Oak Bluffs selectmen ask voters to cut spending, not staff


Oak Bluffs selectmen will ask voters at a February 22 special town meeting to approve cuts totaling $238,000 from the current fiscal year’s operating budget.

Selectmen must close a revenue gap discovered when the Massachusetts Department of Revenue questioned the town’s projected revenue for FY2010.

The special town meeting is scheduled for the Oak Bluffs School, at 7 pm.

Most of the savings will come from staff positions left vacant for some part of the budget year and remain vacant today.

By leaving slots for two teacher’s aides, a reference librarian, zoning administrator, heavy equipment operator, and treasurer unfilled until the end of the budget year on June 30, the town will avoid spending $179,212 in salary and benefits, according to figures compiled by town administrator Michael Dutton.

Finance and advisory committee chairman Bill McGrath, objected to closing the revenue gap by leaving jobs vacant, without considering how those staff duties affect town operations.

“Although the money is there, it’s the worst kind of management we can do,” Mr. McGrath said. “It’s clearly business as usual.”

But, all of the selectmen defended the action because of the time constraints. “It’s an unfortunate way to do business,” selectman Greg Coogan said. “But to expect us to overhaul the town in a few days is an unreasonable thing. We have limped along without these positions so far, and unfortunately I think we have to limp along for the rest of the fiscal year.”

The board said restructuring town departments would be a factor in preparing next year’s budget plan.

Eliminating some street lighting and trimming various budget line items for postage, insurance, travel, and legal costs, and technical consultants, voters could save an additional $30,044. Selectmen declined to cut the $5,000 remaining in the operating budget to pay staff at the information kiosk at the foot of Circuit Avenue through the end of the budget year.

An accounting change in the ambulance department would help close the revenue gap, but would not represent actual cost savings.

Selectmen agreed to charge gasoline costs for the town’s ambulance service to the ambulance reserve fund, instead of to the town operating budget. Gas costs amount to $21,000 for the current fiscal year.

They also agreed to await a wastewater commission decision on sewer fees. At their meeting Wednesday evening, the commissioners were to discuss whether to forego the fees it now collects for wastewater treatment of town buildings. That would save the town $18,000 this year.

Budget discussions in private

Mr. Dutton also offered selectmen the option of a layoff, furlough, or restructuring of the Council on Aging staff. The town employs a director, outreach coordinator, and assistant director at the local senior center. That could save between $12,000 and $20,000, depending on the position affected.

The board, led by vice-chairman Kathleen Burton in the absence of chairman Duncan Ross, agreed to enter executive session to discuss that recommendation. During the executive session, closed to the public, the board declined to recommend any staff cuts to voters, according to Mr. Dutton.

The state’s open meeting law requires selectmen to state the reason for an executive session. Ms. Burton cited “strategy with respect to collective bargaining, to discuss the potential for impact bargaining.”

Ms. Burton said in a follow-up phone call with The Times Wednesday that those were the topics discussed. “What we did discuss was collective bargaining and impact bargaining as it relates to the budget.”

An open meeting law guide issued by the state’s attorney general cites ten reasons a public body may use to exclude the public from the executive session, including conducting strategy in preparation for negotiations, collective bargain sessions, and discussing strategy with respect to collective bargaining or litigation if an open meeting may have a detrimental effect on the bargaining or litigation.

According to the attorney general’s guide, the purpose “does not apply, for example, if the public body is deciding whether to lay off a large number employees because of budgetary constraints.”

The guide says “the public body, if challenged, carries the burden of proving that an open meeting might have a detrimental effect on the bargaining position.”

Selectman Gail Barmakian asked for an explanation of the decision to move to executive session. Ms. Burton consulted during the open part of the meeting with Mr. Dutton, who agreed the executive session was warranted.

His memo to selectmen outlining budget options, mentions only an open session. “Whether to cut personnel is always a difficult option, especially in mid-year and especially when having to make personnel decisions in public session,” Mr. Dutton wrote.

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