On Thursday, April 15, Oak Bluffs voters go to the polls to elect town officers. In a race for a seat on the five-member board of selectmen, four candidates will seek the position currently held by Kerry Scott, who decided not to seek re-election.
Karen Achille retired to the Vineyard in 1988, after 22 years as a New York high school English teacher. A mother and grandmother, she is the former Vineyard Haven Library assistant director/children’s librarian and has served in several public capacities, including chairman of the Oak Bluffs Library building committee. She continues to volunteer on many public boards and organizations, including the board of Hospice Martha’s Vineyard.
Gail Barmakian, a lawyer in private practice in Oak Bluffs, has been an active voice in town affairs. She is currently an elected wastewater commissioner, a member of the Seaview waterfront committee and a member of the Friends of the Oak Bluffs Library. Her family has multi-generational roots in the town.
Kris Chvatal is the married father of three-year-old twins and teaches math at the high school. He has been chairman of the Oak Bluffs zoning board of appeals for the last four years. A long-time senior executive in the technology industry and former Americorps volunteer, he holds graduate degrees in math and administration.
Ken Davey, a newcomer to elected politics and native Vineyarder, has served as the president of the Oak Bluffs Firemen’s Civic Association since 1996. He has been an EMT for 27 years and a paramedic for the last 14 years, currently employed with American Medical Response working for Plymouth EMS. He is the married father of a daughter who currently attends the regional high school.
The Times emailed a series of questions to each candidate. Their responses follow:
Six weeks into the current fiscal year Oak Bluffs faced a $500,000 deficit, which led voters to make personnel cuts at an October special town meeting. The operating budget voters will be asked to approve at the annual town meeting on April 13 includes Proposition 2.5 overrides totaling $646,491. What can be done to relieve the upward pressure on the operating budget? Karen Achille: Town departments should be encouraged to pursue grant funding. Selectmen must encourage continued use of shared services among Island towns. Oak Bluffs might also investigate sharing accounting services with other Island towns. I believe they all use the same computerized system. One firm could accomplish all necessary work for any town client to everyone’s financial advantage. This would be cheaper than paying a full-time employee’s salary and benefits. Oak Bluffs must rein in department spending. Selectmen must pay close attention to monthly department financial statements to advise department heads and to develop a frugal culture in departments where thrift has not been the rule before. I am now rekindling the private Permanent Library Endowment Fund that was identified as a need when the new facility was completed. Tough decisions are ahead. There will be no quick fix.
Gail Barmakian: It is not sound business practice to increase spending in a down economy. The wiser thing would be to tighten our belts and ride out the storm. We need to use a common sense business approach, first looking at the expense side of our operating budget to weed out inefficiencies and then to practice economies.
These are the steps a successful business would take, something I had twenty years of experience with in my family’s business.
We must work as a team to appropriately take these actions. We are blessed in Oak Bluffs to have some very capable department heads and employees, and I am convinced we can take measures to effectively cut costs without compromising services or laying off personnel. Working with our Finance Committee and with leadership from the selectmen and town administrator, we absolutely must find ways to reduce costs rather than increase revenue to support increased spending. ‘Spend and Tax’ can no longer be an acceptable mode of operation.
We need to begin regionalizing services such as the office of assessor and the shellfish department. I’d like to see a new regional agreement for the high school – one that discards the per-pupil formula in favor of a regional education tax rate. If we do not choose to pursue these opportunities, we will be burdened with significant tax increases over the next two to three years. That’s simply not acceptable.
Ken Davey: The way to relieve the pressure on the budgets would be to vote “Yes” on the prop 2.5 overrides. However raising taxes is never a popular answer for anything and at times has been used by departments to go above their budgets. I feel that at town meeting this year, the taxpayers will control their own fate. They can vote in favor of all of the 2.5 questions or which ever ones they feel is the most important, or they can vote none, in which case the cuts made in October stand. Some people will lose their jobs and departments will have to work within their budgets. Then the board of selectmen and finance committee will have to find more cuts somewhere else, or other ways to bring revenue to the town.
Do you favor increasing meals and hotel taxes? If not, what other ways might the town generate additional revenue?
Ms. Achille: Eighty Massachusetts towns levied those taxes with significant fiscal relief. I feel the B&Bs and inns in our town will be ill served by being taxed when other Island towns turned down that idea this year. The sewering/water usage taxes and property taxes on the hotels, inns and B&Bs in Oak Bluffs are already a mighty burden for them. Our only balanced budget solution at this time, however, seems to be the hotels and meals tax equaling $300,000 in anticipated income. That hard reality required a tough decision and will need state approval.
Ms. Barmakian: Increased hotel taxes should not seriously be considered before reaching out to that business community for input. My fear is that it may not only hurt our local hotels, inns and B&Bs but also our business community as a whole, diverting business from our community to other towns and causing a domino effect.
We need to be very cautious before taking permanent measures that may negatively impact our local businesses and residents.
Local option taxes like the hotel and meals taxes should be contemplated only after cost/benefit analysis, thorough review and reaching out for input from those affected, something which has not been done yet.
To generate additional revenue, we can enhance existing revenues as well as aggressively seek grants and increases in state and federal aid. It is important to maintain close contact with our state and federal legislators.
Mr. Chvatal: I am in favor of the hotel tax because it does not increase the burden on Oak Bluffs working families, senior citizens, and seasonal residents. I am in favor of the meals tax because spending on restaurants is discretionary, adding just 75 cents to a $100 check. I am not in favor of raising the per barrel garbage sticker price from $4.25 to more than seven dollars.
Mr. Davey: Raising the meals and hotel tax is one way to bring revenue to the town but also at a cost; and it is an unpopular choice. For those of us who do not own a business that this would affect, it appears to be a logical choice but one that may backfire by making Oak Bluffs an unpopular place to stay or eat and may cause even more hardship on those businesses already affected by the economy. I feel Oak Bluffs needs more input from its citizens as to how to bring more revenue into the town and to make it more attractive for businesses to operate and generate income.
The town fiscal situation is difficult now. State aid is certain to decrease more, at least during the next year and perhaps two. And, when the next property revaluation occurs, values are likely to decline, levering up the property tax rate. Is increasing the size of the tax levy, by approving thousands in overrides, wise?
Ms. Achille: No. But I believe the Oak Bluffs voters will not approve all the override items. I will wait and see how the public feels about funding some of them, to what extent that $646,000 tax amount is diminished, and then, when the results of the revaluation process are known, I will be better able to judge its impact for the next annual budgets.
Ms. Barmakian: Before increasing revenue using local property taxes in an economic downturn, we seriously need to consider the impacts on our seniors, young families, and anyone on a fixed or diminished income.
Mr. Davey: I think raising taxes is never a popular choice but if we have to vote yes on Prop. 2.5 questions, we should look at some of the articles and ask if we really need them now or can they put off until another time when our financial situation is better. There are certain departments that have been automatically given whatever they ask for in the past, and this should be one time the people question the timing and the need for the increase. In other words, is this something we need now or is this just something we want? If the tax rate has to go up, have it be for items we need and only after all other avenues have been explored.