Oak Bluffs selectmen name priorities – spending, revenue dominate

Oak Bluffs selectmen, each acting independently, agreed on several goals – or at least – themes that deserve priority attention this year.

Included on almost every one of the five lists the five selectmen prepared were: Developing tighter fiscal controls, regionalizing services, payments in lieu of taxes from tax-exempt institutions, and improving water quality in the town’s salt ponds.

The selectmen outlined their goals for the coming year at their Tuesday meeting. Each selectman proposed five important goals to new chairman Duncan Ross.

Money talk

Less than a month after an election in which voters rejected a long list of Proposition 2.5 override questions that would have restored services cut from last year’s budget, fiscal issues were near the top of everyone’s list.

Selectman Kathy Burton suggested a closer look at how the town spends money and where it can spend it more wisely.

“I’d like to see us appoint a blue ribbon committee,” Ms. Burton said, “to analyze town finances and conduct an efficiency study in each department with an eye toward cost reduction.” She said the committee could also be charged with examining the town’s revenue sources.

Selectman Ron DiOrio said the town must pay attention to protecting its bond rating. He suggested a cap on future borrowing.

“We are currently paying, in bond interest, about 10 percent of our budget,” Mr. DiOrio said. “I think we’ve got to get a handle on that. The objective is to protect our bond rating.”

Several selectmen suggested keeping closer tabs on spending throughout the year.

“I would like to go back to monthly staff meetings with department heads,” said Mr. Ross.

Regionalization

Regionalizing services was also on most lists. The town is working to regionalize waste management with Tisbury and has conducted informal discussions about police and other services.

“We have to look at that to keep costs down,” selectman Greg Coogan said. He called for a meeting between selectmen from both towns, as a way to move the discussion forward.

“I would like to sit down with them and work as a group,” Mr. Coogan said. “Whenever we’ve done that, it seems like we’ve had some success.”

Mr. DiOrio suggested developing a model for exploring regionalization, for use when there is an opportunity to combine services with another town. He said when a department head leaves a job, the town should have a road map to direct the discussion about regionalization of that department.

The issue has already proven controversial in some quarters. The town’s commercial fishermen have voiced strong opposition to the idea of combining the Oak Bluffs shellfish department with Tisbury’s shellfish department, even though the town has not even begun to explore the possibility.

PILOT program

Payments in lieu of taxes were on nearly every selectman’s list. Some municipalities have negotiated with tax-exempt institutions such as schools and hospitals for such payments, to cover the cost of town infrastructure and services used by the institutions.

“We are in the enviable, and unenviable, position of having more parks than anybody else, more services within our boundaries that serve the whole Island,” Mr. Coogan said. “They are leaning on all of our services.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, the new YMCA, and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School are among the large institutions that could be asked to make payments in lieu of taxes.

“We bear the burden of having those things in our towns,” said newly elected selectman Gail Barmakian. “The town needs leverage. They don’t volunteer it. They’re not going to do this out of the goodness of their hearts.” She suggested the town’s permitting and licensing process could be part of that leverage. “I think we missed an opportunity with the new hospital.”

Mr. DiOrio also suggested that the town examine all of the tax-exempt property in town. He said that if use of the land has changed over time, the institution may no longer be tax exempt.

Waterways

Continuing efforts to improve water quality in Sengekontacket Pond, Lagoon Pond, and Farm Pond were also priorities for most selectmen. Several mentioned a revision of town by-laws may be necessary.

“We’ve got to pay attention to zoning where wastewater treatment is expanding,” Ms. Barmakian said. She called for better coordination among the town boards and committees working to improve the ponds and town beaches.

Other action

Also Tuesday, at the suggestion of Mr. Ross, the board changed its meeting starting time to 4 pm. Several selectmen expressed reservations about the earlier start, but agreed to give it a try. “If it doesn’t work, we can go back to 5 pm,” Mr. Ross said.

Nancy Phillips, chairman of the parks commission, asked for an affirmation of the role the parks commission should play in managing town beaches. Selectmen said they assumed that was already the case, but voted 4-1 to affirm the commission’s role. Ms. Barmakian dissented, saying she wanted to see the management role better defined.

Mr. DiOrio announced the old library project, which creates three affordable apartments, with retail space for a pharmacy, is on schedule. He said tenants will be able to move in on July 1. Mr. DiOrio said 98 people have asked for applications for the three apartments. The apartments will be awarded by a lottery process overseen by the Dukes County Housing Authority. An open house is scheduled for the public, on June 19, the same day as the town’s Harborfest celebration.