Oak Bluffs budget to rise more than 20%
Oak Bluffs voters will face a host of difficult financial issues when they gather for their annual town meeting on April 8. The 31-article annual warrant includes four Proposition 2.5 questions and a $22.5-million fiscal year 2009 operating budget.
The annual meeting begins at 7:30 pm in the Performing Arts Center at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. A special town meeting needed to tidy up various money issues will precede the annual meeting. It begins at 7:00 pm. The annual Water District meeting begins at 6:30 pm.
The $22.5-million (FY) 2009 operating budget represents a $4.2-million increase over the $18.3-million FY 2008 budget, an increase of more than 20 percent, according to budget figures to be placed before voters on April 8. The current fiscal year ends on June 30.
The budget includes $128,724 in salary increases for top town department managers. It also sets aside $116,188 for expected salary increases to come, negotiated with the town's union employees.
Town meeting voters will decide three Proposition 2.5 override questions totaling $643,413. If passed at town meeting, the questions must be affirmed at the ballot box before taking effect. The date of the ballot has not yet been set. The requests for more town spending are to cover large increases in education costs, and future liability for town employee retirement health benefits.
A fourth ballot question asks voters to approve a $99,991 exclusion to the Proposition 2.5 tax limiting law, to exempt debt owed for school buses purchased by the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) last year.
The overrides and debt exclusion, if approved at town meeting and later affirmed at the ballot box, would translate to a tax hike of approximately $153 annually for a typical Oak Bluffs home, assessed at approximately $602,000, according to the town finance department.
Selectman Ron DiOrio said failure to pass the override questions could result in deep cuts in town services. "You can expect, not small cuts, major cuts. We do not want to cut staff, we certainly want to be fair and equitable with the employees we have."
"My main concern at this point is that voters might decide not to pay for some of the overrides," said Thad Harshbarger, chairman of the financial advisory committee (FinCom). "If not, we're going to have to suck it up somewhere, and we just don't know where at this point."
Mid-year negotiations, implementation of a recently completed compensation and classification study, and two personal services contracts authorized by selectmen are reflected in the FY 2009 budget's salary line items.
Many of the salary recommendations are tied to a compensation study completed last year following a dispute over the town's large use of personal service contracts. The study determined that the salaries for several positions were far below comparable positions in other towns. The compensation study was approved in principle at the December 2007 special town meeting.
Articles 10 and 11 on the town meeting warrant ask voters to implement a specific schedule of salary steps and job classifications outlined in the study.
Although a comparison of salary line items in the FY 08 and FY 09 budgets show some hefty increases, in many cases the hikes do not reflect mid-year adjustments and previous contractual agreements.
For example, according to the numbers presented in the budget, the base salary of police Chief Eric Blake would rise from $88,500 to $102,625, an increase of $18,467. The actual increase is less. Chief Blake, who has worked without a contract or a salary increase for two years, recently agreed to a personal services contract that pegged his salary at $99,635 for the current fiscal year.
Also, the budget line item for the town's information technology director shows an increase of $18,554, over FY 2008 salary of $52,000, bringing that salary to $70,554. The FY 2008 line item does not reflect a raise agreed to at a special town meeting as part of an effort to implement the recommendations included in the compensation study.
Line items for the finance director, town accountant, town administrator, principal assessor, tax collector, shellfish constable, harbormaster, highway superintendent, and library director also show substantial increases.
School costs, health-care liability
The rising cost of education features large in the budget issues facing voters.
The Oak Bluffs School budget will rise from $5,517,918 in FY 2008 to $5,891,985 in FY 2009.
The regional high school assessment will rise from $2,568,772 to $3,098,951.
The FinCom decided to seek overrides tied to the amount of money over the amounts in the FY 08 school budgets. The override amount for the Oak Bluffs School is $236,119. The override article for the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School is set at $157,294.
If voters reject the high school override, but voters in four other Island towns approve their share of the regional high school costs, then Oak Bluffs voters will be legally obligated to pay the $157,294 amount. Town officials could seek another override, or free up the funds by cutting costs in other town departments.
Also slated for an override question is a $250,000 expenditure to cover the cost of post-retirement health benefits promised to town employees.
This year, Oak Bluffs and most other towns must account for their unfunded health-care liability. The override question represents the first installment in a 30-year plan to pay for the future health-care costs. An actuarial study completed earlier this year pegged the cost of the first installment at $596,000, but town officials believe they can substantially reduce the liability by requiring that eligible retirees switch to the federal Medicare program. In a separate article, voters will decide whether to mandate the switch. Town officials say transfers from the private health plans now offered to Medicare will save taxpayers millions of dollars in current and future health insurance costs, with no sacrifice in health-care benefits for retirees.
A fourth Prop 2.5 question relates to the purchase of school buses. Because it is a "debt exclusion" it would only affect the tax rate for the amount of time it takes to pay off the debt.
A similar debt exclusion question is for the bond issue that funded the recent harbor bulkhead reconstruction. That debt exclusion will not appear on this year's warrant. It was approved by town meeting voters last year, but has not yet been voted at the ballot. If approved by ballot, it would add an additional $34, approximately, to the tax bill of a typical property owner.
Voters will be asked to make a large number of transfers from various accounts.
For example, several articles ask voters to approve transfers from the ambulance reserve fund, an account outside the town's operating budget, to pay for equipment and training used by emergency medical personnel. These items might have been funded through the town's general operating budget in previous years.
Voters will be asked to transfer $200,000 from the embarkation fee account, monies received as a result of the 50-cent surcharge on ferry tickets, to fund additional police salaries and temporary summer police officers.
Voters will be asked to spend a total of $863,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds on various housing and preservation projects, including the Bradley Square affordable housing project, conversion of the old library building to affordable housing, rental assistance, restoration of the Ocean Park bandstand, restoration of the Martha's Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association tabernacle cupola, and emergency town beach repairs.
Voters will be asked to rescind $200,000 in CPA money authorized at the 2007 town meeting to add a baseball diamond and improve the Little League facilities at Veira Park, and reallocate the same amount to construct new Little League fields near the wastewater facility, on land known as the Leonardo property. Project organizers faced sustained opposition from residents of the Veira Park neighborhood.
In December, the Dukes county commissioners decided to erase a fiscal 2009 budget deficit by cutting the rodent control and health-care departments by 50 percent and eliminating the county engineer. The cuts were made with the intention of asking taxpayers in Island towns to make up the difference in the first two departments and fully fund the county engineer. Ultimately, the commissioners intend to ask the towns to fully fund all the programs.
Oak Bluffs voters will be asked to pay their proportionate share for county health care access, rodent control, and county engineering programs. Unlike the articles that appear on the warrants of other towns, the specific dollar amounts do not appear in the wording of the articles, and there is no wording that makes the vote contingent on passage of the articles by all other towns.
Passage of the three county articles would cost at total of $20,520: $9,880 for the engineering program; $3,800 for the rodent control program; and $6,840 for the health programs.
The money would be in addition to the town's FY 2009 county assessment of $117,499, money that is not subject to town meeting vote.
Another article would allow a secret ballot for town meeting articles, if 25 voters rise to request it. Another would make full-time elected officials eligible for longevity pay benefits.