Oak Bluffs cuts '10 spending
Oak Bluffs voters approved five of eight articles before them on the special town meeting warrant Tuesday evening, but not without a vigorous debate and several attempts to amend the proposals. As expected, voters took no action on the three other articles.
A total of 163 voters were on hand when moderator David Richardson called for a count. Eventually, the count was 188, representing 5.7 percent of the town's 3,275 registered voters. The crowd was larger than expected. The moderator delayed the start of the meeting for about 15 minutes, while town officials scrambled to make extra copies of the warrant.
First up were $499,145 worth of staff cuts and operating expense reductions from the FY10 budget approved by voters just six months ago. Also part of the article was a $19,985 expenditure to hire a part-time human resources specialist.
"We've seen our revenues consistently fall short of expectations," town administrator Michael Dutton said. "We need to take action to ensure we have a balanced budget for fiscal year 2010, which is the current fiscal year. We tried to spread the cuts fairly. This is the first time since 1991 that we've had to make mid-year cuts."
Tricia Bergeron and David Caron, two members of the board of health, made a case for restoring the position cut from the health department staff. Ms. Bergeron offered a motion to take the board of health layoff out of the budget-cutting package and vote on it separately. "We're a two-person department," she said. "We're begging you, really begging you, to look at this individually."
Mr. Caron said the board of health was not consulted before the cuts were recommended. "Had we had the opportunity to be part of the process, we would have come up with some suggestions," Mr. Caron said. "This affects the general welfare and health of all the people in Oak Bluffs. We're losing an essential position."
Selectmen Ron DiOrio and selectman chairman Greg Coogan opposed the motion.
"I understand what their needs are and how much they want to protect this position and keep things the way they are," Mr. Coogan said. "Unfortunately things aren't going to be the way they were."
"This is like a math problem," Mr. DiOrio said. "If this is handled separately, the next question is where does the balance come from?"
Selectman Kerry Scott opposed the staff cut in the health department. "The board of health didn't have any opportunity to discuss this," she said. "We did not respect the board of health when we made those decisions without consulting them."
Charlie Minor, a resident who is often a pointed critic of town officials, defended their work. "It's not a good solution, it's not one anyone likes," Mr. Minor said. "But I would like to see us take into account what they have done and vote on that. I think we should vote against taking this one line item out."
Several people asked town leaders whether they had considered unpaid furloughs as a way to make up the budget deficit. Mr. Dutton said the financial advisory committee and the personnel board had carefully considered furloughs, but rejected the idea.
After more than an hour of debate, voters defeated the amendment on a voice vote. Voters approved the cuts by a significant margin.
The next article asked voters to allow the town to enter into a lease-purchase agreement, worth $250,000, for a new ambulance. The purchase is to be financed from the town's ambulance reserve account, which is funded from money earned for transporting patients. With little debate, voters approved the article on a voice vote.
The first of two wastewater related articles sought $50,000 for repairs to the leach beds under Ocean Park. It was withdrawn by wastewater manager Joe Alosso, who said that repairs turned out to be much less costly than anticipated and would be funded from the department's retained earnings account.
The second wastewater article generated considerably more debate. Voters were asked to approve $2,444,425 for a sewer system expansion that would tie in the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, the new YMCA, and several other nearby heavy-use buildings. The project would also develop property next to the wastewater plant known as the Leonardo property into leach beds to allow discharge of an addition 250,000 of treated wastewater. It would also include an upgrade of the wastewater plant that would improve wastewater treatment to standards that would allow discharge near a town well.
Mr. Alosso explained how all three phases of the $2.4 project would be paid for by users, or from the wastewater department's retained earning funds, and that no taxpayer funds would be used.
Bill Alwardt, a commercial fisherman and advocate for the health of local salt ponds, spoke in favor of the sewer projects. "It seems to me the people in this town are the ones that are polluting the pond," Mr. Alwardt said. "It's coming from septic systems. There's 900 houses around Lagoon Pond that need to be sewered now."
Selectman Kathy Burton supported the request. "Expansion of our wastewater system is not optional," Ms. Burton said. "We must expand it now."
Selectman Kerry Scott, who has clashed with Mr. Alosso on several issues, asked whether a town bylaw prohibited discharge of treated wastewater near town wells. Mr. Alosso said before the wastewater plant was built, water commissioners prohibited discharge near a well, until state regulations were drafted. He said those regulations are now in place, and the upgraded plant will meet the applicable standards.
The vote to approve the wastewater project was nearly unanimous. The only nay was Ms. Scott's.
Voters took no action on articles that would add a .75-percent meals tax, and add two percent to the rooms tax. The selectmen submitted the articles, but they intended only to draw discussion, not a vote. A number of business owners spoke against the additional taxes. The articles will be on the annual town meeting warrant next spring. A public hearing will be scheduled before then.
A proposal to transfer $225,000 from the resident homesite account to complete renovation of the old library won overwhelming approval. The project will include three affordable rental units and a retail space for a pharmacy. Opponents of the project offered amendments to reduce the amount of the transfer, and to prohibit use of the funds to the commercial part of the project.
Neither amendment won approval. A clear majority passed the article on a voice vote.
The final article of the evening approved on a voice vote was a zoning change proposal, to add a half-acre parcel near the Martha's Vineyard Hospital to the health care district. The hospital intends to create 55 parking spaces on the land. The hospital recently purchased the land and asked for the change because the Martha's Vineyard Commission, as a condition of its permit, required the hospital to create an additional 65 parking spaces.