Oak Bluffs rejects tax shift
The Oak Bluffs selectmen emphatically rejected a recommendation from the town assessors to split the town's tax rate, effectively giving year-round residents a tax break and shifting more of the burden to seasonal property owners.
Based on average assessed value, the typical Oak Bluffs homeowner would have realized an annual tax reduction of $790, according to the assessors, if their recommendation had been approved by the selectmen.
"It would put the burden on the summer people," said assessors chairman Jack Law. "We voted unanimously to do it this year. The economy is tough. If we can give somebody a slight break on their tax bill, it means a lot."
The assessors voted the recommendation at their meeting Monday, and much to the surprise of selectmen, presented the proposal to the chief executives at the previously scheduled public hearing on Tuesday evening.
"This is a major change in how we've done business, and you're giving us this document tonight?" asked chairman Ron DiOrio. "I feel like we're under the gun to do what is a major change in philosophy, on a decision you made last night. I oppose this. I think it's a mistake. I think it creates class warfare. The non-residents draw none of the services, basically, compared to what the residents draw. They're here for 10 weeks. I think it's blatantly unfair to push the burden on one class of residents."
The selectmen voted unanimously to set one tax classification for all residents, rejecting the assessors' recommendation.
"I think the board of assessors' hearts are in the right place," said selectman Duncan Ross. "But it's awfully quick. I think what we should do is take a year to study this."
"I think we're all worried about the winter ahead," said selectman Greg Coogan. "I'm really hesitant to do this now. We need to ride this storm out and get through this year. If we don't, I will be here next year rethinking this very seriously."
Selectman Kerry Scott clashed with wastewater plant manager Joe Alosso and wastewater commissioners over wet ground in Ocean Park. Ms. Scott and Mr. Alosso have a long and contentious political relationship. The two public officials have quarreled over a variety of public issues.
In November, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued an order of non-compliance to the town, after state inspectors determined that treated wastewater from underground leaching fields was seeping to the surface of Ocean Park. The DEP notice orders the town to stop any treated wastewater from seeping to the surface, turn off all irrigation systems, hire an engineering firm to study the problem, and submit that engineering report to the DEP by January 22, 2009. Ms. Scott was critical of Mr. Alosso, charging he has taken too long to address the issue, and that he failed to communicate with the selectmen.
Mr. Alosso and all three wastewater commissioners attended Tuesday's meeting to present a two-page timeline of their actions from 2005 to the present, relating to the problems in Ocean Park. The document notes five specific instances when the selectmen were notified of updates and developments, or forwarded engineering reports. It says all material, information, and observations were shared with the selectmen and the DEP when they became available.
"The timeline is helpful, but inadequate," said Ms. Scott. She said she sounded the alarm about wet ground in Ocean Park back in 2004.
Mr. Alosso said he had had several discussions about the issues with all selectmen except Ms. Scott, and responded to all requests for information. "You and I have not had one discussion on Ocean Park," he said, speaking directly to Ms. Scott. "You never asked me about Ocean Park. You've never asked any of my staff about Ocean Park, you've never asked any of the wastewater commissioners about Ocean Park. So, it's fine for you to say that, I'll take it for what it's worth. I know I'm doing a good job, I know that I communicate with the board of selectmen, and the board of selectmen communicates with me. If you choose not to do that, that's fine."
"I am not going to answer you tit for tat, Joe, I think that was very poorly done," Ms. Scott responded a few moments later. "The reason the wastewater commissioners and the plant manager were invited to come to so many selectmen's meetings over the last three years is because I wanted to communicate with you, and I feel like this is the place where I can communicate effectively. So, we have been talking."
Mr. Alosso said various engineering reports and experiments have yet to pinpoint the cause of the wastewater seepage, but he said he believes that irrigation of the park, which at some points amounted to 460,000 gallons per week, is partly responsible.
"I don't think it's all of the problem," said Mr. Alosso. "I don't think it's a major problem. I think it's less than 50 percent of the problem."
Mr. Alosso asked for, and received by unanimous vote, permission to consult the town counsel about legal issues relating to the Ocean Park problem.
Following the meeting, Ms. Scott told The Martha's Vineyard Times she is concerned about the delays in addressing the issues.
"There have been delays," said Ms. Scott. "I resent those delays. I am mostly worried about those delays, because I'm afraid they may represent opportunities lost, that we need to be able to seek redress from either the design firm, or the construction firm.
When asked who she thought was responsible for the delays, Ms. Scott said "I think the manager is. He's been so intent on blaming the irrigation, and I don't think he understands the hydrology of irrigation. I don't pretend that I do, but he needs to."
The selectmen also watched a presentation from Carlos Pena of CLE engineering, who has been studying how best to repair the crumbling seawall and collapsing coastal bank along the Sea View Avenue waterfront from the harbor entrance to Farm Pond. Mr. Pena reviewed the history of the beachfront, and the engineering studies completed so far.
While cautioning that it was an estimate to get a sense of the project, Mr. Pena said it would take $5,230,350 to completely repair the town's public beaches, over a period of two years.
The first step in the process would be a "sediment transport" study, to see how sand migrates along the beaches. That would cost approximately $55,000.
Mr. Pena suggested the town would see a vast improvement in the beaches for "relatively short money," by taking action quickly on two fronts. The first would be to relocate a large drainage pipe that deposits storm water runoff directly onto the beach. The second would be to replenish sand above the high tide line. He said permitting for replenishing sand would require only town permits. Replacing sand below the tide line is a far more involved process, requiring permits from several state and federal agencies.