AGHCA, on May 14th, 2009

Aquinnah votes $3M budget; override next

with permission, MV Times

$100,000 more than levy limit allowed asked of taxpayers

On the face of it, Aquinnah voters made quick work of their annual town meeting. In approximately two hours, they approved a $3 million operating budget and all warrant articles presented.

But the conclusion of the meeting only left town officials holding their breath pending the results of yesterday’s election and a $100,000 Proposition 2.5 override vote needed to fund the 2010 fiscal year operating budget that begins on July 1.

In response to the budget uncertainty, moderator Walter Delaney declared the meeting continued until June 3 so town officials and voters would have time to right the town’s financial ship.

Special town meeting Tuesday

The town of Aquinnah has scheduled a special town meeting for Tuesday, May 19, at 7 pm to consider a number of money transfers and other matters. At this week’s annual town meeting, moderator Walter Delaney appealed to voters to attend the special town meeting. Earlier this year, the town was forced to postpone a special town meeting three times because of a lack of a quorum.

A total of 66 voters, or 18 percent of the town’s 393, registered voters attended the meeting.

At the start of the meeting a little after 7 pm, Jim Newman, chairman of the board of selectmen, implored voters to vote in favor of the override. He said town officials had done their best to prune the budget. “There is absolutely no other place we can cut,” said Mr. Newman, who faced an unopposed re-election bid.

Historically Aquinnah voters have resisted overrides. Throughout the annual meeting voters focused on town costs, in particular contributions to regional services.

As voters ploughed though the budget line by line, Wendy Swolinsky called attention to the cost of participation in the Tri-Town ambulance service. Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury share the costs of the volunteer service that provides emergency medical services 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Ms. Swolinski questioned Aquinnah police chief Rhandi Belain, a member of the Tri-Town committee on the number of ambulance runs. There were 27 calls in 2008, he said.

Ms. Swolinski questioned if the town could do better than $4,000 per ambulance ride.

Mr. Belain explained that the towns shared the costs equally, irrespective of size or call numbers. Mr. Newman said selectmen would continue to discuss the issue with committee members.

Budget pressures and the give-back of tax dollars in connection with the mess left on Menemsha Pond in the wake of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head’s failed oyster farm generated the sharpest comments of the night.

In a story published on March 19 (Aquinnah closes Indian oyster project), The Times reported that for several years the Tribe has poorly managed its oyster aquaculture project and allowed grow bags and other material to litter Menemsha Pond.

As a result, Aquinnah has issued $16,000 in tax abatements in each of the last two years to property owners along the Menemsha Pond shoreline, because they have been unable to enjoy their rights to the beach and water, and the own will do so again next year.

Voters questioned the loss of $42,000 in tax dollars at the time that the town is facing an override. “Is there a way to recoup that money?” asked Joe Corbo.

Putting the issue of dollar and cents aside, Jeffrey Madison, a member of the tribe who has served in various tribe and town capacities, stood and described his reaction when he took his grandson for a walk along the shoreline this past weekend. “What I saw there was appalling,” said Mr. Madison, a lawyer. He said it was important that the town knows what the Tribe had done to the body of water, and that included a quarter acre of black plastic litter.

“Something has to be done,” said Mr. Madison. “It is absolutely disgusting.”

No tribal officials spoke to the issue. Selectman Spencer Booker, a tribal member and former president of the Wampanoag Shellfish Hatchery Corporation, sat silent.

Selectman Camille Rose said the Tribe had made some progress in its cleanup “but not enough.” She said selectmen planned to meet with the Tribe on Tuesday to discuss the expired lease and cleanup.

Ms. Rose said that if the town had to take over the cleanup it would go after the Tribe for the costs. Mr. Corbo asked if the town would attempt to recover the $48,000 lost tax revenue.

Another voter asked if there were other similar tax breaks. She said voters would not have known about the decreased assessments but for the news story.

As the discussion continued, Ms. Swolinsky once again pressed town officials about budget cuts. Mr. Newman responded, “You are making assumptions without attending any meetings.”

Isaac Taylor, finance committee chairman, said town officials had done all they can and he expressed frustration with calls for further action by people he said who had not previously expressed any interest in the budget process.

After more than one hour of discussion, voters approved a FY 2010 budget totaling $2,996,846. They then moved through the remaining measures on the 16-article annual town meeting warrant.

Voters approved the Up-Island Regional School District assessment, but they questioned the cost of the regional agreement versus the so-called statutory agreement under which the town could save $40,000. One voter characterized it as a choice between the “nice guy and not so nice guy agreement.”

Voters also approved all community preservation articles.

An article on legislation that would allow a regional approach to post-employment benefits spurred another lengthy discussion on potential regional costs to the town. Voters approved the measure.

An article that would allow the regional high school district to sell or lease the superintendent’s office in Vineyard Haven spawned a similar discussion on regional costs and obligations.

The only vote of the night was a request for $1,152, the town’s share of the costs of the county pest control program. Barbara Bassett described it as “a big old waste of money.”

On a standing vote, the measure passed 25 to 19.

Following the vote, T.J. Hegarty, head of the one-man county pest control department, described the benefits of the county program and noted that some of the same voters who had just voted no had received free service.

Voters had no qualms about the town picking up a share of the cost of the county’s health-care access program.

An article placed on the warrant by citizen petition calling attention to concerns about genetically engineered crops passed easily.


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