Oak Bluffs freezes hiring in the face of $1.1 million budget gap


Oak Bluffs selectmen agreed Tuesday to leave vacant town staff positions vacant and not to hire anyone for positions that become vacant through attrition.

The action came as selectmen met in a joint session with the finance and advisory committee. The two boards struggled to close a projected $1.1 million budget gap for fiscal 2012, which begins on July 1.

“The word needs to go out loud and clear,” selectman Ron DiOrio said. “We are not doing any hiring, and we are not filling any vacant positions.”

Selectman Gail Barmakian supported the hiring freeze, but argued for flexibility in staffing decisions.

“We need to take a strong step to force us to do this,” Ms. Barmakian said. “We’re way behind a lot of other towns that have had a hiring freeze, rollbacks, salary freezes. We need to be forced.”

Selectmen Greg Coogan and Kathleen Burton joined Ms. Barmakian and Mr. DiOrio voting unanimously in favor of the measure. The fifth selectman, Duncan Ross, missed the meeting. He is traveling.

Finance and advisory committee chairman Bill McGrath did not entirely agree with the selectmen’s approach. “Although a hiring freeze sounds great in concept,” Mr. McGrath said, “if you don’t fill the positions because they happen to be empty, that’s a very bad way to run the town.”

Mr. McGrath pointed out that at a special town meeting voters agreed to eliminate several positions in 2009, among them the administrative assistant to the board of health. Before the position was cut however, the town transferred money from other departments to keep the board of health staffed at the same level.

“This board had direction from the town to eliminate a position,” Mr. McGrath said. “It was too hard to do, and we refilled the position. I’m not sure I have a great deal of faith in being able to stick to a hiring freeze. I would rather identify things we’re not going to do and build the town around that.”

Ms. Burton, who chaired the meeting in the absence of chairman Duncan Ross, asked town administrator Michael Dutton to examine town government with an eye toward consolidating and restructuring. “Present to us the possibilities for looking at those functions within each department and potentially restructuring the departments,” Ms. Burton said.

Again, Mr. McGrath dissented sharply. “We’ve been talking about restructuring for at least two years,” Mr. McGrath said. “I don’t see a whole lot of restructuring going on. We’re talking about it, we’re studying it. Eventually it may happen. Eventually the sun may rise in the west.”

Selectmen discussed a wide range of other measures for cutting spending, but made no decisions. They also considered revenue raising ideas including a more aggressive effort to get tax exempt non-profit organizations, including the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, to make payments in lieu of taxes.

The joint meeting also discussed the possibility of reducing the three percent Community Preservation Act surcharge on property taxes by half and asking voters to designate half of the current surtax amount to go to the town’s general fund. While that would mean no net increase in property taxes, it would take a Proposition 2.5 vote at town meeting and at a town election.

“It would be no change in terms of what the average taxpayer is feeling,” Mr. DiOrio said. “We have just asked them to redirect.”

Also discussed was a move to increase deductible amounts on town automobile and property insurance, and eventually moving to a self insurance model.

Mr. McGrath offered specific reductions in many town departments in order to close the budget gap.

He suggested reducing the selectmen’s budget by $114,500 or about 12 percent, by reducing all line items except insurance and office supplies; cutting $100,000 out of the police department budget, reducing transportation costs by $120,000 or about 16 percent; eliminating rubbish collection and reducing other highway department functions by $144,000 or about 10 percent; cutting $46,200 or 27 percent from the health department by eliminating the administrative assistant position; and reducing the council on aging budget by $60,000.

He also advocated reducing the wastewater department salaries level and cutting the department’s budget by $135,000. He also said the town should consider a change in the compensation schedule, which now awards step increases annually, to instead award step raises ever other year or every third year.

Mr. Coogan cautioned that cutting staff would be sharply felt. “Other towns that have made severe cuts have paid a price for that,” Mr. Coogan said. “If we think we’re going to cut positions and not suffer for that, that’s something over the rainbow.”

Selectmen agreed to schedule an extra meeting next week to make more decisions on the fiscal 2012 budget.