While Oak Bluffs finances have been trending in a positive direction in recent years, when town administrator Robert Whritenour delivered his proposed budget to the selectmen Tuesday night, he also delivered some sobering news — education costs will once again push the town budget to the brink of a Proposition 2.5 override.
“Things are tightening up quite a bit,” Mr. Whritenour said. “I’m not picking on the school system by any stretch of the imagination, but my major concern is the education portion of the town budget. Educational spending is very much pressing the town’s financial limits.”
Mr. Whritenour’s proposed $26,516,245 budget for the next fiscal year, which next goes to the financial advisory committee (FinCom) for vetting, proposes a modest 1.7 percent increase in town expenditures. However, the overall increase in the budget with education increases factored in is 3.34 percent. The $581,000 increase in the Oak Bluffs high school assessment and the proposed $402,015 increase for the Oak Bluffs school budget bring the total educational spending increase for Oak Bluffs in FY16 to just under $1 million, more than the requested increase for the entire town.
“We’ve had very intense discussions with educational leaders,” Mr. Whritenour said. “It’s probably not realistic to keep the education below the Proposition 2.5 levy limit. There are just too many state requirements combined with the growth in the number of students.”
Mr. Whritenour said the town should “squeak by” in FY16 without an override; however, the $600,000 override approved by town taxpayers last year will be completely spent. “Last year we took half the override and set it aside for FY16. We won’t have that luxury in [FY17],” he said. “If we have another year of high growth in education expenses, we’re going to have big problems.”
State aid is a particular sore point. The total amount of state aid is determined in large part by real estate values, not earned income. This puts Oak Bluffs, and many towns on the Cape and Islands, at a disadvantage in qualifying for funds. Mr. Whritenour estimated that Oak Bluffs will be assessed with $150,000 in negative funding, e.g. the town will have to pay $150,000 to the state in FY16. “The state aid is actually getting worse,” he said. “The first $150,000 that this town raises has to go to the state, not to the classrooms in our town. Since 2008, state aid has not been there for the town, and it’s absolutely shameful.” Mr. Whritenour said the charter school is also a drain on town finances, since Oak Bluffs has to pay 100 percent of the tuition for each student. Mr. Whritenour said he will meet with state representative Tim Madden and a small group of town officials in a closed meeting next week to discuss the putative structure of state education funding. Selectman Gail Barmakian suggested that Oak Bluffs would stand a better chance of affecting change at the state level by forging alliances with other Cape and Island towns.
FinCom chairman Steve Auerbach said he’s optimistic that the financial burden on Oak Bluffs can be mitigated. “Our reception at the all-Island school committee and at the high school committee was very positive,” he told The Times on Wednesday. “I think they understand that with the constraints of Prop 2.5, there is a limit to what we can spend.” Mr. Auerbach said increase in health insurance for school employees is budgeted at 10 percent, but it could be considerably lower, depending on rates set by the Cape Cod Municipal Health Care Group, which are due to be announced in a few weeks. “School officials are not unsympathetic to what we’re trying to do,” he said. “They get unfunded mandates from the state, so it’s not an easy equation.”
Mr. Whritenour also had good financial news for the selectmen. “Revenues are quite strong, and there are things we can do to continue to make revenues strong,” he said, adding that revenue growth is currently pegged at 3.35 percent. “For estimated receipts last year we collected about $200,000 more than we budgeted,” he said. “Having over $3 million in estimated receipts is awesome. This year’s collections, halfway through the [fiscal] year, we’re $80,000 above last year’s collections. We’re not going to see $1 million in surpluses, we don’t have that luxury, but the days of negative numbers are over.”
Mr. Whritenour proposed freezing the vacant administrator position at the Council on Aging (COA). In addition to cutting costs, this will allow the COA to replace the retiring part-time outreach coordinator with a full-time outreach coordinator. “We want to lower administration costs and increase our outreach efforts,” he said. “That’s where the need is greatest in our community. Economically, that’s where we can have the biggest impact.”
Cost-of-living raises for union employees will be capped at two percent in FY16, and there will be no step raises.
Mr. Whritenour proposed additional funding to the highway department for seasonal restroom maintenance.
To improve efficiency in town hall, Mr. Whritenour proposed additional administrative support for both the assessor and town treasurer, as well as eliminating two part-time administrative positions in the health department and replacing them with one full-time position. In the building department, he proposed eliminating the half-time code enforcement position and adding a full-time administrative assistant.
“We’re recognizing the need for administrative support for the planning board,” Mr. Whritenour said. “We were able to double [the administration budget], but it’s a work in progress.”
Mr. Whritenour said he supports continued consolidation of the fire and EMS departments, and he informed the selectmen that Oak Bluffs homeowners are going to see a reduction in homeowner insurance due to an improved rating of the town’s fire department by the insurance industry.
In other business, Mr. Whritenour informed the selectmen that due to the delay in FEMA funding, dredging at Little Bridge, the channel between Sengekontacket Pond and Nantucket Sound that is completely choked with sand and gravel, will not take place until June 1 at the earliest.