A tough job and no easy choices


There’s nothing much that’s new on the list of unhappy budget cuts facing Oak Bluffs town officials. That’s the news this week. Disappointment and hardship will certainly play a part in the outcomes. But, the town needs to reduce the current fiscal year operating budget by about $300,000, to square it with anticipated revenue.

And, that number could change. Anticipated real estate tax receipts may fall. State contributions may decline. Projected expenses may rise. There may be emergencies. More cuts may be needed.

On the other hand, tax receipts may stop their slide. Ditto, state contributions. Town voters, who must ultimately decide what they’ll pay for and what they won’t, and despite their historic distaste for Proposition 2.5 override spending requests and the tax hikes that follow, could change their mind when a service or an employee they like will suffer from the squeeze.

Kathy Burton, chairman of the town selectmen, told Times writer Steve Myrick that after the working group of budget cutters identifies effective short-term cuts, the proposed reductions will go to the selectmen. She said she thinks the selectmen will act decisively.

“We have no other alternatives at this point,” Ms. Burton said.

Despite a fiscal 2012 budget that appears to be balanced, the town needs to find enough money through budget reductions to pay for the negotiated departure of town administrator Michael Dutton, for the cost of hiring a temporary administrator, and for the cost of getting a new, permanent administrator.

Oak Bluffs, like most towns, like most families, like the state and federal governments, like every business that actually keeps track of its financial health, finds that over time, and especially in good times, costs accumulate. They build themselves into the structure of the family, the government, or the business. They are usually associated with people, employees or family members, and they are never easy, and often heartbreaking, to trim or extinguish.

“Most of the money in the budget is for personnel costs, whether it’s the council on aging, or the library, or some of the other large departments like school or police,” finance and advisory committee chairman Steve Auerbach told his workgroup colleagues.

Oak Bluffs now is budget-cutting under extreme duress. It’s grim work, and when this difficult moment has passed, an even more demanding job awaits town leaders.

Oak Bluffs needs to re-imagine the structure of town government. Indeed, it’s an exercise every town might profit from periodically, and it awaits the Oak Bluffs budgeteers, that is if they want to avoid what has for three or four years been budgetary agony.

The goals of such rethinking are several, but they include assessing the necessity and costs of town departments, redesigning departments and town management so that they are more flexible and adaptable as economic conditions change, funding reserve accounts against unexpected demands, and insisting on financial tracking, accounting and budgeting personnel, and practices that are top-flight, fully staffed, and responsive. It’s true that every decision town leaders make is a political decision, but not one of those decisions is made smarter or easier by a lack of solid, timely, and dependable management information.

Oak Bluffs made a terrible mistake by allowing the depletion of its accounting staff, and it’s made a smart and essential decision to rebuild that function as a first step in coming to grips with the town’s financial problems.

If selectmen make the decisions necessary to clean up the immediate mess, voters may very well reward them with some willingness to spend more where spending is wise.