Heated talk, no decisions, in Oak Bluffs budget debate


Oak Bluffs selectmen Tuesday took up a fifth draft of an operating budget for the next fiscal year that is still too rich by about $570,000.

But after nearly two hours of discussion with the frustrated members of the town’s finance and advisory committee, selectmen adjourned their meeting without making any hard decisions about where to cut.

“Today’s meeting, in my opinion, was a complete and utter waste of time,” finance and advisory committee chairman Bill McGrath said in a phone conversation after the meeting Tuesday evening.

The 2012 fiscal year begins on July 1, 2011. At the same time that town officials are looking ahead, they also face the task of plugging a $250,000 hole in the current town operating budget. Those cuts are the subject of a special town meeting Tuesday.

Town administrator Michael Dutton will return to department heads to ask for severe belt-tightening, and revise the draft budget again for discussion at the selectmen’s next scheduled meeting on March 8. Selectmen must finalize the fiscal year 2012 budget by March 22, to be included on the warrant for the annual town meeting in April.

During the first hour of the meeting, which selectmen added to their regular schedule specifically to deal with the budget, the two boards discussed general directions for Mr. Dutton to pursue. Selectmen and finance and advisory committee members pointed out several times that many of the discussion points were already agreed upon, already well underway, or cannot be completed in time to affect next year’s budget.

“This is a tough spot,” selectman Greg Coogan said. “Our time is running out. Nobody wants to cut any positions. We have to do this pretty soon.”

Mr. Coogan said either selectmen must make cuts that could destroy some town departments, or cut an equal percentage from every town department.

“Otherwise, we’re going to continue staring at each other and see who’s going to make the first move.”

The only element of progress toward closing the 2012 budget gap came from highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr., who came to the meeting with detailed spending cuts from his proposed fiscal year 2012 budget totaling approximately $126,000.

“We would reduce the hours of the town custodian, eliminate the parks department foreman, close the Kennebec Street restrooms during the winter, close the local drop-off (transfer station) for three days a week in the winter, and eliminate all parks and recreation programs.”

Mr. Combra said the highway department foreman would absorb the duties of the parks department foreman, and he hoped the recreation department programs could be converted to programs that sustain themselves through user fees.

Council on aging director and former selectman Roger Wey responded to the discussion about cuts in his budget. “You want to take this away from the people who built this town, and built this country,” Mr. Wey said. “You’re attacking the council on aging budget.”

A spirited discussion about changing the way the town awards educational pay incentives to police officers under the Quinn Bill ended abruptly, after police chief Erik Blake spoke up.

“I believe you’re dangerously close to having the union think you’re bargaining their contract right now on this floor,” Mr. Blake said. Making contract decisions outside of formal negotiations could result in a complaint alleging unfair labor practice.

Near the end of the session, selectmen chairman Duncan Ross attempted, as he often does, to defuse the tension with humor.

“I suggest everybody go out and buy a lottery ticket in the name of the town of Oak Bluffs,” Mr. Duncan said.