Improvements to emergency services, including a new response system at the town beach, challenges facing the town fire department and the ever-present balancing act of managing the town budget were central topics at the Aquinnah summer taxpayers meeting on Wednesday night.

Aquinnah selectmen told a small but inquisitive group of seasonal residents that the town is holding close to a plan to keep spending at a minimum while maintaining top-notch services.

“Overall we’re in good shape; we have finances under control, we always try to fine-tune how it works,” selectman and board chairman Jim Newman told the gathering at the old town hall. “All of our books are in order.”

Sometimes an opportunity for taxpayers to air complaints, the meeting this year sounded more like an annual checkup.

Mr. Newman said balance is the operative word.

“I think [our biggest challenge] will be to continue fine-tuning our financial operations . . . that’s what I’ve been after the last nine years,” he said. “I don’t see any problems other than the economic problems out there, but I’m not sure how they will impact us at this point.”

Voters approved a $3 million annual town budget in May.

In a discussion about emergency services in town, Det. Ryan Ruley explained a new beach safety initiative.

In collaboration with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), the town has installed a series of numbered poles at Philbin Beach. In an emergency, a person calling 911 can look 60 yards to the left or right and identify the location for the call dispatcher, using the number on the pole.

The police department will send out letters in the fall to Aquinnah residents who

own waterfront property, asking permission to use their property in the event of an emergency.

Mr. Ruley also said the department is exploring the purchase of a jet ski to use in responding to emergencies, both in the ocean and in Menemsha Pond.

Mr. Newman also said he expects the town will need to hire another police officer in the next 18 months.

“We have four officers including the chief and when an officer is off, whoever takes his place gets time and a half and it’s adding up,” he said. “In the long run I think it may be cheaper to hire another officer and pay them the regular salary rather than time and a half. These guys aren’t thrilled with the idea but understand that it’s about saving the town money. It’s going to be a hard sell to the town, but it’s a question of economics,” he said.

“Won’t that impel regionalization for the police force?” asked Larry Hohlt, president of the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association.

“I support regionalization on many levels, it may,” Mr. Newman said. “It’s something to consider.”

In the case of the fire department, Mr. Newman said the department has seen its ranks dwindle, an area of concern for the selectmen.

“If we had a serious fire today there would be serious damage,” Mr. Newman said. “We have three active firemen and three fire trucks, and we’re in the process of trying to change things.”

He also said the town is in the process of negotiating a new agreement for the Tri- Town Ambulance Service, which serves Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury. When the agreement was originally ratified in 1973 each town was assessed an equal amount, but Mr. Newman said the formula should change.

“Aquinnah only accounts for between 10 and 17 per cent of the calls and we’re still paying the 33 per cent, it’s a big cost,” he said. “With the state mandates for improving training and equipment our costs keep rising exponentially. We’re trying to negotiate a new formula so we pay less.”

The ambulance service budget increased 40 per cent this year due to new state requirements that require 24-hour paramedic coverage.

There was also discussion about future rules for taxis, the status of bringing cell phone coverage up-Island and a redesign of the town’s Web site. Digital antenna service (DAS) towers are expected to go live in January in Aquinnah and Chilmark to provide telephone and wireless Internet service.

Mr. Hohlt said the boardwalks at Philbin Beach need replacing and the poison ivy needed trimming back. Selectmen said they would look into the matter.

by Remy Tumin