Oak Bluffs hikes room tax, tables government change

Selectman Greg Coogan (left) is all smiles as he enters the special town meeting, accompanied by board chairman Duncan Ross. Mr. Coogan is recovering from serious injuries sustained in a fall. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Oak Bluffs voters approved a rooms tax increase at a special town meeting Tuesday. They postponed a measure to reduce the size of the town’s board of selectmen from five to three, approved additional funding to fix the brick bathrooms on the North Bluff, agreed to lease new public safety vehicles, and raised town clerk’s fees.

Before the meeting, voters enthusiastically greeted selectman Greg Coogan as he entered the Oak Bluffs School gymnasium. It was Mr. Coogan’s first official appearance since he fell from his roof October 11, suffering serious injuries to his leg and shoulder. In good spirits and with a broad smile, Mr. Coogan accepted many good wishes as he walked to the front of the gymnasium to take his place with other selectmen.

Voters elected Jack Law to stand in for elected moderator Dave Richardson, who could not attend.

A proposal to raise the local portion of the rooms tax from four to six percent prompted a vigorous debate.

First to speak was Peter Martell, owner of the Wesley Hotel. “We do not consider this a problem,” Mr. Martell said. “I don’t think another two percent increase is going to hurt anybody. I’m not afraid of it one bit, and the town can use the extra money.”

The town’s finance and advisory committee opposed the measure unanimously. “It was defeated in the April town meeting,” finance and advisory committee chairman Bill McGrath said. “We believe it places an unfair burden on Oak Bluffs hotels and motels.” Mr. McGrath said the committee would like to see some effort to collect revenue from vacation rental properties. State law exempts most vacation rentals from the rooms tax.

The measure passed on a voice vote. The new tax is to take effect before next summer. It will raise the total of state and local rooms taxes to 11.7 percent. Town officials estimate it will generate $100,000 of new revenue.

Debate over the article to trim the board of selectmen began with a long haggle over procedure. Town counsel Ronald Rappaport advised the meeting that it takes an act of the state legislature, not a town meeting vote, to change the size of the board. He said if approved, all decisions by the board would be in question, legally.

“I’m advising you not approve this as drafted, because of the chaos that would result,” Mr. Rappaport said. Procedural votes indicated that a majority of voters opposed the idea. The meeting debated an amendment substituting language to petition the state legislature for the change.

“I have yet to hear anyone explain to me why we are entertaining this entire idea,” said Karen Achille, an unsuccessful candidate for selectman in the April elections.

“We feel that too many cooks spoil the soup, and there’s too many selectmen to run the town efficiently,” said Catherine Deese, whose signature was one of more than 150 certified on a successful petition drive to get the article on the special town meeting warrant. “Everybody has too many ideas, and nothing seems to get done,” Ms. Deese said.

Voters defeated the substitute amendment and a motion to indefinitely postpone the original article, by solid margins.

Voters authorized an additional $200,000 from the current year’s Community Preservation Act funds to complete the rehab of the brick bathhouse near the Steamship Authority terminal. The article had the support of the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Historical Commission.

Former selectman and highway superintendent Herbert Combra said it was long past time to fix the bathrooms, but objected to additional funding. He said the Parks and Recreation commission advised voters last spring that the job was ready to proceed, with construction beginning in June.

“If it was ready to go in June, why do we have to come up with another $200,000,” Mr. Combra said. “It’s taxpayer money, CPA funds are taxpayer money.”

Parks and Recreation Commission chairman Nancy Phillips said other construction projects in the area delayed the bathroom project, and cuts in the town’s paving and maintenance spending required the project to pick up more costs.

Voters approved an initial expenditure of $290,000 in CPA funds at the 2009 annual town meeting.

On the recommendation of Ms. Phillips, voters took no action on a related article to dedicate the North Bluff beachfront where the brick bathhouse is located, as a town park.

Voters next approved a measure transferring $41,800 this year, and an equal amount each of the next two years, from the ambulance reserve fund. The money is to lease two police cars and an ambulance. Voter Ron Mechur asked police chief Erik Blake if he would consider hybrid vehicles as new cruisers.

“When they make a hybrid police vehicle, I will absolutely be the first one to buy it,” Mr. Blake said. He said he intends to buy the most fuel-efficient vehicle on a list of vehicles approved by the state for police cruisers.

Voters approved an article to raise fees charged by the town clerk. The cost of birth, death, and marriage certificates will rise from $5 to $10. The cost of amending a birth or death record will increase from $10 to $25. The increase will affect many Island residents, because many birth and death certificates originate from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, in Oak Bluffs.

Voters also approved a request to transfer $107,510 from the town’s stabilization fund to educate a special needs student in a residential setting. State law mandates the expenditure.