Oak Bluffs sets warrant to ease budget squeeze

— File photo by Mae Deary

Oak Bluffs selectmen have approved a 10-question warrant for the November 8 special town meeting, including an omnibus finance article intended to ease the town’s financial crisis.

The article takes money budgeted for salaries and expenses in 14 town departments or committees and shifts the funds to other line items, including accounting services, underbudgeted costs for students who attend the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, reimbursement of emergency funds, and emergency management expenses from hurricane Irene.

While there could be minor changes in the financial figures before the warrant is complete, a draft of the document, approved Tuesday, lists $309,988 to be trimmed from the current year budget and reallocated to new priorities.

The largest shortfall in the current budget is the amount the state assesses Oak Bluffs through the annual Cherry Sheet for students who attend the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School or students who choose schools outside their town, through the school choice program. The town must raise $163,688 more than originally budgeted for the current year.

“That’s one of the big areas we have trouble with,” interim town administrator Bob Whritenour said in a phone interview with The Times Wednesday. “There was an underestimate in the amount the state charges.”

If voters agree, the article budgets an additional $37,500 to hire a fulltime town accountant. Since the untimely death of town finance director and treasure Paul Manzi in October 2010, those positions have been vacant. Some selectmen trace the town’s current financial trouble to the understaffed finance department. The town has hired a contract accountant to help with overdue financial reports and reconciliation. The special town meeting will be asked to approve $30,000 to reimburse the finance and advisory committee’s emergency reserve fund, which was tapped to pay the contract accountant.

The budget article also calls for $38,500 to be added to the salary account for the town administrator. Mr. Writenour said the amount needs to be budgeted in anticipation of hiring a permanent town administrator. The selectmen are currently searching to fill the position permanently, but have named Mr. Whritenour as a strong in-house candidate.

The warrant asks for $10,000 in emergency management expenses for Hurricane Irene. Some of that money could be recovered through federal and state emergency funds.

Finding funds

To fund those unplanned and unbudgeted expenses, town meeting voters will be asked to cut $304,717 out of the spending plan they approved at the annual town meeting in April.

Selectmen have designated $50,000 in expected savings from health insurance, to come from an internal audit current health plan costs. Selectmen will not eliminate the $16,500 appropriated for their stipends as recomended by the finance and advisory committee, but they will cut $55,000 in other costs. That includes $20,300 in planned technical and engineering costs, $4,700 in legal costs, and $15,000 in money budgeted for travel and training.

Voters will be asked to reduce the building inspector salary account by $25,000. They anticipate the position will become part time now that building inspector Jerry Weiner has retired.

Another $85,000 will come from highway department salaries and expenses, and $45,000 from the elimination of a library position.

The finance and advisory committee is scheduled to meet today, October 13, to vote their recommendations on the spending articles.

Other articles

Also on the special town meeting warrant is an article to transfer $342,131 from the Bradley Square Affordable Housing Project back to the Community Preservation Act accounts. The money could be used for other projects that fit the requirments of the act. At the annual town meeting in 2008, voters authorized $400,000 for the ill-fated project at the corner of Dukes County Avenue and Masonic Avenue, planned by the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund, formerly called the Island Affordable Housing Trust. The housing fund spent nearly $58,000 of the appropriation on architectural and engineering fees. Town officials are exploring whether they can recover those costs. The property was sold at a foreclosure auction this past summer.

Special town meeting voters will also be asked to seek Community Preservation Act funds to cover a $75,228 budget overrun on the clay bathroom restoration project near the Steamship Authority terminal. The community preservation committee must first authorize funds for that project. The project was originally budgeted for $800,000, through a $400,000 state matching grant, and $400,000 in CPA funds authorized by voters.

Other articles deal with authorization to begin a town sponsored solar power project. The article begins a complex process of joining the Cape and Vineyard Energy Cooperative, which will manage and finance the project. But chairman Kathy Burton reduced it to the simple basics.

“We put free solar panels on, and get money,” Ms. Burton said.

Other action

In other action Tuesday, selectmen approved a plan authorizing The Resource, Inc. to move forward with energy improvement and rehabilitation for low and moderate income Oak Bluffs and Tisbury residents. The rehabilitation program, to be funded with $130,000 turned back from federal block grant over the past several years, will fill a gap created when the town’s application for federal grants was rejected this year, because of a technical glitch in public hearing advertisements.

The board approved hiring an administrator for the community preservation committee, with funds set aside for administration from the Community Preservation Act.

The town also agreed to advertise for candidates to fill a vacancy on the community preservation committee, as well as two vacancies on the affordable housing committee, and another on the historic district commission.

During the time reserved for public comment, parks commissioners Amy Billings and Richard Combra, Jr. questioned selectmen about a weekend block party near The Inkwell, which they said generated complaints about public drinking, crowds blocking the sidewalk, and people spilling onto Sea View Avenue. An ambulance was dispatched to the scene at one point, according to the parks commissioners.

Mr. Combra said he drove by the event after getting some complaints. “I got a few calls about it,” Mr. Combra said. “It did look pretty chaotic.”

Selectmen said they did not issue any permit for the gathering. Parks commissioners, who have jurisdiction over the beach, also said they did not issue a permit.

Selectman Gail Barmakian, who lives in the neighborhood, said she attends the event every year. She said it is an informal end-of-summer celebration loosely organized by neighborhood residents, and people who swim regularly at the Inkwell.

“To be honest, I didn’t see that much drinking,” Ms. Barmakian said.