Oak Bluffs selectmen, supported by a smart and effective town administrator and operating in a more cooperative spirit than had been common before the spring election, led their constituents to a series of sound financial judgments Tuesday. The town meeting action will stanch the town’s cascading fiscal disorder and set a foundation for better planning and execution going forward.
Most encouraging is the voters’ decision to put some of the money realized from current year budget cuts toward adding a town accountant.
Oak Bluffs needs an accountant — a sharp, experienced, capable municipal accountant — whose first job must be to gather and organize the data that will be indispensable to town leadership, including, especially, carefully figured revenue predictions on which to base spending plans. There is a forensic dimension to the problem as well as a prophetic one, because hoping for revenues that have not materialized has been near the heart of the town’s problem. So the chosen professional must be from the top shelf.
Interim town manager Robert Whritenour struck exactly the right note at Tuesday’s meeting, when he told voters, “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 argument here is that voters and their elected leaders need complete and transparent information to make good decisions. They need it in the context of a plan. The plan needs to be built by the town’s chief executives, the selectmen, and explained to the voters in a timely and thorough way. That’s what has taken place since Mr. Whritenour’s arrival and since the spring elections, and consequently voters made good choices.
The goals going forward include, apart from getting a firm grip on revenue projections, assessing the necessity and costs of town departments, redesigning departments and town management so that they are more flexible and adaptable as economic conditions change, funding reserve accounts against unexpected demands, and insisting on financial tracking, accounting and budgeting personnel, and practices that are professionally capable, fully staffed, and responsive.
It’s true that every decision town leaders make is a political decision, but not one of those decisions is made smarter or easier by a lack of solid, timely, and dependable management information.
Oak Bluffs made a terrible mistake by allowing the depletion of its accounting staff, and it’s made a smart and essential decision to rebuild that function as a crucial step toward coming to grips with the town’s financial problems.