Budget cuts, new priorities top Oak Bluffs special town meeting

Ocean Park on a summer day. — File photo by Danielle Zerbonne

Oak Bluffs voters will be asked to make mid-year cuts in the town’s current operating budget at a special town meeting scheduled for Tuesday, November 8.

With no free-cash account and no likelihood that voters would approve Proposition 2.5 override ballot questions, town officials said they have few options other than to strategically cut spending in the current year budget, and shift that money to town services they consider more critical.

The meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 pm, on a 10-article town meeting warrant that includes several issues that have raised considerable concern among voters.

These include municipal accounting services, money to hire a new town administrator, and the cost of educating Oak Bluffs students at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.

“I would hope the residents would support the cuts, because we need the cuts,” Kathy Burton, chairman of the board of selectmen said.

Selectman Michael Santoro said he is confident voters will see the financial adjustments as a positive step.

“I hope the town sees that we’ve put a lot of work into this,” Mr. Santoro said. “Cleaning this up will give us a fresh start. I’m confident people will be on board with this.”

Cuts asked

Selectmen will ask voters Tuesday to fund a series of unplanned and unbudgeted expenses by cutting $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 of current health plan costs.

Selectmen will not eliminate the $16,500 appropriated for their stipends, as recommended 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. Selectmen 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 FinCom voted 8 to 0 in support of the omnibus transfer article, with one abstention.

Priority spending

Voters will tackle article two early in the evening. Article two identifies reductions in 21 separate budget line appropriations for a total reduction of $303,861 across 15 town departments or committees.

The article asks voters to shift that spending to new priorities for a net increase in appropriations of $21,999. That includes $37,500 to hire a full-time town accountant. Since the untimely death of town finance director and treasure Paul Manzi in October 2010, those positions have been vacant.

The town hired a contract accountant to help with overdue financial reports and reconciliation during the previous budget year, and used $30,000 from the finance and advisory committee’s (FinCom) emergency reserve fund to hire the same accountant for the first three months of the current budget year.

Article would also add $38,500 to the salary account for the town administrator. Interim town administrator Bob Whritenour 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 a strong candidate for the position.

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.

The largest request is for $163,688 to pay for the education of Oak Bluffs students at the charter school, and for school choice tuition.

Lights out

Selectmen expect a vigorous discussion over a measure to eliminate 45, or about 10 percent, of the town’s street lights.

“That will be a very involved discussion,” Ms. Burton said. “It’s going to generate $6,000 a year in savings. Some people would argue that’s not a whole lot of savings, but I think we need to pay attention to cutting wherever we can. People are concerned about safety issues. I’ve heard from some people who are thrilled to have their street light out, because they prefer stars.”

Also on the warrant is an article asking for $11,018 in prior-year charges billed to the town, including an additional $9,903 to pay for removal of contaminated soil from the Lake Avenue Pedestrian Safety renovation. The polluted soil was discovered during renovation of the roadway in 2010. The cost of removal was not covered by state funding that paid for most of the project. At their annual town meeting this past spring, voters approved $20,000 to pay for the company to remove contaminated soil. Town officials are skeptical that the companies responsible for the pollution can be held accountable for the clean up. The legal expense to identify the polluters and recover the clean up costs could exceed the total of $31,018 billed to remove the soil. Town officials believe the source of the pollution is failed underground fuel tanks.

Two articles deal with a fledgling solar energy project. Voters will decide whether to join the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative (CVEC), a group formed to organize and manage energy projects for member towns.

Voters will also decide whether to authorize selectmen to enter into contracts and lease town-owned property to locate solar panel arrays. The solar energy produced could offset the town’s energy bills.

“I’m hopeful the town will be supportive of the initiative from CVEC, so we can not only be green, but get some much-needed income,” Ms. Burton said.

Town officials expect many questions on an article to transfer $342,131 back into the Community Preservation Act (CPA) account. That is the amount of money remaining from a $400,000 appropriation for the failed Bradley Square affordable housing project. Nearly $58,000 was spent on design and engineering for the ill-fated development.

Also, voters will be asked to appropriate an additional $75,228 from CPA funds, to cover cost overruns on a project to renovate the clay brick bathroom near the Steamship Authority terminal, and alleviate flooding in Alley Park (see accompanying article).