Taxes level, services down, frustration up in Oak Bluffs

In some ways visible, some not so visible, and some soon to be visible, two years of budgetary belt tightening in Oak Bluffs are beginning to be felt in the form of service cuts and staff layoffs.

As the 2011 fiscal year began on July 1, there were fewer summer police officers on the streets, less maintenance of roads and town buildings, and reduced hours when the public can do business with several town hall departments.

Town officials say the effect on the average Oak Bluffs resident will be minimal, for the most part. “There are only so many ways you can do the same thing and provide the same services with less money and less staff,” town administrator Michael Dutton said. “In many areas, it’s realistic. Given the economy, we’d be remiss if we didn’t have a very in-depth and well thought out discussion about it.”

In a meeting with his department heads just before the start of this fiscal year, Mr. Dutton emphasized that communication with the public will be essential as services are reduced.

“What I’ve had to tell people in town hall is, post your hours, let people know when you’re going to be in your office, try to set aside very specific times of the day and the week. As long as people know, and have an expectation, then you’re OK. The public is going to have frustrations with people not at their desks. They (town employees) have to understand that frustration, they have to empathize with that, but they have to take some responsibility to let the public know exactly when they can be reached.”

Money squeeze

After significant reductions in many town department budgets at the beginning of fiscal year 2010, Oak Bluffs still found itself facing an unexpected revenue miss of nearly $500,000 last fall. Mr. Dutton crafted a package of mid-year budget cuts, which were approved by selectmen on August 25, 2009. The cuts were approved by voters at a special town meeting on October 20, 2009.

Town departments were cut even further for fiscal year 2011, as health insurance costs and previously negotiated salary increases for town employees strained town resources. Voters at the April 13 annual town meeting, which continued over a series of three nights, approved the budget. At an April 15 town election, voters rejected Proposition 2.5 ballot questions that would have raised the tax rate, but restored most of the cuts made the previous fall. The only override question voters approved was a request for $37,500, to fully fund the Oak Bluffs School budget, by a vote of 620 to 560.

Pavement problems

The Oak Bluffs highway department has experienced some of the deepest budget cuts, though their effect is somewhat delayed. For two consecutive years, the highway department budget has not included what was once an annual expenditure of $200,000 or more, for paving and highway maintenance.

“The biggest effect, obviously, is the condition of our infrastructure going forward,” highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr. said. “It’s going to get worse and worse. When a road gets so far into disrepair it needs to be rebuilt, it needs to be ground down, graded, retopped, that’s a lot more expensive.” He said a several roads are near the point where rebuilding will be necessary. “Dukes County Avenue is getting close,” Mr. Combra said. “A few roads out on East Chop. These were roads that were on the top of the paving plan.”

Also affected is the large network of unpaved roads in outlying districts. Though not obligated to maintain the roads, as a courtesy to taxpayers, the town sometimes used town equipment to smooth out the worst of the potholes. Now, Mr. Combra routinely rejects requests to grade dirt roads.

“We just don’t have the equipment,” Mr. Combra said. “We have a 1994 loader that is in dire need of replacement. You’re talking $10,000 just to replace the tires. We’re going another year with expensive repairs. That loader is so fragile we don’t take it out much any more. We need to save that for snow removal.”

In the April town election, voters rejected Proposition 2.5 override questions totaling $285,000 that would have allowed the town to resume its paving and road maintenance, lease a new loader, and repair town buildings. “The roof on the police station, the roof on town hall, they’re leaking,” Mr. Combra said. “We’re up there patching them all the time.”

Serving less

The police department was asked to eliminate one full time police officer’s position in last fall’s midyear budget cuts, reducing the staff from 15 to 14 officers.

But the department has remained at 15 officers, after the rank and file voluntarily agreed to wage and benefit concessions that saved an equal amount.

In the April 15, town election, voters overwhelmingly rejected a $96,980 Proposition 2.5 override question that would have restored the position. The staff remained at 15 officers this week, but a reduction to 14 officers is expected soon.

The police department hired seven special officers for this fiscal year, including traffic and parking officers. That is half the number hired last year, and the reduction is having effects. Ranking officers are now assigned to more patrol shifts. Until this year, the department provided detail officers as a courtesy for special events such as Harborfest. Now the sponsoring private organizations are being asked to pay the full rate, ($40 per hour, per officer) for detail officers.

“We’re down summer staff, and we’re down full-time staff,” chief Erik Blake said. “We’re way down summer staff. He has budgeted $119,000 for special officers this year, down from a figure of $180,000 just a few years ago. “That doesn’t just pay for the summer, that pays year-round for the specials. If we weren’t able to have specials work in the off-season, to cover shifts for vacancies, the overtime budget would be astronomical. It’s a balancing act,” Mr. Blake said.

Chief Blake said if he hired any fewer special officers, or lost another full-time position, one officer would have to cover the entire town for some regular shifts. “I won’t let that happen,” Chief Blake said. “In this day and age, you can’t do it. Liability-wise, officer-safety wise, it’s bad enough. The serious calls we go on — domestic calls, breaking and entering — you need to have two officers.”

