With little discussion and enthusiasm that surprised town officials, Oak Bluffs voters agreed to put their financial house in order at Tuesday’s special town meeting. Voters approved, and it was near unanimous, a measure to cut spending in the current year budget by $303,861, and transfer those savings to new priorities that include hiring a town accountant and funding a long list of underfunded and unplanned expenses.
In addressing voters, interim town administrator Bob Whritenour described the warrant article to clean up town finances like a war strategy, using terms like separate and attack, defeat, and victory. Voters applauded following a detailed presentation of the plan.
“I think we’re turning a corner,” Kathy Burton, chairman of the board of selectmen, told The Times Wednesday. “I think we’re on the right track. I really believe that people want to be informed. They want to feel like they have all the information to make a decision. That’s what we worked very hard to do.”
“People probably came away from the meeting with a sense that we’ve got a grip on things in Oak Bluffs,” selectman Walter Vail said Wednesday morning, “and we are making some progress on improving our financial picture. I sensed a lot of happy people.”
A total of 127 voters attended the special town meeting, representing 4 percent of the town’s 3,186 registered voters.
Plan of attack
Mr. Whritenour walked a fine line in his pitch for votes. He promised more realistic estimation of revenues, and more conservative spending. He was also careful to downplay expectations.
“We’re making a great deal of progress, but there is much more that needs to be done,” Mr. Whritenour told voters at the special town meeting. “Don’t anyone expect miracles, there’s no magic wand.
“We could take the attitude of being optimistic, the economy is coming around. I think that’s a mistake. What we’ve found out is there is a huge penalty associated with not achieving those revenue targets. There’s no penalty whatsoever for doing a little better and exceeding those estimates.”
The warrant article approved by voters Tuesday includes an additional $37,000 for accounting department salaries, to hire a permanent town accountant for the rest of the fiscal year. It also reimburses the $30,000 selectmen borrowed from the finance and advisory committee emergency reserve acoount earlier this year to hire a contract accountant.
It adds $38,500 to hire a permanent town administrator. The severance agreement paid to former town administrator Michael Dutton, and the interim hiring of Mr. Whritenour, depleted the appropriation for the town administrator’s salary approved for the current year budget.
As part of the plan, voters approved $163,688 to fund the cost of educating Oak Bluffs students at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, and pay tuition for students who choose schools outside the district. The current year budget underestimated those amounts.
The new priorities come at the expense of other departments. Voters agreed to eliminate the position of reference librarian, saving the $45,000 budgeted for that job.
The plan also includes $50,000 saved in health insurance costs, $20,000 in workers’ compensation self-insurance, $25,000 in salary savings by making the building inspector position part time, $35,000 saved by leaving highway department positions vacant, and $40,557 saved by eliminating travel and training expenses for town employees.
Voters approved a request for an additional $75,228 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds, to pay remaining bills for a project to restore the clay brick batthrooms near the Steamship Authority terminal, create a rain garden in Alley Park, and replace a restroom and snack bar for town beaches.
Town officials offered a complete accounting of the money that went into the project, but conceded the project, originally slated to cost less than $600,000, got out of hand. The final cost for the project was $874,443. About $240,000 came from a federal grant.
“I know this is water under the bridge, but I’m having a hard time understanding how renovation of that new bathhroom could cost over $600,000,” voter Susan Kimball said. “We build houses, complete with fixtures and everything for less than $600,000. It seems ridiculous to renovate a small bathroom like that.”
Town officials promised tighter financial controls on future CPA-funded projects.
“We’re all really sorry this happened,” Ms. Burton said. “It’s an expensive lesson, we don’t ever want it to happen again. We are definitely going to have better accounting and reporting and more accountability. That’s the lesson we take away. We can’t undo this.”
In another CPA issue, voters approved a measure to return $342,131 to the CPA account. That is the amount left from the $400,000 voters appropriated in 2008 for the Bradley Square affordable housing project, which was eventually scrapped.
Also Tuesday, voters decided to keep all their street lights burning. In a 57-43 vote, the town meeting rejected a plan to eliminate 45 street lights. Voters felt the estimated $5,000 to $8,000 in electricity cost savings did not warrant turning the lights off.
Selectmen got authority from voters to join the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, and enter into contracts with alternative energy developers. The town meeting vote will allow selectmen to pursue a developer to install solar energy panels on town buildings. Preliminary plans call for panels on the roof of the library, the Oak Bluffs School, and the wastewater department.
Voters approved two wastewater articles. The first transferred $100,000 borrowed for purchase of land to expand the treatment plant, to an account for upgrading plant equipment. The second cut department expenses by $55,000 to balance the wastewater department budget.
Also approved was a measure to pay bills submitted to the town late, including $9,902 for removal of contaminated soil from the Lake Avenue pedestrian safety project. The town has already spent about $60,000 for the cleanup, according to highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr., and is trying to recover the costs from its insurer, and the landowners responsible for the contamination.