Oak Bluffs rejects rooms tax, votes meals tax, cuts stipends

A total of 75 cents added to a $100 restaurant meal is all the appetite Oak Bluffs voters had for tax hikes, at special and annual town meetings Tuesday night.

After a spirited debate, voters adopted a .75 percent meals tax that is projected to generate $200,000 in new money for town services, as Oak Bluffs struggles to cope with falling state and local revenues. But voters drew the line at meals, rejecting a room tax increase of two percent, which would have generated an estimated $100,000 more.

A total of 313 voters were officially counted at Tuesday’s meeting, representing 9.4 percent of the town’s registered voters.

Many decisions remained when the annual meeting recessed shortly before 11 pm Tuesday. Most of the town department budgets and all of the Proposition 2.5 override questions remain to be decided. Voters were scheduled to return to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center again last night to continue work.

When voters tossed the room tax, town officials scrambled to offset the projected $100,000 they had anticipated in revenue from the tax increase. Voters began the process for them, by eliminating the stipends to most town officials except selectmen, and town constables. Though they agreed to preserve the stipends for the selectmen, and town constables. The town meeting also eliminated the three percent raise proposed for the town clerk by approving an amendment from the floor. The amendment set the clerk’s salary for the next fiscal year at $74,360, the same as the current fiscal year, instead of the $76,590 proposed in the warrant.

Town administrator Michael Dutton conferred with elected officials yesterday to decide what services or personnel cuts they would present to town meeting voters when the meeting resumed last night. (The results of Wednesday night’s town meeting action are available on mvtimes.com)

Yes to meals, no to rooms

Voters and town officials wasted little time pitching into passionate arguments for tightening belts or increasing revenue. The second article on the special town meeting warrant asked voters to adopt a “local option” meals tax hike of .75 percent, that would increase the total state and local meals tax to seven percent.

“I see people counting out their nickels and dimes to get a cup of coffee, that’s the truth,” said, Tim Doble, co-owner of Mocha Mott’s coffee shop. “They just raised this tax last year, significantly. Again? Again? It feels like an attack. Nobody in my business got a raise this year.”

“Rest assured Islanders will travel even to save a penny,” said Mike Santoro, owner of Seasons Restaurant and Pub. “How many of us travel up-Island to save a couple of pennies on a gallon of gas? Rest assured people will drive to other towns to avoid this tax.”

The mood of the opposition was evident when moderator David Richardson tried to limit debate following several voters who spoke against the meals tax, and another speaker persisted in his opposition, despite Mr. Richardson’s signals.

“When I give you a signal, it means to be quiet,” Mr. Richardson said. His admonition was greeted with a chorus of dissent.

Others reluctantly supported the tax. “I never thought I would hear myself speak in favor of a tax,” said Bob Iadicicco. “I don’t mind spending 37 cents on my next $50 meal.”

“The majority of this money, or a good percentage of it, would be coming from people who come to visit us,” said Greg Coogan, chairman of the selectmen. “We supply a beautiful town to them, and this is a way for them to help us. There have been a lot of words in the last half hour, but to say we haven’t cut and tightened our belt, please, you know we have. There have been dramatic cuts. If we don’t take in this revenue, there will have to be further cuts. Think twice before you’re swayed by words and exaggerations.”

Voters finally approved the meal tax increase 145-115 by a standing vote.

The town meeting followed the meal tax debate immediately with a decision to reject a room tax increase of two percent, which would have made the total state and local tax on lodging 11 percent.

Oak Bluffs Inn owner Erik Albert cited a list of local inns he said recently converted to weekly rentals. “They’re not paying tax,” Mr. Albert said. “Once again, it’s putting us at a disadvantage. If I turned my house into a weekly rental, I wouldn’t have to pay anything. Essentially, you’re catching up to the revenue you’re missing.”

“The point was made that we do not tax weekly rentals,” responded selectman Ron DiOrio. “We don’t have that authority. Whether you’re for that or against it, that’s off the table.”

“If they (tourists) decide to go somewhere else,” said voter Brian Hughes, “they won’t spend any money here. This will keep people from coming to Martha’s Vineyard, to Oak Bluffs, and we’ll lose more money.”

The article was defeated 172-102, on a standing vote.

Voters made quick work of the rest of the special town meeting warrant. They voted to transfer $70,734 from the town’s stabilization fund, or “rainy day fund,” to pay for extensive special education needs for a local student. Voters rejected an article that would have allowed local municipal boards to set license and permit fees without state approval. They adopted a bylaw change prohibiting any member of a town board or committee from holding a paid position with the town, which is answerable to that board. They voted to spend $22,700 to purchase a lot at 54 Pacific Avenue, with the intention of building to affordable housing rental units. The town concluded work on the special town meeting warrant at 9:01 pm.

Voters took equally quick action on several articles at the top of the annual town meeting warrant. They adopted the compensation and classification schedule without changes from the previous year. It provides for a three percent annual step raise for town employees not covered by collective bargaining agreements. They appropriated $110,000 from the stabilization to pay for the revaluation of real estate and personal property, which happens every three years. In past years, revaluation costs were funded from “free cash,” the town’s operating capital. But Oak Bluffs finished last year with a free cash deficit, so money was not available from that fund.

Mr. Richardson inadvertently skipped over Article 6 on the town warrant, which voters quickly reminded him was the town’s $24.7 million operating budget.

Stipend spending

But before they could deal with the budget, voters decided to skip ahead to article 29, covering annual stipends for town moderator, tree warden, board of health members, and cemetery commissioners. Their decision to eliminate those stipends is expected to save the town $8,200 in the next fiscal year. The town moderator and the board of health advocated eliminating their own stipends during the debate. In a separate action later, voters chose to eliminate stipends for assessors, saving an additional $4,896.

Voters decided to preserve stipends for the chairman of the selectmen, $4,500, the four other selectmen, $3,000 each, and two town constables, $500 each.

When debate finally began on the operating budget, voters signaled their intention to debate 24 separate departments or spending line items. Following debate and action on the first three disputed department budgets, the town meeting was recessed.

Meeting minutes

At 6:55 pm, there was a line of voters waiting to register for the town meeting that stretched out of performing arts center, through the lobby, and outside the building. The special town meeting, scheduled for 7 pm, was called to order at 7:15, but debate on the first article did not begin until 7:27. The town moderator repeatedly called for a quorum count, before the beginning of debate. At 7:25, town constables relayed a count of 273 people registered to vote at the meeting. Oak Bluffs bylaws require only 50 voters to conduct town meeting business.

During the delay, the moderator explained voting procedures, including instructions to hold up the traditional yellow cards to signal a vote. Only to discover that there were not nearly enough yellow cards for all voters.

The moderator also explained a new seating plan, where voters were asked to sit only in the lower part of the lower level of the performing arts center. Constables prevented voters from sitting in the upper level. Mr. Richardson said the change was the result of suggestions from some voters who felt intimidated by previous seating arrangements.

Reporters, photographers, and non-voters were required to sit in the rear part of the auditorium, where it was difficult to see the debate, identify voters, or shoot photographs of spontaneous action. Several extended exchanges between the moderator and selectman Kerry Scott were completely inaudible from the rear of the performing arts center.