Oak Bluffs summer people grill selectmen on reduced services

Summer visitors enjoy the beach in Oak Bluffs. — File photo by Steve Myrick

Oak Bluffs selectmen heard gripes, complaints, peeves, and a few thank you’s at the annual meeting set aside each summer to hear from summer residents.

Kathy Burton, chairman of the selectmen, launched the discussion with a brief presentation highlighting the town’s accomplishments, including beach renourishment, the newly completed renovation of the clay brick bathrooms near the Steamship Authority terminal, the rain garden in Alley Park, and plans for a new shellfish growing program at the old lobster hatchery on the Lagoon.

The meeting agenda billed the session as “questions and discussion by the Summer Resident Taxpayers.”

Thelma Baxter, a New York City educator, was the first to speak and eager to set the record straight.

“I am a summer resident, but a year-round taxpayer,” Ms. Baxter said. “As a year-round taxpayer, I am concerned about cutting back of service.”

Ms. Baxter said she was distressed about reduced hours and the absence of a reference librarian. Because of a hiring freeze, the library has not filled the reference librarian position since the previous employee left more than a year ago.

“This library to this community is a focal point,” Ms. Baxter said. “This library now opens at two pm on some days. This is a literate community, why do we not have a reference librarian? I come from New York City. Our libraries are open twenty-four hours a day. I’m not asking for that.”

Ms. Burton responded with a theme echoed by other selectmen and department heads well into the evening.

“I know this isn’t what you want to hear,” Ms. Burton said. “While the library is critical to a lot of people, it falls within discretionary non-essential services when it comes to running a town. We tried very hard to get the money in an override. While I appreciate the taxes you pay, you don’t vote, I’m sorry to say. The voters here would not vote for an override.”

In May, voters rejected by a large margin a Proposition 2.5 override ballot question that included funds to hire a reference librarian.

The library hours are a point of contention among selectmen. Last spring, the library reduced hours from 40 per week to 36, by eliminating the hours from 10 am to 2 pm on Thursday morning. Both selectmen Michael Santoro and Gail Barmakian said they had been assured that hours would not be cut.

“My understanding was there were supposed to be sufficient library aides,” Ms. Barmakian said.

Library director Danguole Budris disputed the selectmen’s understanding.

“I don’t think we promised hours would be maintained. We had to look at realities,” Ms. Budris said.

Highway superintendent and parks commissioner Richard Combra Jr. addressed questions about the cost of playing tennis on town courts, which doubled from $10 per hour to $20 per hour this year. He said budget cuts forced the town to outsource recreation programs to private contractors.

“Last year the recreation budget was $137,000,” Mr. Combra said. “This year, it’s $15,000. The decision to move from a town-operated court to a leased court was through a vote of the parks commission. In years prior, we lost money in the tennis operation, we operated at about a $10,000 loss. Now we’re not making any money, but we’re not losing money, and the courts are still open.”

Richard Selig and Jacqueline Hunt, who have spearheaded a campaign for cleaner town beaches, discussed their efforts to convince the town to buy a beach rake. The manufacturer of the specialized equipment, in a July demonstration on the town beaches, showed how it rakes sand and removes debris.

At a February special town meeting, voters rejected a petitioned article asking for $34,000 to buy the equipment. Town officials pointed out there would be additional costs for an operator, maintenance, and fuel. And, the Oak Bluffs conservation commission says it would have to issue a permit for any equipment that alters the beach in any way.

While selectmen lauded the two residents for their efforts, they said the next step rests with the conservation commission. That prompted a pointed response from Ms. Hunt.

“It seems that we need someone with political clout,” Ms. Hunt said. “And what I’m hearing is, you’re asking taxpayers to take the lead.”