Oak Bluffs rejects override, but approves pay hikes
Oak Bluffs voters moved cantankerously through their special town meeting warrant and part way through their annual town meeting warrant Tuesday night, approving more than $80,000 in raises for the town’s non-union employees, but defeating a Proposition 2.5 override question to pay for town employees’ post-retirement health benefits.
Voters were to return to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Wednesday night to act on the town’s proposed $22.5 million spending plan, and two more Proposition 2.5 questions to pay for large increases in school spending.
A total of 171 voters were officially counted by the time the special town meeting began at 7:05 pm, but their ranks swelled to 335 voters as the meeting progressed through more than three hours of debate. They peppered town officials with tough questions on spending issues, signaling a penny-pinching mood.
In response to an innocuous explanation of state law that prohibited an amendment to increase a requested appropriation, town moderator David Richardson said, "I don’t think this town meeting is in a mood to raise anything."
The first of three override articles on the warrants proved Mr. Richardson correct.
In a question supported by selectmen and the financial advisory board, voters were asked to override the Proposition 2.5 tax limiting law and set aside $250,000 as the first installment in a 30-year plan to pay for employees’ post-retirement benefits.
An actuarial study pegged the town’s unfunded liability for the health benefits at $7.1 million, and recommended that $596,403 be set aside and invested this year to begin funding the liability.
Town officials recommended the $250,000 amount because they believe they can substantially reduce the liability by mandating eligible retirees switch from private health programs to Medicare the federal health insurance program. Voters approved that mandate earlier in the evening, but they were skeptical about the override question.
Photo by Steve Myrick
"I believe we need to do more than this actuarial study," said voter Bruce Miner. "We need to see what we can do to limit these benefits."
Selectman Roger Wey, also a town employee, said the health benefits represented a promise to town employees.
"The employees have taken low paying jobs years ago," said Mr. Wey, "but they were always guaranteed their benefits. Let the majority of the people of the town vote on this."
Oak Bluffs employees pay 25 percent of their health insurance benefits, the town pays 75 percent. One voter asked whether the town had considered increasing the portion employees pay, a question that was met at first with a noticeable silence, before selectman Ron DiOrio responded. "To change it after the fact, just doesn’t seem like the way we want to do business," he said.
"A lot of us are having a hard time paying heating bills, and taxes now," said another voter. "Since we’re not mandated to do it, and you don’t seem to be too clear on the figures, maybe we should wait."
A total of 140 voters were counted in favor of the override question in a standing vote, 120 voted against it. A two-thirds majority (175 votes) was required for the Proposition 2.5 question, so the measure was defeated.
Town officials are now faced with two choices. They can opt not to fund the liability, or fund it out of the general operating budget. If they choose not to fund the future health benefits, new accounting standards require the town to show the liability on its balance sheet, a factor that could damage its credit rating.
In another Proposition 2.5 related question, voters opted to exclude the debt payment for its share of school buses purchased last year by the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. The town’s payment amounts to $99,991 for the coming budget year. Excluding the debt will effectively increase the tax bill on a typical Oak Bluffs home (assessed at approximately $600,000) by about $20 annually over the next five years. After five years the debt will be paid, and the tax bill will be reduced by that amount.
Other articles that sparked heated debate involved implementation of a compensation and classification study. The study establishes pay scales for the town’s non-union employees based on similar positions in similar towns. Two related articles were approved on overwhelming voice votes, but not before a cadre of local gadflies thoroughly dissected proposed salary increases totaling more than $80,000.
"I was one of the lead critics of the personnel system," said Kerry Scott, chair of the board of selectmen. "The people in this town have a right to expect that we will treat our employees with dignity and respect. This document goes a long way toward dong this. This document undoes a lot of damage."
The debate took place against the backdrop of a vigorous selectmen’s race, just two days before voters go to the ballot box.
Hans von Steiger, a challenger in the race, rose repeatedly to directly question Mr. DiOrio, one of his two opponents in the three-way race for two selectmen’s seats. Incumbent Duncan Ross is the third candidate in the race.
"This does not pertain to collective bargaining units," said Mr. DiOrio, who is the lead negotiator with the town’s unions. "Those contracts are in the process of being negotiated. This becomes a guide for the collective bargaining agreement."
"What is the use of this as a guideline," countered Mr. von Steiger. "It’s almost useless."
In other action, voters rescinded last year’s town meeting vote to designate $200,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to build new baseball facilities at Veira Park, and reallocate those funds to build two new fields near the town’s wastewater facility on a parcel known as the Leonardo property.
They also approved a bylaw change that allows town employees to work a flexible schedule, if approved by their department head and the town administrator.
Voters approved transfers from the ambulance reserve fund totaling $108,000 for new equipment and training for emergency medical personnel.
They also adopted provisions of a state law allowing part-time Oak Bluffs construction inspectors to do general contracting in Oak Bluffs, if their work is inspected by an inspector from another town.
The annual town meeting was to resume at 7 pm Wednesday evening at the high school performing arts center.