Lots of spending, little debate at Oak Bluffs town meeting

Lots of spending, little debate at Oak Bluffs town meeting

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Oak Bluffs voters were in a spending, but not a debating, mood Tuesday. They completed the business of special and annual town meetings in one long, sometimes contentious, sometimes confusing, evening.

After wrangling briefly over procedure, voters approved a motion to accept the entire $24.7 million basic operating budget without debate. The basic budget reflects substantial cuts in the services the town now provides.

For an encore, the town meeting approved $484,361 worth of Proposition 2.5 overrides that essentially restore service cuts made in the basic budget. The Prop. 2.5 overrides still need approval of voters in a planned May 26 election, before they can take effect.

The overrides would increase the average residential tax bill for a house valued at $535,000 by $97, according to the town administrator.

Opposition voice

A vocal minority of voters objected during the procedural debate.

“My head is spinning, and it has been since a year ago,” former selectman Kerry Scott said. “I’m not comfortable with the figures.”

Several voters questioned salary hikes for two town employees. The personnel board recommended a three-percent increase for harbormaster Todd Alexander. The longtime employee reached the top of the town’s compensation scale many years ago and would not ordinarily be eligible for an increase.

The finance and advisory board unanimously opposed the increase. In a statement given voters as they entered the meeting, the committee said it had reservations about the proposal, that the harbormaster “can on an individual basis, be granted a merit increase upon the recommendation by the town administrator and personnel board. The finance board thinks a provision of this nature should be subject to a town meeting vote.”

The personnel board also recommended an increase in hours, at the same hourly rate, for wastewater department manager Joe Alosso. His hours would increase from 30 per week to 40. At the current hourly rate, his salary would increase by $17,791. Both of those salary increases were figured into the basic operating budget.

The meeting clearly favored the budget submitted by selectmen and approved a motion to accept it without debate on a voice vote.

“Unless I missed something,” moderator Dave Richardson said, “I think we finished the budget.”

Preservation funds

Generating considerably more explanation and debate was $632,000 worth of projects recommended by the community preservation committee, funded by Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds. At the end of the debate, voters approved every project recommended.

Voters authorized $200,000 for the town’s newly established Affordable Housing Trust. Affordable housing committee chairman Ron DiOrio said the trust has a plan to identify three unspecified parcels of town-owned land, to build new rental housing for residents who earn 80 percent or less of the area median income.

Money voted to the trust can be spent without a further vote of town meeting. Some were skeptical of handing over that authority, without more specifics about how it will be spent.

“You’re asking us, Oak Bluffs residents, to put our trust in your trust,” voter Bo Fehl said. “I have a hard time putting my faith in the trust, based on its track record.”

Critics cited the old library renovation project, completed this year, including three rental apartments and a commercial space that houses a drug store. That project went over budget, and The Resource Inc., which developed the project for the town, took out a mortgage to cover the overage.

Voters also approved $132,000 in CPA funds for the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority rental assistance program, which subsidizes rent for 18 Oak Bluffs families.

Also approved was $160,000 for an engineering study of Nantic Park, the first step in alleviating flooding of the park which comes with each rain storm; $55,000 for an engineering study of Sunset Lake and Lake Park; $45,000 to continue a state evaluation of Oak Bluffs Harbor and Sunset Lake; and $40,000 for restoration of downtown street lanterns.

Other action

Also Tuesday, voters agreed to transfer $150,000 from the wastewater department retained-earnings account to begin engineering, permitting, and bid preparation for a project to sewer properties within the Lagoon Pond watershed.

The only article voters rejected was a zoning change that would have loosened restrictions on setbacks for smaller residential lots created before zoning regulations were established.

Voters agreed to add two small parcels at the corner of Dukes County Avenue and Masonic Avenue to the Cottage City Historic District. The parcels are the site of the historic Bradley Memorial Church. They have been at the center of a long and controversial project to create affordable housing and commercial space. The Martha’s Vineyard Housing Trust, formerly the Island Affordable Housing Trust, owns the property and did not object to the historic designation.

Special town meeting

In the special town meeting that preceded the annual town meeting, voters approved the transfer of $65,558 from the town’s stabilization, or “rainy day,” fund to cover unexpected costs for veterans’ services, accounting, tax collection, and building department costs in the current fiscal year.

Bill McGrath, chairman of the finance and advisory committee, moved to amend the article to reduce the amount to $24,000, as had been requested to pay for veterans’ services.

The meeting first voted on the original article for $65,558. Mr. Richardson declared a voice vote carried, but the vote was challenged. A standing vote showed 115 in favor, 55 against, five votes more than the two-thirds majority needed to transfer money out of the stabilization fund. That made a vote on the amendment to reduce the amount moot.

The meeting took no action on a request for $50,000 to fix the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in the town library. Mr. Dutton explained that engineers and contractors are still trying to determine what repairs are necessary and how much it will cost.

Of the town’s 3,359 registered voters, 188 were counted at the time the town meeting began Tuesday evening at 7:08 pm. Eventually, 255 voters, or 7.6 percent of the electorate, checked in at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performance Art Center. When the night was done, they approved appropriations and transfers of taxpayer money and other town revenue totaling $26,022,666.

The annual town election is scheduled today. Polls at the Oak Bluffs library meeting room will be open from 10 am and 7 pm. Five candidates are running for two open seats on the board of selectmen, and four candidates are running for three seats on the finance and advisory committee.

Allegiance and remembrance

The special town meeting began with Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts on the stage leading the pledge of allegiance and a moment of silence for the Oak Bluffs residents who died during the previous year.