters rejected payment.

Buttonwood Farm resident T.J. Hegarty captured a strong sentiment on Tuesday that it was time to resolve the legal bill dispute which in recent months has grown to be a controversial and divisive issue in town. "It's time to quickly vote yes to pay these bills so we can all go home to tend to our fires and families and let the town move on," he said.

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Although a solid majority of voters supported payment, the meeting was not without dissent. An additional $25,000 in past due legal bills that were incurred during the previous fiscal year failed to receive a necessary nine-tenths approval.

Voters in a nonbinding resolution this week also told selectmen not to proceed with plans to resurrect and scale back the town hall renovation project. Voters at the town meeting two months ago decisively killed a $1.8 million cost overrun to the $3.7 million price tag they approved for the project the year before.

At the end of the meeting this week, just prior to adjournment, Capawock Road resident Les Cutler proposed the town hall resolution from the floor. He said the town should not spend funds on the project without more direction from voters, and suggested that the current town hall building committee should be replaced.

The town hall building committee will meet with its architect again on Thursday, when the town meeting resolution will likely be discussed.

Voters on Tuesday also adopted a series of zoning bylaw amendments and a new quorum requirement for future town meetings. The new town bylaw, which requires five per cent of registered voters to constitute a quorum, appeared on the town meeting warrant this week as a citizen petition. Former selectman John Alley said the requirement was long overdue; until this week West Tisbury was the only town on the Vineyard without a quorum requirement.

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Attendance was not an issue on Tuesday, when 215 voters - or roughly 10 per cent of those registered - turned out to take up the controversial legal bills topic.

Town and state officials acknowledged in recent months that because assessors incurred the bills outside of the law, without a prior town meeting appropriation, the town was not legally obligated to pay them.

But many who spoke on Tuesday said that they did not see the issue as a legal question. They said that the legalities were too complex, and that opponents of the bills were trying to use a legal justification to avoid their moral obligation to pay for services that were provided to the town.

"I would be very careless with the truth if I said I understand all of the pros and cons of the situation," Music street resident John Mayhew admitted. "But I usually rely on my guts. And this seems like it is more about ethics than legalities."

Discussion on the legal bills began with a statement of support from finance committee member Alexander DeVito. The committee took an active role in the legal bill dispute and met again only days before the town meeting to change its recommendation for the second time. The committee went into the Tuesday meeting deadlocked on past bills from the case, but supportive of paying future bills.

Mr. DeVito told voters that if they did not pay the bills they would hurt the town's reputation and interfere with the proper functioning of town business. "It has been my opinion for a long period of time that West Tisbury is going through a real process of change. Things are not as simple as they were, they're more complex," Mr. DeVito said. "We need more people to volunteer and run for office. But if we don't pay these bills, that sends a message: you may do your best, but the town will not support you."

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Some of the voters who supported paying the bills on Tuesday tried to explore other sources of funding. North Vine Lane resident Thomas Wetherall asked whether the town had insurance to cover errors made by officials, but he did not receive an answer. "I feel like the town fathers are coming to us children and asking us to fix their mistake," Mr. Wetherall added. "But this isn't really a parking ticket. It's a lot more than that."

Despite reductions in the legal bills negotiated by selectmen last month, the total estimated price tag for the tax case - including the $12,000 in assessors' travel expenses and the $25,000 in past-due bills that have not been paid - is still roughly a quarter-million dollars.

More than one voter noted on Tuesday that the legal costs to the town will likely not end with the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board decision, which is still pending and not expected until later this year. Town resident William W. Graham, who is challenging his assessments from fiscal years 2003 and 2004, when he paid the town more than a half-million dollars in property taxes, has said that he will take the case to the Massachusetts Court of Appeals if he is not satisfied with the tax board decision. The case currently stands as the longest residential property tax appeal in state history.

Other West Tisbury landowners are also expected to challenge their assessments in the months ahead.

At the town meeting in November and again this week, voters voiced their concern with the way town officials have handled the case. Some who spoke in favor of paying the bills also pointed to the upcoming town election in the spring, when both board of assessors chairman Michael Colaneri and board of selectmen chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter are up for reelection.

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"I think we have to separate out the bills and money issue from our frustration, disagreement and lack of confidence with what town officials have done," said Music street resident Susan Wasserman. "Let's take fiscal responsibility tonight and deal with our political issues in a more appropriate venue [at the ballot box]."

Town officials for the most part kept quiet on Tuesday; neither Mr. Manter nor Mr. Colaneri spoke.

Selectman Glenn Hearn in a prepared statement asked voters to support the bills, but added that the selectmen will need to work with the assessors moving forward to make sure that the town system of determining property values is open, fair and equitable to everyone.

Town resident J.C. Murphy was pointed in his criticism of town assessors.

"I think it's disgraceful what's taken place. The mercantilism which has occurred in this town is just phenomenal," Mr. Murphy said, referring to a policy that supports government intervention in the economy. "People are abusing their office; it's contempt of the law."

Toward the end of the discussion on the legal bills, resident Arnold Fischer Jr. warned voters not to blindly support the assessors.

"This whole case is a huge mistake," he said. "We know that the assessors have worked hard for us, but we know that there have been some improprieties."

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Mr. Fischer reminded voters of the assessors' unsuccessful court case against the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, and recalled his personal experience with the assessors when he headed the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society. In both instances, the assessors maintained that they could tax the nonprofit organizations.

"We were in the same position as the land bank, but there was total intransigence in the assessors' office," Mr. Fischer said, noting that selectmen Mr. Hearn and Mr. Manter were both trustees of the society at the time. "They tried to argue our point, but our town employee would not hear our pleas - even though we were right."

Mr. Fischer told his neighbors that the present lawsuit is more than a simple case of a large landowner who does not want to pay his taxes.

"Bill Graham is a reasonable guy - he is very willing to pay his fair share," Mr. Fischer said. "This is a whole lot bigger than that."