This is the time when voters in Island towns gather to direct their community’s public activity for the year. Hundreds of thousands of dollars will be approved for new fire trucks, historic building renovations, wastewater upgrades, road and sidewalk repairs, police cruisers, public park projects and affordable housing initiatives. Millions more will be pegged to annual town operating budgets.
Vineyard voters will heed the call beginning next week when annual town meetings will be held in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and West Tisbury. It’s the Island’s own version of Super Tuesday, and a time to participate in what many believe is still the purest form of democracy. Chilmark and Aquinnah will follow with their annual town meetings in late April and early May.
In every town, there is much important business to discuss and consider this year.
If West Tisbury voters agree, nearly three million dollars will be spent to build a new police station at the public safety building in North Tisbury. It’s the biggest spending item on the warrant at the annual town meeting.
We’ll miss the tiny old police station that stands at the gateway to West Tisbury on the shore of the Mill Pond. It’s the only place on the Island where swans glide about with a couple of cruisers parked nearby. The little station has guarded our safety and perhaps also our sensibility about the pace and scale of rural life. But life has changed in West Tisbury, and nostalgia notwithstanding, the police force has outgrown its cramped postage stamp of a space. The new police station deserves the support of the town.
Also in West Tisbury voters will be asked to spend money on a list of affordable housing initiatives, including a project to build three more apartments at Sepiessa Point. They will decide whether to spend a smaller amount of money to refurbish the Manter baseball field, and whether to waive dog license fees for people over seventy (sounds sensible to this old editor).
In Tisbury the central theme this year is wastewater: town voters will grapple with the question of a nearly million-dollar upgrade for their sewage treatment plant. The project involves building a new type of leaching system for the small town plant with the goal of reducing the amount of nitrogen entering the Lagoon Pond and Lake Tashmoo. No doubt the cost of this type of large public works project seems high, but there are few things more urgent than taking steps to protect the health of town ponds and harbors from nitrogen pollution. A new superintendent staff position is also being proposed for the wastewater department. This is phase one of a larger project to possibly expand the sewage treatment plant, a crucial environmental and fiscal issue for Tisbury that remains ongoing.
In perhaps another sign of changing times, Tisbury voters will be asked to adopt a new bylaw that fines the owners of barnyard animals, including fowl, that stray beyond the confines of their property. Recalling the recent neighborhood controversy over Rupert the rooster, perhaps this should be dubbed Rupert’s law.
In Oak Bluffs there is increasingly good news on the financial front, where a painstaking, across-the-board effort to curb expenses in the past two years has helped restore order to the town balance sheet. But deferred maintenance comes at a cost, and this year Oak Bluffs voters will be asked to play catchup with long-delayed infrastructure improvements through a large spending article to repair and resurface roads and sidewalks throughout the town. Town residents and other Islanders who have dodged and bumped over potholes from County Road to Seaview avenue can attest to the need for these critical repairs in the Cottage City.
In Edgartown the big ticket item will be more than seven hundred thousand dollars for two new fire trucks. But the chief item on warrant will come at no cost to the taxpayers and marks a pivotal moment in history when voters will be asked to approve the transfer of ownership of the Edgartown Lighthouse from the Coast Guard to the town. The wisdom of the transfer is undisputed and deserves the backing of every voter.
The key to a successful town meeting, and by extension a functioning, healthy small-town democracy, is participation. In today’s edition the Gazette reports on what appears to be a discouraging trend: a glaring lack of candidates for town office. With no contests on the ballots, annual town elections in Oak Bluffs, Edgartown and West Tisbury will be unusually quiet affairs next Thursday.
Even if you can’t afford the time to sit on a town board or committee, town meeting offers a way to get involved in your community’s business, and you only need to give up one night in early spring.
So pick up a town report and go to your annual town meeting.