Oak Bluffs voters approve town hall, fire station

Voters said yes to a $25.7 million budget and all warrant articles.

Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour. Photo by Ralph Stewart

Oak Bluffs voters were in a generous mood at annual town meeting on Tuesday night as they approved a proposed $25.7 million operating budget for the 2015 fiscal year (FY15) and the new town hall and new EMS/fire station, which will cost $6,830,000 and $8,288,000, respectively.

A total of 282 people, representing 7.7 percent of the towns 3,655 eligible voters, attended the annual town meeting at the Performing Arts Center at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

Money talks

At the start, town administrator Robert Whritenour presented an upbeat picture of town finances. “I think we’ve made great progress improving the town’s finances and we stand before you today saying we’ve brought them full circle into the positive,” he said. Underscoring the dramatic turnaround in town finances, Mr. Whritenour showed the general fund balance in 2011 was minus $434,000, and as of last July, it was $1.5 million in the black. He received a hearty round of applause when he stated that town’s free cash, which was at minus $900,000 in 2011, was certified this year at $961,000.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, even though we’ve made a lot of progress,” he said as the applause died down. Mr. Whritenour then laid the groundwork for the Proposition 2.5 override which will be decided at town election Thursday.

Voters go to the polls today to decide four races and three money questions that include funding for the fire station and town hall. Election results are available at mvtimes.com.

He said town education costs, due in large part to a combined net increase of 22 Oak Bluffs students at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School necessitated the $600,000 override. He added that additional cuts in the town budget were not an option to avoid it. “In getting to these numbers, we’ve had to bring most of the town departments to their knees,” he said. “They’ve managed their departments with cuts after cuts they can’t absorb additional cuts to make up for that $600,000 without damages to town services.”

Town leaders plan to use $250,000 in free cash to reduce the amount needed to $350,000, but decided to make no change on the $600,00 ballot amount in order to keep a $250,000 buffer against any surprise education expenses in FY16.

Finance committee chairman Steve Auerbach said many people have asked him why the $961,000 in free cash couldn’t be used to cover the deficit. “Free cash might not be there next year, while the costs associated with the high school and special education programs will be there year after year,” he said. “Free ash comes from judicious use of funds. It’s generally thought best for one time expenditures.”

Mr. Whritenour said the override would cost taxpayers .037 cents per $1000 of assessed property value or $118.93 for a house worth $500,000.

 Voting the warrant

Although town officials expected the annual meeting to be a two-night affair, moderator Jack Law kept the proceedings moving at a brisk pace, but only after Article 1, the town operating budget, was approved. That bit of work took nearly two hours of debate.

The discussion got off to a stumbling start, with a few attendees, clearly piqued about the override discussion, challenging line item after line item until Thad Hashbarger took the microphone.

“These line items have been discussed in detail in committee meetings and open meetings. You’ve had your chance to speak out. Now save the rest of us from having to hear every line item and let’s get on with it,” he said to a round of applause.

The ensuing discussion included questions about the transparency of the ambulance reserve fund, the necessity of hiring support staff, the ambiguity in various line items, and additional digressions about the override. In the end, the proposed FY 15 budget of $25,717,644 was approved at a slightly higher $25,726,354.

The $8,710 increase was a pay raise for town clerk Laura Johnston. Although Ms. Johnston took over for retiring town clerk Deborah Radcliffe in June 2013, her salary had not been adjusted. Since she is an elected official, the soft-spoken Ms. Johnston had to ask town voters to raise her salary to the amount they approved at last year’s town meeting. Voters approved enthusiastically.

“I love this town,” Ms. Johnston said after the meeting. “It was a very hard thing for me to get up there, but the response was very heartwarming.”

 Big ticket items

The most anticipated votes of the night were the approvals to spend $6.9 million on a new town hall and $8.3 million on a new Fire/EMS station. Both projects had to be approved by a two thirds vote.

“We need to replace these buildings, folks,” said Bill McGrath, chairman of the capital improvements committee, as he began a powerpoint presentation. “There’s a website up and running that says why we need to do these projects,” he said referring to the dedicated website hosted on the Oak Bluffs town website, oakbluffsma.gov. “It’s an excellent website and it’s interactive, so you can ask questions and get answers.”

Addressing the affordability of the new buildings, Mr. McGrath reiterated a point that has been made many times in open town meetings — since the debt for the Oak Bluffs school and library are declining, the new buildings will have minimal impact on the existing tax rate. Additionally, he said by using bond anticipation notes, the town can borrow money now and delay payment of principal and interest for several years.

Mr. McGrath stressed that delaying the projects would only cost taxpayers more money in the long run. He noted that the present low interest rates are sure to rise at some point, and each

.25 percent increase in interest would add $136,000 to the total of the projects. “If the project costs increase 2.5 percent per year, the fire station will go from $8.3 million to $8.9 million,” he said. “[If] we delay, we add to the cost and we don’t have the buildings.”

