Oak Bluffs town meeting takes up $250,000 in budget cuts


For the second year in a row, Oak Bluffs selectmen have called a special town meeting to ask voters to make mid-year spending cuts in the town’s operating budget, to close a gap in revenues before the fiscal year ends. This time, voters must shave $249,666 from the $24.6 million budget.

The meeting will begin at 7 pm, Tuesday, in the Oak Bluffs School.

“I hope that we have a citizenry that understands the predicament we’re in,” selectman chairman Duncan Ross said, “and that everyone will do their part and chip in with reasonable suggestions on how to get by.”

A Massachusetts Department of Revenue review in January revealed that the town overestimated fiscal 2011 revenue and would fall short of planned spending before June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The revenue shortfall caused the town to miss several key financial deadlines, including the usual fall deadline for closing the books for the previous fiscal year and the January 1 deadline for setting a tax rate.

Town administrator Michael Dutton urged voters to attend the special town meeting.

“We do need to get that article passed,” Mr. Dutton said. “We do need a quorum in order for us to get tax bills out. We can’t set the tax rate until we have this meeting.”

At a February 1 meeting, selectmen agreed on a series of spending cuts and accounting shifts that will slice the required amount out of the current year’s budget.

Their recommendations do not include any layoffs of town employees or reductions of office hours for town departments or facilities.

The largest savings will come from salaries and benefits for town staff positions that became vacant during the year. Selectmen asked town departments not to fill those positions, to save the money budgeted at the 2010 annual town meeting for those salaries and benefits.

The vacancies include two teacher’s aide positions at the Oak Bluffs School, a reference librarian, a heavy equipment operator, a zoning administrator, and a finance director. Those salaries and benefits, prorated from the time the jobs fell vacant, total $179,122.

The selectmen’s unclassified account is slated for a cut of $29,344. Turning off selected street lights, reducing the cost of property insurance, and returning to the treasury unspent funds for travel and postage will account for part of the needed savings. Also included is a reduction in wastewater fees the town pays to its wastewater district, as voted by the wastewater commissioners.

Proposed cuts in the highway department budget would save $39,500, along with the adjustment in wastewater fees, and charging the ambulance reserve fund for fuel used by the ambulance service. Currently the fuel is charged to the highway department budget. While the fuel costs are not actual savings, the accounting change essentially takes the ambulance fuel costs off budget.

Also on the list of proposed cuts are $500 from the conservation commission, and $1,200 from the assessing department. Those unspent funds were planned for legal costs and professional consultants.

Members of the town’s finance and advisory committee have strongly criticized the practice of saving money by leaving jobs unfilled that happen to fall vacant.

“It’s not a good idea,” finance and advisory committee chairman Bill McGrath said. “It’s managing by random event.”

Mr. McGrath said he intended to support people who may object to some cuts at next Tuesday’s town meeting, but speaking for himself, he said the recommended cuts are necessary.

“My inclination is, we need to get that done,” Mr. McGrath said. “It’s way too late. It’s too bad it got to this point, but it’s at this point, we’ve got to get it done.”

On the town meeting floor, the library trustees intend to oppose the request to leave the reference librarian position vacant. The trustees will offer an amendment to reduce the amount of the proposed $42,890 cut in their department to a cut of $30,890.

“We will be doing this in to order to fill, without further delay, the position of reference librarian, a position approved at the last annual town meeting,” the trustees wrote in a letter to The Times, published today. “We will tighten our belt along with all the other departments. However, we think the library has been targeted disproportionately.”

The cuts proposed represent a wide range of reductions in various departments. The smallest cut by percentage is in the school department, which is slicing 0.4 percent from its planned spending. Selectmen recommended cutting two percent from the selectmen’s budget and the unclassified selectmen’s budget, the two budget categories they oversee.

If voters approve, the highway department’s budget would be reduced by 5.8 percent. The town library would have to reduce its spending by 9.9 percent, and the accounting department will cut 32.8 percent in spending.

Overall, the proposed cuts would reduce the $24.6 million current year budget by 1 percent.