Oak Bluffs draws emergency funds for accountant, but action delayed

The Oak Bluffs town hall. — File photo by Martha's Vineyard Times

The Oak Bluffs finance and advisory committee voted unanimously to transfer $30,000 from its emergency reserve fund for selectmen to use to hire a town accountant.

Selectmen Walter Vail and Gail Barmakian made an urgent appeal this past Thursday for the entire $57,650 balance of the emergency fund, saying they needed to get an accountant on board early this week. But it now appears the town will not hire accounting help for at least two weeks.

Selectmen want to hire Stacie Ward, the accountant from Sullivan, Rogers Company who worked part-time on town books under a consulting contract for the past several months.

“The importance is the immediacy of it,” Ms. Barmakian said. “There’s a lot that needs to be corrected. It’s a mess.”

Finance and advisory committee members at first objected in harsh terms to spending money from the emergency fund.

“This is an emergency caused by inaction and inability to change the priorities of the town, which we have talked about with the selectmen, with their heads nodding up and down, for more than a year,” Bill McGrath said. “You guys need to take some action. There’s been no visible change in town government, other than it’s going in the wrong direction.”

Selectmen said their plan is to call a town meeting for September, asking voters to replenish the finance and advisory committee emergency fund. In the interim, they say they hope to make substantial spending cuts to free up the funds.

“We need to find money that we don’t have, to go to town meeting for, by Monday,” Ms. Barmakian said.

On five different occasions, committee members made references to “rearranging the deck chairs,” alluding to the sinking of the Titanic. They criticized the selectmen for making inconsequential adjustments while the town needs drastic action.

“This is just kicking the can down the road, putting off making a decision, when we have to have another town meeting in September to pay back the money you’re borrowing,” finance and advisory committee chairman Steve Auerbach said. “You’re putting off the hard decisions again. I don’t know that that’s a productive strategy.”

Committee members noted the current year budget proposed by the finance and advisory committee included $75,000 to hire a financial officer.

As part of a plan to address an impending revenue shortfall, selectmen voted not to fill that position after the death of finance director and treasurer Paul Manzi, in October, 2010. That decision was affirmed by a special town meeting. Selectmen voted not to fund the position in the current fiscal year, opting instead to include the funding among many other spending requests in a Proposition 2.5 ballot question. Voters defeated that measure by a large margin.

Mr. Vail said borrowing emergency fund money was the suggestion of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR), which unhappy with the town’s financial circumstances.

“If you tie our hands today, and I have to go back to the DOR on Monday, and say ‘sorry, I’ve got no money,’ we’re going to have a real big problem on hour hands,” Mr. Vail said.

In the end, the finance and advisory committee voted unanimously to release $30,000 in emergency funds, but with conditions. The committee took action with the understanding that the funds will be replenished, subject to a town meeting vote, by September, and that committee members would be closely involved in financial decisions. They also want a public gesture from selectmen indicating good faith by July 31. Several committee members suggested selectmen forego their annual stipends, which total $16,500.

“Some gesture that says to the town, we take this seriously, and we’re working very hard,” committee member Mimi Davisson said.

Selectmen may not be able to have an accountant working on finances as quickly as they hoped. On Tuesday, the selectmen said they are drafting a request for proposals (RFP), inviting Sullivan, Rogers Company, as well as other firms, to bid on the work.

“The process takes a couple of weeks,” Ms. Barmakian said at Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting.

“I was a little nervous about losing another two to three weeks,” Mr. Vail said. The town is behind schedule on its annual audit and on closing its books for the past two fiscal years. There was no discussion at the selectmen’s meeting about a public gesture of good faith, or spending cuts.

Selectmen are scheduled to meet again with the finance and advisory committee today, to begin the process of cutting spending from the current $24.7 million budget for the fiscal 2012 year, which began two weeks ago.