Mr. McGrath that said Keenan and Kenny architects and Daedalus Projects, overseers of both buildings, have a reputation of coming in on time and under budget. The crowd expressed widespread approval when he noted this was the same team that worked on the new West Tisbury police station.

“If we’re approved tonight, we can to to bid and start construction in September and in April 2016, we’ll have a new fire station and town hall.” Mr. McGrath said, adding that all costs are locked in once the project moves forward.

Mr. McGrath said the total cost of both buildings for a house worth $500,000 will be $3740.60 over 18 years.

“That’s a pretty nice price for 50 year buildings,” he said.

Karen Achille, former chairman of the Oak Bluffs library building committee, made an especially compelling argument for the new buildings. “There’s no one who would say bringing the library into the 21st century has not enhanced our town,” she said to widespread agreement. “If we had waited to build the library for two more years, it would have cost an additional three to four million dollars. I encourage you to vote yes.”

In the end, the new fire/EMS station and town hall were approved overwhelmingly in voice votes.

After the expenditures for the firehouse and town hall were given the thumbs up, warrant items were approved in rapid succession as Mr. Law read the articles at an auctioneer’s pace.

Not so big ticket items

Taxpayers approved five transfers from the ambulance reserve fund to pay for vehicles and equipment for the police and EMS/fire department: $220,000 for a new ambulance, $52,000 for a new fire department command vehicle, $28,000 for a life raft and new fire pump on the town’s emergency management boat, $70,000 for a new marked police SUV and animal control vehicle, and $33,690 for new body armor, portable radios, and bicycles for the police. The Finance and Advisory Board (FinCom) recommended removing the expenditure of $4,000 for three new bicycles. Chief Erik Blake spoke to defend the expenditure, saying each bicycle cost $989 and additional equipment added to the cost. The FinCom recommendation was put to a voice vote, and with only five “no” votes, the police got their new bicycles.

In an article that underscores the town’s improving financial health, voters approved a request to transfer $250,000 of free cash to the stabilization fund, or rainy day fund, which would bring the fund total to $1,036,476.90, close to the 5 percent of the town’s operating budget, the goal set by town administrator Robert Whritenour three years ago.

Voters approved spending $139,000 in free cash to purchase two pickup trucks and one dump truck for the highway department, $37,000 for the purchase and installation of new financial software in town hall.

The FinCom only voted against one item on the warrant, a request from the police department for $15,000 in free cash to pay for repairs to the station break room. This was the closest vote of the night. After an inconclusive voice vote, the measure was approved by a standing vote of 121 to 56.

Four warrant articles requesting transfers from the Wastewater Retained Earnings fund were approved for a new truck for the wastewater commission ($40,000), construction of a new garage for the department ($125,000), a study to determine if upgrades are needed to the system which is “operating closer to capacity than expected,” according to the executive summary ($50,000), and to improve and relocate electrical and water equipment to prevent damage in a major storm ($62,500).

Taxpayers approved expenditures for $746,664 of Community Preservation Act funds (CPA) on 11 projects. Arguments were made against an $18,000 expenditure for restoration of Trinity Church stained glass windows and $111,600 to the town of Aquinnah to move the Gay Head Lighthouse. Voice votes were taken for both, and a vote count was taken for the Trinity Church expenditure, and both passed in the end.

Adult education (ACE MV) got a boost from Oak Bluffs taxpayers to the tune of $19,170. Voters also consented for the town to take possession of East Chop bluff from the East Chop association, in order to help the crumbling corniche qualify for federal funding, which it did not as a privately owned entity.

The town adopted an Island-wide article that will create one set of lawn fertilizer regulations to protect groundwater and estuaries from the effects of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, through the creation of a district of critical planning concern (DCPC) known as the Martha’s Vineyard Lawn Fertilizer Control district.

A resounding voice vote also approved a resolution in favor of shutting down the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth.

Educator honored

Town meeting also took a moment to thank Priscilla Sylvia for her 35 years of teaching at the Oak Bluffs school and 12 years of service on the Oak Bluffs school committee. Ms. Sylvia was given a standing ovation as Oak Bluffs school principal Richie Smith presented her with a bouquet of flowers. “For some of you, the name Priscilla Sylvia sends trepidation and fear,” he joked. “But it’s not her formidable reputation, it’s her legacy we honor tonight.”

“Priscilla came to the Oak Bluffs school in 1965. The lady teachers were not paid as much as the male teachers and so that’s where her go-getting started here.” Mr. Smith said the Priscilla Sylvia greenhouse, which started at the old Oak Bluffs school and is actively used at the current Oak Bluffs school, will be a part of her legacy, along with the generations of Oak Bluffs students she’s taught over the years.”

“And I’ve loved it all,” Ms. Sylvia said, to another standing ovation.

Town clerk Laura Johnston also feted retired town clerk Deborah Radcliffe, “I learned so much in my 18 years as your assistant. I’ve seen her go above and beyond many times for the voters and residents of our town.”