“Comments, criticisms, whatever you want to throw at us,” joked Walter Vail, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, “We’re here to listen.” Mr. Vail played to an audience of summer taxpayers Tuesday, in this year’s edition of an annual forum open to seasonal residents and their opinions and concerns.
Mr. Vail, the assembled selectmen, and town administrator Robert Whritenour had good reason to be upbeat. The financial numbers for fiscal 2013 were in, and the news was better than expected.
The news is good
“I’d like to start out with what I think is the best news of all,” said Mr. Vail. “Our number one priority as of two years ago was to improve our town’s financial health. And I can tell you that unofficially, we have met that goal and have eliminated our $800,000 negative free cash position as of the end of fiscal year 2013, which ended June 30th.”
Mr. Vail said the hiring of an experienced town accountant, Arthur Gallagher, was instrumental in their success, and he thanked Bill McGrath and Steve Auerbach and the entire finance committee for being so diligent with budget oversight. He was especially effusive in his praise for Mr. Whritenour, “We hired Bob almost two years ago, to get our house in order, and he’s been instrumental in improving our financial health. He’s brought a new level of professionalism to town hall.”
Mr. Whritenour explained the remarkable financial turnaround in great detail, starting with the dire straits of 2011.
“The town had experienced some pretty serious structural deficits that built up over the decade, and by 2011 we faced general fund deficit of over $400,000 and a free cash deficit of nearly $900,000, and for a small town like Oak Bluffs, that is tremendous problem,” Mr. Whritenour said. “We worked closely as a team to bring professional financial analysis into the budgeting process, creating detailed history of every revenue account, every expenditure and most importantly, introduced some very conservative budgeting techniques and financial discipline. We really need to continue this discipline as we move ahead. We’ve had some good results. The future looks even better.”
The terms “budget oversight,” “professionalism” and “fiscal discipline” were repeated often during the two hour meeting.
“Here’s some new info even the board hasn’t seen,” continued Mr. Whritenour. “On July 1, 2011, we had a general fund deficit of over $434,000. Today, we estimate that the general fund will finish this fiscal year with a balance of over $1,000,000 to the positive. That’s huge news. This really exceeds our initial hopes, and forms the basis of healthy financial growth in the future. And keep in mind that million dollars comes comes from non-property tax receipts, things that are economy-driven like excise fees on motor vehicles, rooms, meals, boats, and harbor receipts.”
Mr. Whritenour gave a nod to the town department heads for their part in the turnaround. “Last year, department heads turned back on the budget $371,000, and this year we estimate those turn backs will top $600,000. That money goes back to the taxpayers and goes into the general fund balance.”
He also gave kudos to the selectmen. “Early on in our planning process, this board of selectmen made the choice, ‘We’re not going to raise taxes to balance the town’s checkbook.’ They stuck to that and I commend them for it.”
Mr. Whritenour had more. “I’m absolutely delighted to tell you that Oak Bluffs was recently rated by Standard and Poors and we have maintained our AA+ bond rating and our management has been upgraded from “moderate” to “good.” Now we are particularly poised in his community to make a lot of progress and to improve the face of this town. We’re going to attack some of the major structural problems, we want to look at what type of town are we going to give to the next generations. We understand that Oak Bluffs is a tremendous gift.”
While the all the good news was cause for celebration, Mr. Whritenour said restraint would remain the order of the day at town hall. “To reach these numbers, we had to lower our revenue estimates, which meant lowering the budgets. and we hope people will be patient as we build up reserves and most importantly, live within our needs and not exceed our budgets. I think these numbers clearly show we’re on the right track. This is a startling turnaround. It shows Oak Bluffs is on the right road. There’s a lot of good going on in this town.”
Department heads report
As per usual in the annual summer taxpayer session, department heads were on hand to give their reports and to field questions.
For the Highway Department, Superintendent Rich Combra said that his department would begin a taxpayer-approved $1 million road improvement program in the fall. He also asked the selectmen for help with the a litter problem in Oak Bluffs.
