Oak Bluffs selectmen got an update from town administrator Michael Dutton on town finances Tuesday, and a proposal from the town’s community development committee (CDC) to form a new committee to study budget issues and recommend ways to avoid the revenue gap that has forced service cuts over the last two years.
Mr. Dutton reported that work on closing the town’s 2009 books is nearly done and should be official in a few days. The long delay was due in part to the death of town finance director Paul Manzi last October, he said.
The town needs more accounting work done before it can set a tax rate. The town will not likely send tax bills out until some time in February. The town has usually sent tax bills out January 1.
Mr. Dutton said he anticipates borrowing in the neighborhood of $3 million to cover town operating expenses until the tax revenue comes in.
Mr. Dutton said he is awaiting a bid from an outside accounting firm to handle the town’s accounts.
Selectman Gail Barmakian pressed Mr. Dutton about the delays.
“My concern is what I’ve been talking about since August, getting the tax bills out, getting revenue,” Ms. Barmakian said. “I need to know where we are, to be responsible for making any financial decision. What are we going to do, and when are we going to do it?”
Mr. Dutton said the town is planning for a February 22 special town meeting. He said he will present options for spending cuts to selectmen at their next meeting. The decisions will come in the form of approving a warrant with recommendations to make up a $238,000 revenue shortfall in the current budget year.
“We have been having discussions, looking at our options,” selectman Duncan Ross, the chairman, said. “We will be making the decision on February 1, which options to present to town meeting voters.”
The community development committee, which advises selectmen, proposed a new ad hoc committee to study town budget issues.
“This is not to override or circumvent the finance committee,” CDC member Renee Balter said. “It has nothing to do with the current budget, or town meetings, It’s really to look at the services of the town, what is essential, what does essential mean to our town, and look at all new revenue sources. It’s a big job.”
Selectmen were concerned about the makeup of the committee, but expressed general support for the idea.
“I think it’s essential,” selectman Greg Coogan said. “We all agree with the need. We’re in a new world.”
The CDC will propose nominations at the next selectmen’s meeting.
In other action, the board postponed a public hearing on the new contract for police chief Erik Blake, who could not attend.
The new contract calls for the chief to be paid $110,627 in the first year of three-year contract, retroactive to July 1, 2010. He will get a 2.5 percent increase in each successive year. He will also receive additional pay equal to 20 percent of his salary according to the Quinn Bill, an education incentive funded by the state and the town. The state has cut funding considerably in the past two years. If the town opts out of the Quinn Bill requirements, the contract calls for the town to pay the same 20 percent incentive.
In his update, selectman chairman Ross took sharp aim at an editorial “Cottage City Coffers on Empty,” published in the Jan. 21 Vineyard Gazette.
The Gazette editorialist took town administrator Dutton to task for not anticipating the town’s budget problems. “If the budget is a mess, then Mr. Dutton must be held accountable, and it is the selectmen’s job to do so,” the paper said in the editorial.
Mr. Ross defended Mr. Dutton.
“I think it’s full of misinformation, and its very unprofessional,” Mr. Ross said. “It seems to me she [Gazette editor Julia Wells] is getting her information from gossip, people who don’t know what they’re talking about. It seems to me that if Ms. Wells wants to tell us how to run government, she might learn how to run a newspaper first.”
Ms. Balter also came to Mr. Dutton’s defense during the portion of the meeting set aside for public comment. “Putting the blame on someone who really does not deserve that is very wrong,” Ms. Balter said.