Facing overrides, Oak Bluffs braces for cuts
Three Proposition 2.5 override questions and three debt exclusion questions totaling $864,655 will greet Oak Bluffs voters when they go to the polls in a special election next Wednesday, May 28. The voting booths will be open from noon until 7 pm at the Oak Bluffs library meeting room.
If all the Proposition 2.5 overrides are approved, the annual tax bill for a median-valued Oak Bluffs home would increase by $173. The median value of a home in Oak Bluffs is approximately $603,000. If the overrides fail, town officials must reduce other operating expenses.
"What the town decides is going to be the right thing, by definition," said town administrator Michael Dutton. He added that town administrators and elected officials have not yet defined what will be cut if the voters reject the overrides, but it will very likely include personnel cuts.
Tax bills are already expected to rise approximately $74 on a median property, as a result of the $22.5 million budget approved by town meeting voters. That budget includes a 2.5 percent increase over the year before, which is the amount allowed without an override vote.
In a visit to The Times newsroom, Mr. Dutton and finance director Paul Manzi stressed the importance of educating voters. The finance and advisory committee member has prepared an information sheet for voters, available here.
"We can't predict the effect of taking any of the costs from the town budget," wrote the committee. "It seems unlikely that the town will find substantial new revenue in the next year, and it is more likely to result in reduced services and/or staff."
In Wednesday's election, voters will be asked whether they want to override the Proposition 2.5 tax-limiting law to increase the tax levy to fund increases in school spending for the Oak Bluffs School ($236,119), the town's share of educating students at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School ($157,294), and to maintain lifeguard service on town beaches ($57,300).
The high school override question presents an additional complication. The high school budget was accepted by four other Island towns, so it is already, in effect, approved. If the override question passes, the tax levy will be increased. If it fails, the town must still pay the entire amount, but the funds must come out of the operating budget, which means other town expenses must be cut.
A large part of the increase in the Oak Bluffs School budget this year is the result of the latest collective bargaining contract, which provides raises of three percent for teachers this year, three percent in 2009, and 3.5 to four percent in 2010.
According to school committee member Priscilla Sylvia, the school committee and school administrators have identified cuts in personnel and programs they say will be necessary if the elementary school override question fails.
They include a part-time teacher for the instrumental music program, a part-time Spanish teacher for grades two through five, two special needs paraprofessionals, a library assistant, an afterschool program for kids who need help with homework, one of three bus routes, cultural programs, a custodian and a mentoring program for teachers. The cuts would include seven full- or part-time staff people.
"I'm not optimistic," said Ms. Sylvia, when asked her sense of how the town will vote. "I'm very, very afraid. I'm hopeful, but still fearful.
That sense was echoed by several veteran observers of Oak Bluffs politics in conversations with The Times over the past several weeks.
Voters will also decide whether to exclude from Proposition 2.5 limitations the money owed on bonds to pay for school buses ($99,991), harbor bulkhead improvements ($77,450), and the purchase of the Leonardo property for future expansion of the wastewater plant ($136,500).
Approval of the debt exclusions would also raise the tax levy, but only until the bond is paid off. The harbor bulkhead and the Leonardo property are financed over ten years, the buses over five years.
Mr. Dutton noted that the town has voted debt exclusions for six other capital projects in recent years. "My fear is that people won't understand the debt exclusions," he said. "They won't tie their willingness to spend money at Town Meeting with the second step, debt exclusion."