Oak Bluffs selectmen back off on layoffs

New interim town administrator Bob Whritenour presents financial reports to selectmen. — Photo by Steve Myrick

After a review of accounts, Oak Bluffs interim town administrator Bob Whritenour told selectmen Tuesday the town needs to cut $252,822 out of the current year budget to fund necessary spending.

Selectmen say knowing the definitive amount, plus their confidence they can find savings in other areas, means they will not have to cut staff to make ends meet for the current fiscal year.

In a meeting last Wednesday, selectmen voted to make cuts totaling $170,000, but took no action on a finance and advisory committee recommendation to eliminate two full-time and two part-time positions.

In taking a conservative, “measure twice and cut once” approach to revenue projections, Mr. Whritenour said there is reason for cautious optimism.

“I’m very confident where you stand with your revenues,” Mr. Whritenour told selectmen. “I think you have a pretty good plan.”

Mr. Whritenour said he spent his first week on the job going over town accounts with a contract accountant.

The new interim administrator said his analysis of the town’s budget history showed local receipts, or revenue other than property taxes, have remained essentially flat over the past eight years. He said that in two of the last three years, local receipts have fallen short of projections.

“It appears that for a while we’ve been too optimistic in the estimates,” Mr. Whritenour said. “We need to be more conservative. We in no way, ever again, want to see an estimated local receipts deficit.”

The specific dollar amount of cuts Mr. Whritenour reported is in line with the estimated amount used by selectmen and the finance and advisory committee (FinCom) over the past month, as they worked to identify possible reductions. Members of both boards said staff layoffs were inevitable.

Now, however, selectman chairman Kathy Burton said layoffs will not be necessary.

“It seemed to me layoffs were unavoidable before because we were not able to find the dollars in another way,” Ms. Burton said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. She said her view changed after going over the books with Mr. Whritenour, the contract accountant, and other town financial officials.

“I just have a different level of confidence in the numbers we’re getting, to see what we actually have to cut and the possible savings we may be able to get. I really think we’re going to be able to get there without layoffs, or any other impact to personnel in the 2012 budget. I don’t know about 2013.”

Decisions deferred

Faced with a room full of angry seniors, at a meeting six days earlier on September 7, Oak Bluffs selectmen decided to defer decisions on staff cuts at the town Council on Aging center. The cuts were among several FinCom recommendations on which selectmen deferred action at the evening meeting punctuated with angry remarks aimed at town leaders.

Of the seven budget cuts recommended, selectmen voted to defer action on two, approved two specific line item cuts, and approved cuts to three departments but failed to identify the specific line items, in their September 7 meeting.

Under hostile fire from the older audience, selectmen deferred a recommendation to cut two full-time and one part-time position at the Council on Aging and replace those positions with one senior project manager, who would handle some administrative duties as well as recruit and manage a corps of volunteers.That change was projected to save $60,000.

Council on Aging director Roger Wey, a former selectman, opposed the plan to eliminate staff positions. “I was shocked to have this proposal presented without interviewing any of the staff in the senior center,” Mr. Wey said. “It’s just absurd, There’s other places in this town where you can find this money, you just got to look a little harder.”

FinCom chairman Steve Auerbach responded a short time later. “Roger, this is classic demagoguery on your part, scaring these seniors,” Mr. Auerbach said. “No one is attempting to eliminate any programs from the senior center, but we need to save money, and this was the way that the FinCom, with the selectmen and the personnel board, chose.”

Mr. Auerbach’s comments prompted hoots from the audience, shouts from Mr. Wey, and an admonishment from Ms. Burton.

“I’m going to have to ask you to stop that, please,” Ms. Burton said, speaking directly to Mr. Wey. “Let’s have a little decorum.”

Other roads not taken

Selectmen also deferred a decision on the FinCom recommendation to cut a part-time position in the town clerk’s office, for a projected savings of $15,000.

In a unanimous vote, selectmen agreed to cut the unfilled job of reference librarian, for an estimated savings of $45,000.

They voted to reduce the ambulance department’s operating budget $25,000, by directing the ambulance to use the ambulance reserve fund for fuel purchases.

In a 4-1 vote, selectmen directed all departments to cut travel, training, and professional development, unless first authorized by the board of selectmen. Walter Vail dissented. He favored the measure but wanted to set a specific amount.

The FinCom had recommended a $50,000 cut in travel and training costs.

The board voted to cut $25,000 from the health insurance account but did not identify the specific line items from which the money would be taken.

Selectmen also voted to cut $25,000 from their own administrative budget, but declined to include their own stipends as part of that cut. The total cuts amounted to $170,000.