Oak Bluffs town meeting voters overwhelmingly approved a $24.2-million operating budget for fiscal year 2013 with little discussion or dissension at their annual town meeting Tuesday evening.
The registrars reported that 207, or 6.4 percent of the town’s 3,245 registered voters, gathered at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center for the annual exercise in participatory democracy.
They worked quickly, for the most part, through 7 special town meeting articles, and 17 more on the annual town meeting. The meeting began at 7:03 pm and ended at 10:12 pm.
The budget vote followed a one-hour presentation from town administrator Bob Whritenour and several department heads.
In the new spending plan, Mr. Whritenour emphasized sustainability, positive cash performance, and building on the success of the fiscal 2012 budget. The 2013 budget represents a 1.1-percent increase over 2012.
Mr. Whritenour cautioned that the struggling economy will continue to have an impact on town finances. “We’re in this for the long haul,” he said. “We’re really going to make sure, especially in times of economic downturn, that we really live within our means. I’m not going to sugarcoat this, it’s going to take some time.”
Approved by voters on a series of voice votes, mostly unanimous, the budget restores funding for the positions of town accountant, reference librarian, and animal control services. It includes a 1.5-percent cost of living wage hike for many town employees. Police officers and teachers will get a 2-percent increase, based on negotiated union contracts.
Ex post facto
The sometimes prickly nature of Oak Bluffs politics, where grudges are long-held and some of the rough and tumble battles happen well outside the glare of the public spotlight, was evident at the start of the meeting.
Moderator Jesse Law opened the special town meeting a few minutes after 7 pm, but immediately called on the town’s attorney.
Mr. Law said a question was raised about whether the posting of the meeting complied with state and local law.
According to town counsel Michael Goldsmith, a local bylaw requires notice of the meeting be published in a local newspaper 14 days before the town meeting.
“It was submitted to the newspaper 14 days in advance, but it was not actually published in the newspaper until 12 or 13 days before,” Mr. Goldsmith said, referring to the March 29 print edition of The Martha’s Vineyard Times. “It was, however, placed on their web site 14 days in advance.”
Mr. Goldsmith said he consulted the office of the state attorney general, and was assured that office would not disapprove any bylaws passed at the meeting Tuesday.
“As far as any other action the town takes, the only way that could be challenged is by a lawsuit filed by ten voters, which is unlikely,” Mr. Goldsmith said. “In my view, this body doesn’t have to worry in a significant way what action you take tonight.”
Moments after Mr. Goldsmith took his seat, and before debate began on the first article, former selectman Kerry Scott rose to ask a pointed question of the new town accountant, Arthur Gallagher.
“Before we go further on a spending article, could we hear from our town accountant what we have in free cash, and what is the balance in the stabilization fund,” Ms. Scott said.
Mr. Gallagher replied with the answer well known to most in the auditorium.
“Free cash is zero,” Mr. Gallagher said. Other town officials said the stabilization, or “rainy day,” fund, stands at $980,000.
The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) certified the free cash account at a deficit of $888,046 on June 1, 2011.
Free cash is the unrestricted funds left over from the previous year’s spending. The continuing deficit in that account severely limits the town’s ability to fund services or new initiatives.
The DOR also certified the general fund, which is broadly equivalent to the town’s checking account, at a deficit of $434,553.
Green light on roundabout
Voters appeared to have little appetite for continuing the controversial roundabout debate. As the 10:30 adjournment deadline approached, the town meeting took up an article asking voters whether they support construction of a roundabout at “blinker intersection,” the intersection of Barnes Road and Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.
Anticipating a spirited debate, the moderator set a limit at the outset.
“I’m going to allow 15 minutes for discussion,” Mr. Law said. “We’ve been discussing this for 10 years.”
When he opened discussion, however, no one stepped forward. Voters, including some who were making their way toward the exits, affirmed support for the roundabout in a voice vote.
An article asking for $38,300 to determine the most cost effective way to reduce nitrogen from septic systems and other sources flowing into upper Lagoon Pond generated more debate than any other issue.
The warrant included a negative recommendation from the finance and advisory board, which voted 7 to 1 against the expenditure.
