Oak Bluffs voters make mid-year budget cuts
Oak Bluffs voters at a special town meeting Tuesday night approved budget cuts, that total $249,666, from the town's current fiscal year operating budget. The cuts were needed to close a shortfall that resulted from overestimating revenue.
The spending cuts were outlined as specific amounts from town department accounts, all contained in a single warrant article.
A total of 186 residents, or 5.5 percent of the town's 3,372 registered voters, turned out for the special town meeting at the Oak Bluffs School.
Voters agreed to leave four now-vacant town positions unfilled saving the town the unspent salary and benefits budgeted for a finance director, reference librarian, zoning administrator, and heavy equipment operator. Two part-time teacher's assistant positions at the Oak Bluffs school will also remain vacant until the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
Voters also agreed to trim planned spending in the highway department, the selectmen's budget, the conservation commission, and the assessors department.
Town administrator Michael Dutton told voters the total revenue — known as local receipts, excise taxes, tax penalties and interest, payments in lieu of taxes, trash sticker fees, license and permit fees, fines and forfeitures, investments, and harbor income — were below what the town projected for the fiscal year 2011 budget.
The state Department of Revenue (DOR), in reviewing the town's finances, determined that the town would not receive enough revenue to meet its spending plans before June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
"These cuts have to be made before we can set a tax rate," Mr. Dutton told the voters. "We have to come out of tonight's meeting with cuts in the neighborhood of $249,000."
From the floor
Duncan Ross, chairman of the board of selectmen fielded a question from the floor from a voter who asked why selectmen recommended cuts in some departments but not others, and why they decided to cut services instead of considering furloughs for town employees.
"I don't believe we should balance the budget on the backs of town employees," Mr. Ross said. "These cuts are a prayer, and we hope that it will work. We hope that we will not be back here at a special town meeting asking for a transfer from stabilization, because these cuts didn't work."
The stabilization, or so-called "rainy day fund," now has a current balance of more than $1 million. Mr. Dutton said the money could be transferred from the stabilization fund, but the DOR has advised the town that would not be fiscally prudent. A withdrawal from the stabilization fund would also require another special town meeting.
Early in the meeting, Robert Huss, representing the Oak Bluffs Library trustees, moved to amend a warrant article that called for a cut in library salaries. Library trustees offered up an additional $12,000 cut in expenses in order to retain that amount so that the library could fill the vacant reference librarian position.
After a five-minute huddle among the town counsel, selectmen, and moderator Dave Richardson, Mr. Richardson ruled that the town meeting could vote on that adjustment in the form of a recast warrant article from selectmen.
"We are always limited in the action we take by what the warrant says," Mr. Richardson said. "There is a certain fundamental common sense here that frankly, trumps the pure ruling moderators like to make, even as they wind down their career." Mr. Richardson is not running for reelection.
Voters also questioned the selectmen's decision to cut $9,000 in wastewater fees, half of the amount budgeted for sewer bills from town buildings. The wastewater commissioners voted earlier this month to abate the $9,000, and the transaction had already been made.
"That $9,000 has to be made up somewhere," Oak Bluffs Inn owner Erik Albert said. "I think that's rather unfair. It's easy for people to say I don't want to pay my wastewater bill, but I have to."
Wastewater commissioner Bob Iadicicco responded. "One of the selectmen came to us and said 'can we have some relief,'" Mr. Iadicicco said. "Somewhat reluctantly, we agreed. Don't ask for a rationalization.
"Revenue over the past few years has been somewhat higher than our expenses and we have built up a little bit of a surplus. That's why we decided to be generous."
A proposed amendment to add the $9,000 back into the budget was defeated.
Voters approved all other spending cuts listed in the warrant, and the adjustment in library spending. All of the approvals came with voice votes, with yeas overwhelmingly outnumbering the nays.
After the meeting, town officials questioned whether the library adjustment would result in the hiring of a new reference librarian. At their February 8 meeting, selectmen voted unanimously to freeze hiring, and leave any vacant positions unfilled.
Mr. Ross said selectmen would look into the issue in the coming days.