Oak Bluffs will consider balanced budget
The outcome of the annual town meeting and election in Oak Bluffs will likely attract Island-wide and national interest next week.
The meeting warrant includes a measure that would gut the regional assessment now used to apportion high school costs to Island towns and replace it with a state-mandated formula that would greatly benefit Oak Bluffs.
Voters will also have an opportunity to harpoon the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament, the subject of a national campaign by the powerful Humane Society of the United States.
Oak Bluffs voters will have a full plate set before them when they gather Tuesday in the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center.
The Water District annual meeting - two articles totaling $1,699,934 in spending, a 7-percent increase over the fiscal year 2007 budget - begins at 6:30 pm.
That is followed by a 13-article special town meeting at 7 pm followed by a 23-article annual town meeting that includes a FY 2008 operating budget of $21,167,315, 3.6-percent increase over the previous year.
On Thursday, voters will head to the polls located at the Oak Bluffs School to elect town officers and answer a single nonbinding ballot question that asks voters if the town of Oak Bluffs should continue to allow the use of town property for events related to shark tournaments.
Town administrator Michael Dutton said he is relieved that the town has continued their record of balanced budgets, and doesn't expect any of the warrant articles to be terribly contentious.
Selectman chairman Duncan Ross said he expects the school funding formula and wastewater articles to spark the most debate. "The school funding is probably the most controversial article, and that will have a lot of discussion," he said. "Other than the school thing I don't see anything that's really debatable in the annual."
School funding choice
In order to take advantage of a change in the state funding formula for regional school districts, selectmen removed the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) district assessment from the operating budget, and placed it on the warrant in the form of a separate article.
The existing Island regional formula for funding the high school is based on a per-pupil cost. The state's new so-called "statutory formula" takes into account a town's aggregate wealth, based on its total equalized property valuation and its total income.
Under the statutory formula, Oak Bluffs's assessment would decrease by $413,537, according to the most recent figures released by the state. But the savings for Oak Bluffs would come at the expense of Tisbury, Chilmark, and West Tisbury taxpayers, who would see their assessments rise dramatically.
In the interests of regional harmony and sharing, the regional school committee last month voted to keep the current formula for the upcoming fiscal year. Under that formula Oak Bluffs, would pay $3,003,527, the amount requested in article 15.
But Oak Bluffs officials prefer to take the money. The plan is to ask voters to reject article 15, triggering the statutory formula and saving Oak Bluffs $413,537.
Few department budgets rise dramatically in the upcoming fiscal year. If approved, the police department's budget would rise 8.5 percent, from $1,358,953 to $1,474,673. The fire department's total expenses jump just over 7 percent, from $151,963 to $162,963. The town library's total budget jumps nearly 8 percent, from $374,765 to $404,165.
Fixed costs, which include insurance, social security, and employee pensions, take a significant bite out of the annual operating budget. In 2008, fixed costs will rise nearly 4 percent, from $2,529,209 to $2,672,609.
The budgets for other town departments rise modestly in the proposed budget. Some, including the selectmen and highway departments, dropped from the current fiscal year.
The assessor's budget has a 2.4 percent reduction, decreasing from $136,117 in FY 2007 to $132,909 in FY 2008. The highway department budget, which includes salaries for the highway superintendent and various town maintenance services, dropped from $1,488,462 to $1,482,092.
Special then annual
The special town meeting warrant kicks off with a slew of wastewater articles that Mr. Ross said are costly but necessary. They include infrastructure improvements and a small regional wastewater plant that would serve the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, Martha's Vineyard Community Services, Woodside Village and the YMCA (see sidebar).
A request for $2 million to complete construction of the harbor bulkhead is the largest spending item of the night. Mr. Dutton explained that the town has received a $1 million grant from the state, so the full amount must be appropriated and then half will be reimbursed.
Article 8 would create the Municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The fund would be managed by a group of trustees, and would have the ability to hold funds and property for affordable housing initiatives in town.
Article 10 asks voters to approve the distribution of $700,000 in CPA funds. The money requests include $226,000 to create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund (if approved in article 8); $200,000 for the expansion of the Veira Park baseball facility; and $20,000 to the Oak Bluffs Shellfish and Conservation organization for an incentive program for denitrifying septic systems.
The annual town meeting warrant contains a number of basic housekeeping articles. Voters will be asked to approve six consecutive articles which would "cure a flaw" in the title of six resident homesite properties.
A final article would give Massachusetts National Guardsmen and reservists deployed outside the state, up to 180 days after their service to pay their property taxes without penalty.
Fish or cut bait
Under the critical gaze of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), selectmen will look to the ballot box for some guidance on whether to continue to host the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament on town property.
The regional tournament turned into a big-time fishing event when it became the subject of a four-part ESPN television special in 2004. In 2005, the 19th annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament attracted a record number of 245 participating boats.
That same year the catch of a 1,191-pound tiger shark attracted national media attention and the attention of the Humane Society, which mounted a determined effort to oppose the tournament. HSUS argued that the shark tournament undermines the Island's values and encourages the overfishing of a species facing ecological disaster.
Last spring HSUS used full-page ads and a national alert campaign to ratchet up the pressure on the selectmen.
But after meeting with tournament organizers a majority of the board refused to block the contest. Supporters pointed to the tournament's long history in the town, the opportunities it provides for scientific research and recreation, as well as the boost it gives the economy.
Last summer strong winds and high swells made fishing conditions difficult for the fishermen aboard the 268 registered boats. A total of 26 sharks were brought to the weigh station, far fewer than the previous year.