Action on housing funds, cost cutting deliberations on Oak Bluffs agenda
Oak Bluffs selectmen voted emergency housing money, began to consider substantial cost cutting moves, and discussed repairs and improvements in town parks last week. The meeting was held on Thursday, Nov. 19, rescheduled from Tuesday of this week because of the Thanksgiving holiday.
After a short discussion, selectmen voted unanimously to recommend using community development block grant income to fill a gap in the Dukes County Housing Authority rental assistance plan.
The rental assistance program was caught short last month when the Island Affordable Housing Fund notified the housing authority that donations have fallen far short of goals, and it would be unable to fund November rent subsidies for about 45 people in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and West Tisbury.
"We are keenly aware of the difficulty the rental assistance program has had," said Greg Coogan, chairman of the board of selectmen.
The money to shore up the rental assistance program comes from a federally funded home improvement program. That program offers 15-year forgivable loans for home improvement and energy projects. If the homeowner stays in the home for 15 years, the loan is forgiven. But if they move or sell the home, the pro-rated portion of the loan must be paid back. When that happens, the money is put into an income account, and it is that account the town wants to use for rental assistance.
"The fund currently has $30,000," selectman Ron DiOrio said. "This is a legitimate use of the money because it is subsidizing rents for people. Our approval tonight will extend those Oak Bluffs residents that are getting housing subsidies through February, but we're still going to have a gap." The program administrators must hold a public hearing before distributing the funds. That public hearing was scheduled for last night.
In his report to selectmen, town administrator Michael Dutton advised the board of a joint meeting of selectmen and the financial advisory committee on December 3. "I've asked them to take a philosophical look at a number of items that we really need to look at," Mr. Dutton said.
The cost-cutting measures Mr. Dutton has asked the town officials to consider include eliminating board stipends, increasing the rooms tax, establishing a meals tax, cuts to services, reductions in hours, and closure of non-critical departments. Mr. Dutton also said the town needs to rethink the way it handles solid waste, including the possibility of eliminating curbside pickup. Also on the table are further reductions in staff. "That's something, from my perspective, I would not argue for," Mr. Dutton said. "I think we're going to be pretty lean."
Mr. Dutton said requiring employees to pay a larger percentage of their health insurance benefits, increasing licensing fees, and regionalization of town services are other items that need to be considered.
"We still have got a huge gap to fill," Mr. DiOrio said.
The town has already made deep and painful cuts in this year's budget. In October, a special town meeting approved $500,000 in cuts from the $24.1 million budget for the current fiscal year, which was approved at the town meeting in April.
In a phone conversation with The Times on Monday, Mr. Dutton was reluctant to put a dollar figure on the budget gap the town will face next year, but he is preparing for a substantial shortfall. "We know we're looking at a 10- to 15-percent increase in employee benefit costs, mostly driven by health insurance," he said. "With the scheduled three-percent increase in collective bargaining agreements, at the same time you're looking at a reduction in revenue, it really puts the squeeze on."
Mr. Dutton has asked the town's budget officials to take a more global approach to town operations, to avoid more costly problems in the future. "What we do in municipal government is figure out a way to patch it together for another year," he said. "When you do that year after year, you end up with a system that is not efficient. Trying to figure out shortfalls of $500,000, $400,000, $600,000, you can't piece that together. We know we can't charge a lot more for the services we provide, so at this point we're going to have to reduce services."
Parks commissioners Nancy Phillips and Richard Combra, Jr., presented selectmen with an overview of issues with Ocean, Dennis Alley, and Niantic parks.
Selectmen, acting as permit holders for the wastewater effluent beds under Ocean Park, voted to allow Martha's Vineyard Community Services to erect a tent on Ocean Park for its Possible Dreams auction next summer. The vote was necessary to satisfy state regulators that the wastewater system would not be damaged.
Ms. Phillips told the board that Alley Park, formerly known as Waban Park, has a continuing problem with soggy ground and poor drainage. Flooding is also a continuing problem in Niantic Park. Ms. Phillips said storm water runoff has caused cracks in the basketball court and erosion in the park. She said the fire department is sometimes called out to pump water away from homes surrounding the park. "That's a $500,000 fire truck," Ms. Phillips said. "Chief Forend is not happy. It's impacting the fire department, it's impacting the neighborhood, it's making the road almost impassable."
The Parks Commission received $9,000 in Community Preservation Act Funds to hire an engineer to study the problem. Ms. Phillips said the money will cover a preliminary survey, but substantially more funds are needed for further engineering work and to fix the storm water runoff issues.