Oak Bluffs looks at $1 million free cash shortfall

Oak Bluffs voters will deal with a revenue gap at the special town meeting on Tuesday, June 21. — File photo by Danielle Zerbonne

Oak Bluffs is staring at an imbalance of nearly $1 million in its free cash account as the town attempts to close its financial books for the current fiscal year, according to Gail Barmakian, vice-chairman of the selectmen.

Oak Bluffs town administrator Michael Dutton has told selectmen he expects the account to show a negative free cash value of approximately $913,000, as the year winds down. He said that number will be substantially reduced when the town receives reimbursements from several projects funded by state and federal grants.

The negative free cash position leaves the town very little flexibility in dealing with unexpected costs or budget overruns. The town has returned to voters three times in the fiscal year that is about to end, asking for additional money to fund town services.

“Given the failure to pass (Proposition 2.5) overrides or debt exclusions, we’ve got a lot of cutting to do,” Mr. Dutton said. “We can’t nickel and dime any more. We’ve got to close places.”

In a controversial May 26 special election, voters rejected $484,361 worth of override questions that would have restored some budget cuts. Among the items rejected was $75,000 to hire a town accountant. The town has experienced a series of financial missteps, including missed deadlines for state financial reporting and late tax bills, since the untimely death of town finance director and treasurer Paul Manzi.

Ms. Barmakian was asked after Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting, which she chaired in the absence of chairman Kathy Burton, how the town could wind up with a negative free cash figure of nearly $1 million.

“Bad accounting practice, the lack of having an accountant, and a finance director and a treasurer for a year,” Ms. Barmakian said. “The most important thing that we need, more than anything else in the world, is an accountant, an experienced municipal accountant. Negative is not good. The accounting hasn’t been done on a timely basis.”

Oak Bluffs has hired Sullivan, Rogers, and Company, an accounting firm, to perform accounting duties over the past several months. But with the defeat of the override question, there is no money in the fiscal year 2012 budget to keep that company on the job when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

During the selectmen’s meeting, Ms. Barmakian proposed a shift in personnel that would allow the company to finish work associated with the audit for fiscal year 2010, and close the books on 2011.

Ms. Barmakian proposed shifting the town’s current assistant accountant to an open position as the board of health assistant, freeing up money appropriated for accounting department salaries to continue the town’s arrangement with Sullivan, Rogers, and Company. Ms. Barmakian said she considers the situation an emergency.

“There’s a possibility of reconfiguring a couple of positions so we don’t need a new hire,” Ms. Barmakian said. “We can hire an accountant, which I think we need to do within ten days.”

That proposal was met with anger from Tricia Bergeron, chairman of the board of health. The board of health recently interviewed several candidates for that position and offered the job to one of those candidates.

“This is so insane, you know that, this is so insane,” Ms. Bergeron told the board. “It’s the people of Oak Bluffs that are going to suffer when nobody is in these departments and they can’t get anything done. That’s not acceptable to me. We have known this was coming for a long time.”

Ms. Bergeron told the board she believes such a personnel shift would violate union contracts and violate the state law governing the board of health’s authority to control its own personnel matters.

Turn the music down

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the board voted once again to ban amplified music on the harbor, after hearing about complaints filed with the police department and complaints aired at the meeting by Peter Bradford, owner of Lobsterville Grille.

The board voted a similar ban before Memorial Day, then reversed itself for a two-week trial period, following a spirited protest by local musicians.

Mr. Bradford presented the board with a petition he said was signed by every harbor business except the Sand Bar, asking that outdoor entertainment be restricted to acoustic music. He said his customers are unable to enjoy dinner because of amplified music coming from the Sand Bar, five feet away from his restaurant.

“It’s been operating as if it was a concert venue for at least the last two years,” Mr. Bradford said.

Police Chief Erik Blake suggested the board hold a hearing on the Sand Bar’s entertainment license at their next meeting.

“If they’re stupid over the next two weeks, their license is gone,” selectman Greg Coogan said.

Police action

The board unanimously approved and signed a new three-year agreement with the police patrolmen’s union. The contract calls for no salary increase in the first year of the contract, and a two-percent increase in each of the two final years. The board voted to extend the contract that covers superior officers for two weeks while negotiation continues. That contract was due to expire June 30.

Also Tuesday, the board chastised Melissa Breese, co-owner of Shephard Fine Art Space, for operating without a business license. The board approved her license in January. Ms. Breese said she has tried for the past five months to arrange necessary inspections and paperwork. She blamed missed appointments by town inspectors and delays by town officials for the incomplete license application.

The board also warned her that several events at the gallery where alcohol was served violated state liquor laws.

Selectmen accepted a recommendation from highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr. to eliminate about 10 percent of the town’s 400 street lights; accepted a traffic and byways committee recommendation to alleviate dangerous congestion in front of Tony’s Market by strictly enforcing a parking ban on Dukes County Avenue; took under advisement a request from Ron Minkin to rent town property to stage sightseeing tours; asked Chief Blake to require Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament organizers to hire an additional police detail to focus on enforcement of outdoor drinking and littering laws; and granted a business license to Doug Abdelnour Jr. to open Old Harbor Outfitters at 28 Lake Avenue, a retail store offering fishing clothing and equipment.