As revenue falls, tempers rise in Oak Bluffs

A week of meetings generated anger, confrontation, entrenchment, but no decisions on how Oak Bluffs intends to tackle a $238,000 revenue shortfall for the current budget year.

The shortfall came to light during a Massachusetts Department of Revenue review of town finances, as part of the process of setting a new tax rate. Actual revenue did not meet projected revenue in several areas, including the money Oak Bluffs collects for permit fees, waste disposal fees, charter school reimbursement, interest, penalties, fines, and forfeitures, according to town administrator Michael Dutton.

During a stormy meeting of the finance and advisory committee last Thursday, and again at the selectmen’s meeting Tuesday, committee members said they were surprised and unhappy about news that local revenues would come up short.

“What numbers did we go to the state with, to have them say we’re out of our minds, which is what it appears they said?” finance and advisory committee chairman Bill McGrath asked Mr. Dutton last Thursday.

Selectmen and committee members discussed ways to cut spending before June 30, the end of the budget year. Among the possibilities were eliminating curbside trash pickup, temporarily closing the senior center or the library, forgoing planned maintenance of Ocean Park, and printing fewer town reports.

Town officials are gathering figures to estimate the savings that those strategies would realize, but selectman Ron DiOrio questioned whether a furlough of library or senior center staff is legal. He said contractual obligations require the town to pay salaried staff, even if the facilities are closed.

The suggestion to temporarily close the senior center brought sharp disagreement and sparked an outburst of raised voices, as members stood and faced each other across the conference table.

Other cuts discussed did have price tags. Eliminating more street lights would save $11,000, according to Mr. Dutton’s estimate. Cutting staff at the town’s information kiosk would save $5,000. An accounting change in fuel costs for ambulances could slice $12,000 out of the operating budget. Cutting town employee travel expenses could save $4,200.

At Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting, among the first items on the agenda was a plea from library trustees to hire a new reference librarian and allow them to identify cuts in other areas. The position has been vacant for several months, and several library programs for adults have been curtailed.

“Why don’t you let the director, along with the board of trustees, find areas that can best sustain the cuts with the least impact to the public?” Beatrice Green asked selectmen. Ms. Green is chairman of the library trustees.

“If it is not cut equitably across all departments in this town, we will lose our certification.” Ms. Green said loss of certification may result in loss of borrowing privileges in other towns, and a potential loss of state and federal grants.

The town could erase most of the revenue shortfall by leaving four staff positions vacant. The town did not fill the library position, or that of finance director, zoning administrator, and a heavy equipment operator, when those positions became vacant at various times this year. If the town leaves those positions vacant until the end of the budget year, it would save $176,766 in salary and benefits called for in the budget.

But finance and advisory committee members criticized attrition as a way to reduce the shortfall.

“To accept unfilled positions that happen purely by chance as being the way to run the town is in my opinion very shortsighted,” Mr. McGrath said. “The fact that we don’t have a finance director, I think, is costing us money.”

Mr. Dutton expects to make recommendations on spending cuts to selectmen at a meeting this afternoon. He said those recommendations will include spending money for a financial director’s functions, though he does not expect to fill that position with a permanent staffer before next year.

Selectmen may set a date for a special town meeting to address the shortfall, sometime in February

Beyond the current revenue squeeze, town officials warn that the budget for next year will require difficult and painful decisions.

“I believe what we’re heading for in the spring is a general [Proposition 2.5] override for this town to survive,” Duncan Ross, chairman of the selectmen, said. “We are in deep financial trouble.”

A very preliminary FY2012 budget projects an estimated $1 million deficit. Mr. Dutton said the budget calculations now include early estimates for many departments. He said the first draft does not include any increases in salaries for town employees. Most town employees work under collective bargaining agreements that expire on June 30. Negotiation on new contracts will begin soon.