Editorial : What leaders do
There were no good choices for Oak Bluffs voters yesterday, faced with three Proposition 2.5 override questions and three debt exclusion questions, adding up to $864,655.
Approval of the overrides would raise taxes significantly. Their defeat would force town leaders to invade the town's operating budget looking for places to cut.
"What the town decides is going to be the right thing, by definition," town administrator Michael Dutton told The Times last week. He also said town officials didn't have a plan for what will be cut, but some believed that the axe would certainly fall on some town personnel.
Voters were asked to override Proposition 2.5 to increase the town's tax levy to fund $236,119 in Oak Bluffs School spending, and $157,294 for the town's share of Martha's Vineyard Regional High School costs.
The town's high school share must be paid, no matter what. It's just a matter of whether the tax levy is permitted to rise or the town budget must be cut. The Oak Bluffs School request results from a contract agreement that the school committee has already approved. Either by chopping the school budget or the town budget, those funds must also be provided.
Now, in the case of the town school committee, its members have earmarked the cuts that will need to be made to find the $236,119 in the town school's budget. Those cuts will come from personnel and programs, including a part-time teacher for the instrumental music program, a part-time Spanish teacher for grades two through five, two special needs para-professionals, a library assistant, an after school 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.
The school committee, acting responsibly, has marked its budget for reductions, should voters be unwilling to add to the tax levy. And committee members have described those cuts for voters.
Oak Bluffs town officials have not been as forthcoming. They have suggested that if the overrides fail, painful cuts will come, but they have not identified those cuts. Failing to do so left Oak Bluffs voters without important information they might have used to make their choices. This is especially disappointing, because the two school-related overrides and the third override question, involving nearly $60,000 to pay for lifeguards, will permanently increase the tax levy, making the base for levy calculations for the 2009-2010 fiscal year that much higher. Voters, unequipped with information about the damage that would be done to the operating budget if the overrides were rejected, were faced with a choice between unspecified budget cuts and an increase in taxes during the fiscal year beginning July 1 and every fiscal year that will follow.
The argument here is that voters need complete and transparent information to make good decisions. It is not enough to say that whatever voters decide will be the right decision. Voters make the right decisions when they understand what is at issue. The obligation of town leaders is to make the issue clear.