West Tisbury Reins in Costs for Next Year

By IAN FEIN

After reviewing the previous town budget last spring, the West Tisbury finance committee authored a strong letter to selectmen warning that the rapid growth of town spending was not sustainable.

It appears the town may have stemmed the tide.

The proposed $12.2 million budget for fiscal year 2007 represents an increase of roughly 2.7 per cent over the current year. In the past six years, the West Tisbury budget rose at an annual clip of more than 10 per cent - climbing from $7.1 million in fiscal year 2001 to $11.9 million in fiscal year 2006.

It also appears that for the first time in more than two decades, the town of West Tisbury will not ask its voters for any Proposition 2 1/2 overrides or exemptions. Proposition 2 1/2 is a state law that restricts annual increases in a town's property tax levy.

Town voters will have their say on the budget at the annual town meeting on April 11; the 2007 fiscal year begins on July 1.

"To the extent that the budget is within our control, the town and other agencies - like the school districts - were working hard to hold down the increase," said town treasurer Katherine Logue, who is also a member of the Up-Island Regional School District committee and a former finance committee chairman.

The largest individual increase in the town budget is actually an accounting change and not a rise in costs to taxpayers.

The federal government reimburses the town roughly $150,000 per year for the West Tisbury police officers stationed at the Martha's Vineyard Airport. While the town in previous years tracked those costs in a special reserve fund, the town accountant this year suggested it would be a better practice to include it in the general fund.

"It appears to be an increase, but it's not," explained West Tisbury police chief Elizabeth Toomey. "It's not costing the town any more money."

Another significant change to the appearance of the town budget is the identification of legal expenses, which was one of the eight specific recommendations listed by the finance committee in its letter to selectmen last spring.

The zoning board of appeals and town treasurer (who administers tax title foreclosures) previously budgeted for legal spending, but they will now separate their legal expenditures into easily identifiable separate lines.

The board of assessors, who previously paid their attorneys out of the town's general legal budget, also now will seek and identify their own legal expenses in a separate line. For the coming fiscal year, the assessors are requesting $30,000 for pending cases at the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board in Boston.

The executive secretary, too, is seeking an increase in the town's general legal fund, to $45,000.

Combining the four different line items, the town will budget almost $100,000 in legal expenses for the coming fiscal year. That is up from roughly $40,000 two years ago. However, the town had a habit in recent years of overspending, or underfunding, its legal budget.

For the first time in many years the town will see a decline in its education budget, driven in large part by fewer town children enrolled at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. However, the $7.4 million in education spending still represents roughly 60 per cent of the town's overall budget.

The West Tisbury share of the Up-Island Regional School District budget increased nine per cent this year to more than $5 million, but the finance committee -  largely seen as the regional district's chief critic - endorsed that number earlier this winter, when the committee chairman praised the schools and noted she had not voted in favor of their budget for roughly 20 years. This time last year, the finance committee had recommended a regional school district budget of zero dollars.

The culture and recreation budget will see a decrease for the second consecutive year. Retiring library staff are largely responsible for the decline, though the town will also cut its beach expenses this year to correct an over-budgeted line.

The town does not plan to add any new personnel positions next year, though the highway department employee may see an increase in his hours, from 35 to 40 hours. The town personnel board this year recommended a 4 per cent increase in town employee salaries, up slightly from the 3.8 per cent adjustment approved last year.

Spending on employee benefits is also on the rise, as premiums go up and more town employees retire. In the last four years the employee benefits budget has increased 50 per cent, from roughly $400,000 in fiscal year 2003 to more than $600,000 in fiscal year 2007.

After almost doubling last year, the town's debt service will level off in the coming year. The town will spend roughly $850,000 as it continues to pay for the West Tisbury School, public safety building, highway repairs and Goethals land near Lambert's Cove Beach. Over the next four years the town will also need to pay back the $250,000 that it already spent on the now-defunct town hall renovation project.

Ms. Logue said this week that the debt service dropped slightly this year because the town hall project did not proceed, but she noted the town has other capital projects on the horizon - namely, a library expansion and new police station.

"I can't do the crystal ball about where we'll be two or three years from now, because I don't know what the town will decide to do," she said.