“The board was unhappy with the haphazard way the article was proposed to us,” finance and advisory board chairman Steve Auerbach said. Mr. Auerbach said the article was submitted late, and the committee did not receive supporting information until five days before town meeting. Though the committee did not take another vote, Mr. Auerbach said he supported the article after hearing from the conservation commission and the shellfish department.
As originally submitted, the article called for funding to be taken from the town’s stabilization or “rainy day” fund.
As printed in the warrant, it asked voters to raise and appropriate funding, or transfer from available funds.
At the meeting, selectman Walter Vail offered an amendment, which eventually passed, calling for the funds to come from a wastewater department account created by town meeting voters last year. That account, funded with wastewater customer user fees, was set aside for sewer engineering studies, but has not been spent.
Wastewater commissioner Bob Iadiciccio strenuously objected. He said the approximately 700 wastewater customers should not fund the scientific study through user fees. Instead, he said all the town’s taxpayers should pay for the study with tax revenues.
“Perhaps my memory is faulty, but is this something we voted?” Mr. Iadiciccio asked. “It would seem to me we would like to have the approval of the wastewater commission. This is a sensitive subject because there have been three prior incidents where the town has taken money out of the wastewater account without our knowledge.”
Mr. Iadiciccio refers to transfers from wastewater accounts to make payments on the bond that funded the $1 million purchase of land for wastewater plant expansion in 2007.
According to Mr. Iadiciccio, the town made $434,138 in bond payments, and the wastewater commissioners were not aware of it until they discovered this year that there was no money left in their retained earnings account.
The measure generated about 25 minutes of debate, some of it heated.
“It shouldn’t have been on the ballot, because it was late,” Maura McGroarty, a member of the finance and advisory committee said. “That is why there is so much discussion, because it wasn’t done properly.”
Voters eventually approved the article, as amended, on a voice vote.
Voters also approved $233,953 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds for four projects, including restoration of East Chop Bluff, restoration of stained glass windows at the United Methodist Church, preservation of a historic collection at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and rental assistance for the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.
They also voted to rescind $160,000 in CPA funds approved last year for an engineering study of Niantic Park and $22,700 approved last year for an affordable housing project at 54 Pacific Avenue.
Town officials determined the Niantic Park project did not qualify for CPA funds. They also explained that the Pacific Avenue homeowner no longer wished to sell the property. The money will go back to the CPA accounts.
The ambulance department will be getting a rebuilt ambulance and upgraded reporting software, police will get a new unmarked cruiser and new bullet proof vests, and the fire department will get a new emergency response intercept vehicle. The public safety expenditures totalling $281,250 will come out of the ambulance reserve fund, money earned from the fees pay for ambulance service.
The town meeting also approved a non-binding article submitted by petition, supporting a bill before state legislators that urges Congress to pass a constitutional amendment. The amendment would, in effect, reverse a United States Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to anonymously fund political campaigns without limit.
An article concerning police department enforcement of town bylaws sparked a round of questions, some dissent, and a lot of misunderstanding.
Though the article asked voters only to increase fines for violation of bylaws that were approved, in some cases, decades ago, the article listed the entire wording of every bylaw.
Voters lined up for their turn at the microphones.
“Does this mean I’m breaking the law if I ride my bike to the post office,” one voter asked, referring to bylaw prohibiting roller skates, skateboards, and bicycles from certain streets.
“What is the definition of profanity, and who is to decide that?” another voter asked about the bylaw covering disorderly conduct. He was concerned that his grandson could be arrested or fined for swearing.
Several more voters questioned the bylaws before one exasperated voter rose to speak.
“We’re not voting on the bylaw here, we’re voting on doubling the fines,” he said. “We could be here all night.”
His comment drew applause, and voters quickly approved the fine increases.
Also approved was a change in the bylaw covering restaurant hours, to extend the current restaurant closing time from 12:30 am to 1 am.
Oak Bluffs voters will decide a contested selectmen’s race in elections on Thursday, April 14. The polls at the Oak Bluffs Library meeting room will be open from 10 am to 7 pm. The library is located at 56 School Street.