Multi-million override possible in Oak Bluffs
Oak Bluffs selectmen may ask town voters to override the Proposition 2.5 real estate tax limit law, in order to close a looming budget deficit estimated at between $1.4 million and $2.1 million.
"I know we've gone a number of years without using the 'O' word," said town administrator Michael Dutton. "That is a possibility that the board is going to have to look at."
The budget dilemma, termed a "crisis" by selectman Ron DiOrio, has sparked an effort to restructure the town's finance department, which is aggravating already sharp divisions among elected officials.
Those divisions erupted at the selectmen's meeting Tuesday night, when the board clashed over re-appointment of the town's tax collector, a salaried position that was changed from an elected to an appointed office last year.
Mr. Dutton and finance director Paul Manzi presented an overall picture of the budget quandary before a somber meeting room packed to overflowing.
"What we're looking at is really not a problem with department heads inflating budgets," said Mr. Dutton. "We're looking at some fixed costs. There wasn't a whole lot of discretionary spending proposed here. "
Mr. Dutton told the selectmen that costs for the Oak Bluffs School will rise 7.2 percent next year, while costs for the town's share of educating students at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School will increase 19.3 percent over last year. Last year the town saw a decrease in its regional school assessment, after a controversial change to the state's statutory, wealth-based school assessment formula.
The estimates factor in collective bargaining raises for school personnel, but do not include expected raises for the town's other union employees. Collective bargaining agreements yet to be negotiated will very likely widen the deficit.
Another factor in the budget gap is a plan to erase an unfunded liability, the cost of post-retirement benefits for town employees. The plan calls for Oak Bluffs to set aside $596,403 this year and increasing amounts every year for the next 30 years, to erase the liability.
Also driving expenses upward are employee benefits, energy costs, and property insurance.
"When you have increasing expenses that out-pace 2.5 percent," said Mr. Dutton, "you can't go on without either reducing your work force substantially, or passing an override."
"We'll find ourselves in this position every single year," said Kerry Scott, chairman of the board of selectmen, "if we don't at some point go to an override."
If voters agree to an override of $2 million dollars, it would increase the annual tax bill on the average Oak Bluffs home by approximately $465, according to the town's finance committee.
Public comment after the presentation illustrated how skeptical voters are of an override. "A 2.5 override doesn't necessarily always solve the problem," said Harvey Beth. "The voters have to accept it. If they don't accept it, we better have a good plan B."
Structural failure to communicate
Finance committee member Joe Alosso, who is also the facilities manager for the Oak Bluffs and Edgartown wastewater treatment plants, called for radical thinking about the way the town spends money, including staffing.
A request from selectman Roger Wey to include department heads in staffing discussions precipitated a sharp exchange between Mr. Alosso and Ms. Scott, who have a long and contentious political relationship.
"Any discussion we've had about staffing has been with the department heads," said Mr. Alosso.
"That is absolutely not the case," said Ms. Scott. "There have been discussions in front of employees, that have made me personally, not the chairman of the board of selectmen, very uncomfortable. Those discussions, on a humanistic level, need to take place very carefully, only with Mr. Dutton's participation, and with the full awareness of both the board of selectmen and the personnel committee. To this point, that has not happened."
Further irritating Ms. Scott was the finance committee's decision to back a town meeting warrant article that suspends the stipend paid to town board members.
"We took a unanimous vote to stop paying elected officials," said Mr. Alosso. "That would save the town about $25,000 this year. We felt that was important, that money could be better used."
Ms. Scott said she and other elected officials are "out of pocket," with their service to the town. "It felt to me like a very unsporting move," she said.
What appeared to be a routine agenda item, the re-appointment of tax collector Cheryll Sashin, triggered a new political skirmish. Mr. Wey moved to re-appoint Ms. Sashin for three years.
While no one was critical of Ms. Sashin's performance, Mr. Dutton recommended against the re-appointment, while he and the finance committee consider ways to restructure the town's finance department. The restructuring may include combining some positions
"I don't want this to reflect at all on Cheryll's work, " said Mr. Dutton. "Cheryll does a great job, but I would encourage the board to take no action on anybody's appointment to the finance team."
Ms. Scott noted that state law requires Oak Bluffs to have a tax collector, and she considered the re-appointment a simple matter of municipal housekeeping. "I guess I'm just wondering why there's a restructuring of the finance team going on that the selectmen don't know about," she said. "I wasn't aware of this."
Mr. Wey forced a vote, and he along with Ms. Scott, voted in favor of the reappointment. Mr. DiOrio, along with selectmen Duncan Ross and Greg Coogan, voted no, defeating the reappointment.
The board immediately voted to extend Ms. Sashin's appointment as tax collector, but only until the end of the current fiscal year, June 30. The vote was unanimous.
Later, Ms. Scott's criticism became sharper. "Don't make these changes, don't have these discussions, do not disenfranchise the board of selectmen, not this board of selectmen," she said.
Selectman Greg Coogan questioned whether Ms. Scott was concerned about fairness only when it involved decisions she disagreed with. "We did sit here a few months ago," said Mr. Coogan, "when we had an assessor, who, if I remember right, you were willing throw under the bus after two or three months. To suggest that I care not about people, which was essentially what you are suggesting, is unfair."