Oak Bluffs selectmen quarrel over articles
A meeting to consider a warrant article asking for $100,000 to fund an engineering study of the crumbling coastal wall along Sea View Avenue prompted a sharp exchange at a special meeting of the Oak Bluffs selectmen on Friday. More fireworks are expected to follow when voters gather next month for a special town meeting.
The conservation commission, with the strong support of selectwoman Kerry Scott, submitted the request, later reduced to $75,000 in a compromise that pared two other spending requests by an equal amount.
The money request comes as public officials face increasing budget pressure, competition for available funds and amid talk of possible layoffs.
The special town meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 pm in the Oak Bluffs School on Thursday, December 11.
The warrant selectmen approved at their regular meeting on November 18 included an article that asked voters to authorize the transfer of $100,000 in so-called free cash to the town's stabilization fund, a "rainy day" account set aside for emergencies.
Another article asked voters to transfer $100,000 to a separate, dedicated stabilization fund to begin funding future retirement benefits for town workers.
An actuarial study estimates that all six Island towns face significant underfunding of that future liability. That study estimated that in order to meet the expected costs, Oak Bluffs would have to put $596,403 toward future health costs for the current fiscal year, and increase that amount approximately 5-percent each year for the next thirty years.
Town employees agreed in contract negotiations earlier this year to contribute 6-percent of their health benefit contribution to future retirement benefits. That percentage will double next year. The town has yet to fund any of the liability.
At the annual town meeting on April 8, voters rejected a Proposition 2.5 override question that would have put $250,000 toward the unfunded liability.
At Friday's special selectmen's meeting, Ms. Scott advocated spending $100,000 for the beach engineering study, instead of beginning funding for future town employee health benefits.
"I feel like that $100,000 could be put to so much better use," said Ms. Scott who has campaigned vigorously for improvements to town beaches.
Chairman Ron DiOrio strongly disagreed. "I don't think it's an emergency. I don't think it's critical," said Mr. DiOrio, who has been an outspoken advocate of funding future retirement benefits.
He said town employees agreed to fund part of the future retirement benefit based on a good faith agreement that the town would match their contributions.
Ms. Scott said the engineering study would allow the town to seek substantial funding from state and local government.
Mr. DiOrio was skeptical about the prospect for federal and state funding. He said engineering studies have a shelf life, and if funding is delayed or denied, the engineering study might have to be redone.
"Earmarks are in trouble," said Mr. DiOrio. "These kinds of things are in trouble in this economic climate. You're not committing to $100,000, you're committing to much more than that."
Selectman Greg Coogan proposed a compromise that eventually won unanimous approval from the board. Selectmen agreed to reduce the request to add money to the stabilization fund from $100,000 to $50,000, and reduce the request to fund future retirement benefits from $100,000 to $75,000. They also agreed to add the beach engineering study request to the special town meeting warrant, but reduced the original request from $100,000 to $75,000.
Moving on, at the request of town administrator Michael Dutton, selectmen voted to remove an article providing him with a $13,515 salary increase. "It has the potential to be a lightning rod," said Mr. Dutton. The pay increase would have brought Mr. Dutton's salary, currently $99,900, to the median level for town administrators surveyed in a compensation and classification study completed for the town last year. All other town employees, either through selectmen approval, or town meeting approval, were granted raises that brought their salaries to the median level identified by the study.
"We now have the distinction of people who work for the town making substantially more than the town administrator," said Mr. DiOrio, who led the study of town employee pay scales.
In a parting shot over the town meeting warrant, Ms. Scott strongly criticized an article that asks voters to transfer $250,000 from a wastewater district account, to fund an engineering study and repair of the leaching beds under Ocean Park. The money would come from a wastewater district savings account, not tax revenues.
The town is under a state order from the Department of Environmental Engineering to identify and repair the system, which has resulted in treated wastewater seeping to the surface of the park in summer months. Ms. Scott said the article did not include enough detail, and promised to question it at the special town meeting.
"This is a hastily put together warrant with an ill-favored article from the wastewater district," said Ms. Scott. She told the board she would not sign the special town meeting warrant if it included that article.
Ms. Scott later relented and signed the warrant.
In a telephone conversation Monday, Mark Forest, chief of staff for Congressman William Delahunt, said the long-term beach improvement project is likely to qualify for substantial federal funds, because it will involve shoring up the public roadway.