“I’m frustrated with the litter and trash problem in town,” he said. “I’m at my wit’s end. I get complaints from people about trash on the beach, and in the morning we clear it, but by afternoon it’s full of trash. We need to form a committee, a public campaign, we really need to raise public awareness. This is way out of hand.”
A summer resident told Mr. Combra that some bushes on New York Avenue were creating a dangerous blind spot. He told her they would be trimmed on Wednesday.
Chief Erik Blake said that, owing to the Boston Marathon bombing and the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school, significant changes have been made in police procedure. “Right after the bombing we put together a public safety team to keep events safe this summer,” he said. “Some of these changes will be visible, some won’t.” Chief Blake said that bomb sniffing dogs will be used at major events like Illumination Night, fireworks and concerts, and that backpacks and coolers will be searched.
In response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, Chief Blake said that Oak Bluffs School principal Richie Smith requested a police presence at the school. Using an innovative approach, Chief Blake and Mr. Smith set up a “virtual police office” at the school. “The same phone that rings in the police station rings there. The same computer system is there. During the day, we’ll have a police presence at the school, without the cost of hiring another officer,” Chief Blake said.
Chief Blake said that the improved financial health of the town had allowed him to expand the summer staff, which has enhanced public safety and increased parking ticket revenue from $30,000 to $85,000. He also noted that police complaints have declined.
Library director Sondra Murphy told the group that attendance this summer has “gone through the roof.” She said the library hired a new reference librarian and a new children’s librarian and that the library will be a hub of activity in the fall, with non-traditional offerings like yoga for children and cooking for teens.
Oak Bluffs School Principal Smith reported that enrollment at the Oak Bluffs School is just under 400 students, attended by 80 staff. He said that the school acquitted itself well in the last round of testing, scoring in the 86th percentile in the state and ranking second on the Island.
The summer taxpayer forum ended with a hearty round of applause for the selectmen and Mr. Whritenour.
A variety of other businessIn other town business, the Black Dog received permission to open an eatery at 12 Circuit Avenue. Pre-baked goods and beverages will be sold at the location, which will open on Labor Day weekend.
The board voted unanimously to revoke the taxi license of Ediberto Belen. According to a police report, Mr. Belen yelled racial slurs at an African-American taxi driver from another town, while at the Steamship dock. Mr. Belen denied using the slur, but Sergeant Marshon said he has third party testimony that corroborated the information in the report. Although his Oak Bluffs taxi license was revoked, Mr. Belen can drive for any company not based in Oak Bluffs, and he can drop off and pick up fares in the town.
A discussion about rampant taxi driver misbehavior ensued among the selectmen, attendees, Chief Blake and Sergeant Marshon. Selectman Gail Barmakian said that in addition to her own recent encounters with discourteous taxi drivers, she was getting a steady stream of complaints from constituents.
Mr. Coogan suggested that the numbers on the taxis be made larger and more visible to increase driver accountability. Segreant Marshon suggested that next spring, taxi drivers could be required to take a police sponsored training session as a condition of their employment.
The selectmen agreed and the matter will be explored over the winter. Mr. Whritenour asked the board to approve a $40,000 expenditure from the general fund for feasibility studies for the town hall ($25,000) and fire station ($15,000). The expenditure was unanimously approved.
Proprietors of haberdasheries Jelly Fish and Soft as a Grape sought permission to sell their clothing from push carts in the business district. The selectmen voted to study the matter.
The long simmering topic of food carts was pushed to the August 20 board of selectmen meeting.
The board voted unanimously to appoint Mary Anne Cummings to the board of registrars, for three years.
In another unanimous vote, selectmen re-appointed entire historic committee — Nicholas Catt, James Dearing, Joyce Dresser, Susan Gamble, Pamela Melrose, Alison Shaw and Susan Thompson — for another one year term.