Chief Blake stressed that while the budget cuts will be noticeable, they will not compromise the safety of police officers or the public, even on the busiest days and nights of the season.

“We have enough staff to remain safe,” Mr. Blake said. “The non-urgent calls may have a delayed response. We will never delay a response to a heart attack or a car accident. Fireworks, getting out of town, we have plenty of personnel in key spots to get the traffic moving. It may take a little longer this year; I just don’t have the bodies to be at certain traffic checkpoints. But security-wise, we’ll be fine.”

To your health

Last fall selectmen decided, and voters approved, the elimination of the position of administrative assistant, one of two employees in the health department. Since then, the town has cobbled together funding from other departments to extend the position, but that money is expected to run out near the end of August.

“I predict there is going to be a lot of chaos,” said health agent Shirley Fauteaux, who serves as the head of the department. “When that position is not here, we won’t be able to do any administrative things. The public won’t be served. The public won’t get their questions answered. All the paperwork goes through that position. There won’t be anybody to answer the phone, help people when they walk in, permits get issued, licenses get issued, the money, accounts payable, accounts receivable, a lot of typing, annual forms, real estate brokers that need information from files.”

Ms. Fauteaux said 90 percent of her job is in the field, doing compliance checks and other tasks involving restaurants, homes, septic systems, and trash disposal. In a phone conversation with The Times, Ms. Fauteaux was asked how the department would function without an administrative assistant. “That’s a good question. I’ve been trying to plan, but it takes two to do the planning. I’m going to do my job. I’m going to do what I do. I can’t stress enough, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

On July 6, members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Workers, at the request of the health department, voted whether to take four unpaid furlough days each year, in order to save the administrative position. The union members defeated the measure overwhelmingly.

Water work

Harbormaster Todd Alexander has to get through the summer with two fewer part-time workers than he had last year. The two part-time employees worked a total of about 40 hours each week through the busy summer season. He said it will require careful scheduling. “We have some busy weeks,” Mr. Alexander said. “We’ll manage it okay. We know the time when we’re really going to be swinging — the shark tournament, fireworks.”

He has settled on a strategy of reducing the hours of the pump-out boat, which offloads waste from boat holding tanks for visiting boaters.

“We’re going to reduce the pump-out boat to just the morning, so that we don’t lose people who are collecting the revenue.” The employees who would normally operate the pump-out boat will collect mooring and slip fees in the afternoon.

“If people don’t get pumped-out in the morning, they still have the option of the land based pump-out. To me that was the most logical. People don’t want a tax increase. They don’t want to lose services either, but something’s got to give,” said Mr. Alexander.

Taxes and towns

Two members of the Oak Bluffs finance and advisory committee, the body that serves as a fiscal watchdog on town finances, cite complex and varied reasons that Oak Bluffs is the only town on the Island experiencing significant personnel and service cuts.

Each year, the town faces rising fixed costs such as salaries, health insurance, service on bond debt, and assessments from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Dukes County, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. About 40 percent of the town’s operating budget consists of these fixed costs, leaving town officials a limited number of places to cut.

“Because we’re a relatively inexpensive place to live, we tend to attract families with school-age children,” said Bill McGrath, who was recently elected chairman of the committee. “When they go off to the high school, it costs the town more money. Our assessment has gone up pretty steadily, and we expect it to continue to go up.”

Mimi Davisson, chairman of the committee through last year’s difficult budget deliberations, believes service cuts are more apparent in Oak Bluffs because there are more services to begin with.

“We are the most urbanized, so our tax rate is higher,” Ms. Davisson said. “I would be very confident that if you matched all the towns, you would find that Oak Bluffs is providing more services, or a higher level of service than other towns. I think we provide more summer cops. Oak Bluffs tends to attract more activity, fireworks, Illumination Night, the harbor, things like that.”

Mr. Dutton has a slightly different take on the level of services and staffing.

“I don’t think we’re providing more services than any other town,” Mr. Dutton said. “If you look at the number of people we have working for us, we certainly are bare bones at this point, but we are offering the same services that our neighboring towns offer.”

Mr. Dutton said Oak Bluffs has developed alternative revenue sources over the years, such as a harbor that generates nearly $1 million annually. But he says that in lean times those alternative sources tend to dry up, leaving the town short.

“When times were good, we probably weren’t planning for time like these, but in fairness, I don’t think any town was,” Mr. Dutton said. “For years, Oak Bluffs chief executives have resisted override questions right across the board. That was definitely the philosophy. Some of that historic philosophy has got to change, and we’ve got to get to the point where they think of overrides as the selectmen and the finance and advisory committee giving voters a choice about what they want to fund, and not this bad, awful thing. Edgartown had roughly $1 million worth of override question on the ballot, and every one of them passed, and they’ve done that for several years.”

Budget constrictions at the state level have trickled down to cities and towns. While Island towns generally rely less on revenue from the state than mainland municipalities, the falling revenues have had an effect.

“I would lay blame mostly to state revenues not being maintained at the right levels,” Mr. McGrath said. “The state is cutting again. At some point something has got to give. I think we’ve been giving, but I’m not sure the pain is done.”

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