with permission from the MV Gazette

By SAM BUNGEY

An attempt to hike Aquinnah commercial shellfish licenses from $200 to $1,000, to help fund an apparent six-figure shortfall in the town budget, sparked outrage in the fishing community this week.

The increase came, in both concept and number, from selectman Camille Rose, who faced concerted opposition from fellow selectmen and the public at a Monday meeting which had people offering opinions from the hallway outside the jammed-to-overflow meeting room of the town hall. “Level fund some of the other departments you’ve got in town,” declared scalloper Matthew (Cully) Vanderhoop, “There’s a lot of sweat equity out there in the pond.”

“We’re the first ones to find the rubble and the broken bottles in the pond, and to make a salary of what 8, 10, $20,000?” said scalloper Julie Vanderhoop, “That’s feeding a family, paying the mortgage. It’s one thing you can do in the winter, and it’s dangerous work not everyone knows how to do. To throw a figure out there is careless. All we ask is, you’re working for us.”

Selectman Jim Newman read into the record a letter from Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). Ms. Andrews-Maltais credited a federally-funded tribe wildlife program with this year’s successful scallop season.

“In my opinion, a 500 per cent increase in any fee is outrageous and injudicious,” she wrote in the letter, dated Monday April 7. “The tribe has invested over $150,000 directly toward bay scallop restoration with the intent to enhance the quality of the pond, to better support our fishermen and families. For this reason the tribe wishes to not only express our concern about the increased license fees, but to also question why such a severe course of action is being taken against such a small and distinct sector of the town’s population?” she also wrote.

“What would you say is reasonable?” asked Ms. Rose.

“Fifty bucks,” replied fisherman Buddy Vanderhoop.

Mr. Newman and selectman Spencer Booker both said the issue should be first discussed by the shellfish committee.

“I want to send this back to the shellfish committee,” said Mr. Booker.

Mr. Newman repeatedly underscored that he did not endorse the proposal.

“This is Camille’s idea; it does not have the backing of the selectmen,” he said at the meeting. Later in the week, though, he acknowledged that he himself put the issue on the agenda.

“I wanted it to be discussed in the open rather than it just happening, just going ahead,” Mr. Newman said, though he also maintained the issue would be better discussed first among members the shellfish committee. “We need to work for our residents,” he said.

Town accountant Majorie Spitz also opposed the hike.

“You can’t level fund everything,” she said at the meeting, “My department doesn’t bring in any revenue. I don’t think it’s correct to look at what departments are in bringing in, like they’re a business. It’s not such a direct relationship. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any increase, I’m just saying it shouldn’t be measured in nuts and bolts like that.”

The discussion comes on the heels of the revelation that the town is currently some $100,000 off a balanced budget for the next fiscal year. With the budget due to be finalized before the end of the month, town leaders are scrambling to close the gap by making further cuts to department budgets and looking for extra cash in a town with comparatively little revenue-generating capacity.

Speaking after the meeting, Ms. Rose said she stands by the principle of raising the license fees, though she conceded that $1,000 is an unlikely number.

“We had to start some place,” she said. “It probably was high but at least it spurred conversation. We have similar fixed costs for our shellfish program, but we make less money than any of the other towns in terms of tax dollars. I support it, it’s a wonderful program. But it helps if people want to help pay for it. The fishermen have had a very successful year; at a meeting five weeks ago they bragged about how good, how successful the season had been. A substantial raise in the fees is appropriate.”

She acknowledged that a lengthier process in tandem with the shellfish committee to determine fees might be appropriate, but said then time is of the essence.

“There probably is another way to approach it, but we really just discovered how large the deficit is – it came as a bit of a shock, so there’s a scramble to make up some of the deficit,” she said.