Oak Bluffs FinCom calls for layoffs and spending cuts

The Oak Bluffs finance and advisory committee recommended sharp cuts in the town’s Council on Aging staff, elimination of a library position, and a series of other expense-reduction measures totaling $245,000, to enable the cash-strapped town to make ends meet in the current budget year. The recommendations came in a joint meeting with selectmen and the personnel board on Thursday, September 1.

Selectmen scheduled a debate and vote on their own budget-cutting moves Wednesday, September 7. Voters must approve changes to the budget at a special town meeting, planned tentatively some time in October.

“Delay is no longer an option,” finance and advisory committee chairman Steve Auerbach said as he opened the meeting, underscoring the serious nature of the town’s budget crisis.

The fiscal 2012 budget included no funds to hire an accountant or to contract for accounting services. Town accounting work has been patched together since the untimely death of finance director and treasurer Paul Manzi in October 2010. Also, the budget did not include appropriations for animal control services or other expenditures selectmen now believe are necessary. Voters defeated an attempt to fund that spending by large margins in a special Proposition 2.5 override ballot on May 26.

Selectmen also anticipate costs related to the negotiated departure of former town administrator Michael Dutton, who was paid three months salary, as well as part of his accrued vacation, personal, and sick time as part of a severance agreement.

The board has since hired an interim town administrator. Selectmen agreed to pay former Falmouth town manager Bob Whritenour $22,500 for 13 weeks of work.

Call for layoffs

Based on the recommendations of a working group of selectmen, finance and advisory committee members, personnel board members, and school officials, the finance and advisory committee (FinCom) voted to eliminate all three positions at the Council on Aging, two of them full-time jobs, another part-time. Currently, former selectman Roger Wey is the director of the council, Rose Cogliano is assistant director, and Susan Von Steiger is outreach coordinator.

The three-person staff would be replaced with a senior project manager, who would handle some of the duties the staff now handles, as well as recruit and manage a group of volunteers to handle other duties. The committee estimates the move would save approximately $60,000.

At the finance and advisory committee meeting, Mr. Wey argued forcefully against the recommended staff cuts. “That’s an extremely important position in any town,” Mr. Wey said. “I don’t think a volunteer would be competent. I’m totally in disagreement with this.”

Selectman Kathy Burton said when voters defeated Proposition 2.5 override questions, it left the town with few options.

“What we’re working really, really hard to do is keep a Council on Aging, because it’s that serious,” Ms. Burton said. “We do not have enough money to run the town. We are going backwards and backwards and backwards.”

Also at the Thursday meeting, the finance and advisory committee endorsed elimination of the reference librarian position, a job that has been vacant for more than a year. They estimate the move will save approximately $45,000.

The board recommended library director Danguole Budris pick up some of the duties of a reference librarian, while other library staff be trained to handle reference requests from library visitors.

Ms. Budris opposed the move. “I don’t want the finance committee or the board to have the illusion that the same service is going to be provided, or even close,” Ms. Budris said.

The committee also voted to recommend elimination of a part-time position in the town clerk’s office, saving approximately $15,000. Elected town clerk Deborah Ratcliffe’s staff includes one full-time and one part-time worker.

The total value of personnel cuts recommended by the committee is $120,000.

Cost control

The FinCom also made recommendations that do not involve personnel, including trimming budget appropriations for training and travel, health insurance, selectmen, and fuel.

Committee members endorsed trimming the training and travel budget by $50,000, by eliminating all discretionary spending for staff training or travel.

Finance and advisory committee member Mimi Davisson said the amount of money the town spends for training and travel is difficult to assess.

“In the budget passed by the annual town meeting, travel is buried in a lot of different places,” Ms. Davisson said. “It amounts to $96,000.”

The committee also voted to direct the ambulance department to reduce its operating budget by $25,000, but shift the expense to the ambulance reserve fund. The ambulance reserve fund collects payments for transport of patients to off-Island hospitals.

The FinCom also endorsed a $25,000 cut in health care costs, though selectmen Walter Vail and Gail Barmakian said the town may be able to save considerably more than that by transferring town employees to the state’s Group Insurance Commission.

Under state legislation enacted in August, the selectmen could vote to cover employees under the state health plan, following an expedited 30-day bargaining period with employee unions. If the town and its employees cannot agree on the terms of the transfer, a three-member arbitration panel would decide the terms and authorize the town to make the changes.

The selectmen’s budget, which covers administrative salaries, selectmen’s stipends, legal costs, property insurance, utilities, and supplies for town buildings, auditing, and assessments from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, is also due for cuts.

While the committee did not specify where selectmen should make cuts, there was a strong suggestion that they begin by eliminating $16,500 appropriated for stipends paid to the elected officials. Ms. Burton, Ms. Barmakian, and Mr. Vail said they would not oppose cutting selectmen’s stipends.

The total non-personnel cuts recommended is $125,000.

Task force

The recommendations for cost cutting began with a July 21 workshop facilitated by Ms. Burton. A group of about 25 people, representing selectmen, the personnel committee, department heads, the FinCom, and the ad hoc fiscal task force currently studying town government identified 41 ideas to reduce spending or increase revenue.

From that list, a budget reduction task force studied the ideas that could be implemented in the short-term. Members of the task force included Renee Balter of the ad hoc fiscal task force, selectmen Gail Barmakian and Walter Vail, Mimi Davisson and Bill McGrath from the FinCom, and Priscilla Sylvia, Richie Smith, Amy Tierney, and Jim Weiss representing schools.

The FinCom did not endorse some of the task force recommendations and made deeper cuts in some others at last Thursday’s meeting.

The budget reduction task force recommended a total of $300,000 in cuts, including $100,000 in across the board reductions in paid work hours for all town employees. Task force members specified at least $25,000 should come from overtime budgets.

The finance and advisory committee agreed that those savings could not be realized immediately.

“I question how an across-the-board cut could be implemented when there are so many union contracts that have to be dealt with,” Mr. Auerbach said. “I don’t see how it can be done.”

The budget reduction task force also called for cutting vehicle fuel usage $25,000 by reducing the town’s vehicle fleet and improving compliance with the town’s vehicle use policy.

The task force recommended a $30,000 reduction in the Council on Aging budget by changing one full-time position to part-time.

While education is the town’s largest area of spending, neither the task force, nor the finance and advisory committee made recommendations for any cuts in school budgets.

Voters approved $9.5 million for the Oak Bluffs School and the town’s share of educating students at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in the current budget year. The entire operating budget totals $24.4 million.

“Although the schools participated in this exercise, it was apparent that short-term budgetary changes for the education portion of the town’s budget are not feasible,” the budget reduction task force said, in a statement included with their recommendations. “The town and the school committee should be working now to find opportunities for next year’s budget.”