Oak Bluffs recommends 1.5 percent budget hike, restores staff

— File photo by Mae Deary

The Oak Bluffs budget for the new fiscal year (FY) that begins on July 1, 2012 projects a 1.5-percent increase over the revised current year budget and restores staff and services, including a reference librarian and animal control services, which were slashed by voters in mid-year cuts to make ends meet in the financially strapped town.

Kathy Burton, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, used words such as thrilled, fabulous, and wonderful to describe her reaction to the budget proposed by interim town administrator Bob Whritenour at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I think in the past, we were overestimating revenues,” Ms. Burton said following a detailed budget workshop attended by nearly all town department heads. “We’re in a recovery phase. Everyone played by the rules and went to a bottom line budget.”

“Significant negative free cash balances have been identified as a serious threat to local service delivery, and a priority has been placed on generating better financial performance,” Mr. Whritenour wrote in a presentation to selectmen outlining his recommendations. “The budget is fully funded within current year revenues, which have been calculated to give the town an opportunity to generate a positive cash flow balance at year end.”

The selectmen voted unanimously to refer the spending plan to the finance and advisory committee (FinCom). The FinCom expects to begin work on the budget, at its regular meeting on January 12.

Department details

The budget for the Oak Bluffs School would increase $117,063, or two percent, over the current year appropriation. The draft budget calls for $6,034,519 in spending on the town’s elementary school.

The town projects $3,652,789 in spending to educate Oak Bluffs students at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, exactly the same amount appropriated this year.

Police department spending would increase 7.4 percent next year, according to the proposed budget. The budget reflects a two-percent pay hike for police officers, as part of a collective bargaining agreement with police officers.

A large part of the increase is a $34,200 lump sum settlement that is also part of the contract agreement. That money will cover money owed under the “Quinn Bill,” a state-required program that provides substantial pay incentives for police officers who complete advanced degrees. In past years, the state and local towns have split the cost of those incentives, but the state substantially decreased its share of funding in the past two years. Several court rulings have held that police officers are still entitled to the incentive pay. As part of the collective bargaining agreement, police officers hired this year and in future years are not eligible for educational incentives, and current officers cannot receive pay increases for additional degrees.

Also included in the police department budget is $36,909 for salary and expenses to fund animal control services. Oak Bluffs is talking with Tisbury officials about a regional department that would serve both towns. Animal control services were a casualty of the town’s ongoing budget crisis in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, a development that generated hundreds of complaints to the police department and selectmen.

The library budget would increase 10.4 percent, to $459,280. Most of the increase restores the position of reference librarian, which was held vacant as a cost-saving measure for the past two years.

Highway department spending would increase 8.9 percent, to $1,422,995. The increase reflects restored hours for a cemetery laborer and a landfill drop-off center employee. The highway department also projects a $35,000 payment for the first installment on a five-year lease for a new front-end loader, to replace a 1996 vehicle that would need extensive repairs if not replaced.

Benefit costs

The town expects to realize an overall reduction in the cost of employee benefits. Health insurance reform enacted by the state legislature in 2011 prompted revised health care plans that introduce deductibles and co-pays, shifting more health care costs to town workers.

The town projects $2,230,000 in health care costs, down 7.8 percent from the $2,419,078 appropriated in the revised current year budget.

Pension costs will increase substantially, to $962,823, up 8.3 percent from the $889,200 the town paid for retirement benefits this year.

In total, the town will spend $3,415,679 in employee benefits and insurance, down 3.2 percent from the current year.

Adding up

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Mr. Whritenour said most of the department budgets reflect increases over the budget revised downward by voters at an October special town meeting, but are essentially level funded in comparison with the amount originally appropriated at the 2011 annual town meeting.

“One of the things that we have been plagued with, especially in fiscal year 2012, there were fairly large amounts of deficits carried over from the previous year that took revenues away from town services,” Mr. Whritenour said. “In fiscal year 2012, by lowering the budget, we took care of all those deficits. When it came into fiscal year 2013, we have a small amount of new revenue, plus several hundred thousand worth of money we had to take care of the deficits with, that now we can use for town services. Plus, we had some savings in health care. Those three things together add up to only a small increase in the budget.”

Other action

Also at Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting, Mr. Whritenour reported that the town has set its tax rate and mailed tax bills out on time, January 1.

The value of property in Oak Bluffs fell by approximately two percent this year. That prompted an increase of 33 cents, to $7.39 per $1,000 of property valuation, according to principle assessor Diane Wilson. She said the average single family home in Oak Bluffs is now valued at $541,565. For a home of that value, the annual tax bill will increase by $157.

Selectmen extended the contract of Mr. Whritenour for one month. Despite effusive praise for his work as the interim town administrator, selectmen scheduled interviews with three other candidates for the permanent position.

The three candidates, whose names have been submitted to selectmen by a screening committee appointed by selectmen, are Anthony Troiano of East Sandwich, Thomas Webb of Williamstown, and John J. Sanguinet of Plymouth.

Mr. Whritenour has expressed strong interest in continuing in the town administrator’s job on a permanent basis.