Budget cutting ideas plentiful, agreement scarce in Oak Bluffs

Crossland Landscape, the company which maintains Ocean Park, was one of four companies named in an anonymous complaint about bid irregularities in Oak Bluffs. — File photo by Danielle Zerbonne

Oak Bluffs officials, faced with the need to cut approximately $300,000 from this year’s operating budget, compiled a draft list of 41 proposals to cut spending or increase revenue, at an informal budget workshop on Thursday, July 21.

There is little new on the list. Many of the ideas had surfaced in earlier discussions as the town descended through three years of tight spending, increased expenses, and failed Proposition 2.5 overrides, into the present budget crisis.

“In the past, people were hopeful we would get overrides, and we haven’t,” Kathy Burton, chairman of the board of selectmen, said in a phone interview Friday. She said once the working group narrows down the cost-cutting measures that will be most effective in the short-term, it will present them to the board of selectmen.

“I think the board will be fairly decisive,” Ms. Burton said. “We have no other alternatives at this point.”

Earlier last week, selectmen and finance and advisory committee members agreed to target $500,000 in cuts, on the assumption that there was a substantial revenue gap in the current budget. By consensus, the group meeting on Thursday agreed to reduce that target to $300,000 after reviewing the budget documents and determining that the budget approved by voters is in balance, and there is no revenue gap.

Town officials must fund the severance package for town administrator Michael Dutton, the cost of hiring an interim administrator, the cost of searching for a new administrator, among other expenses.

The workshop was a preliminary session to gather ideas from representatives of the board of selectmen, the finance and advisory committee, the personnel board, several department heads, and members of an ad hoc fiscal task force studying the town’s operating structure.

“Let’s just get them out,” Ms. Burton, chairman of the board of selectmen, said at the start.

Time to do it

“Most of the money in the budget is for personnel costs, whether it’s the council on aging, or the library, or some of the other large departments like school or police,” finance and advisory committee chairman Steve Auerbach said at the Thursday workshop.

Personnel board chairman John Lolly noted that cross-training town hall staffers to support several departments is an idea suggested many times.

“It’s been talked about for two or three years, maybe it’s time we do it,” Mr. Lolly said. “Everybody talks about how good that would be, but we never do it.”

There was little discussion of personnel cuts in the preliminary exercise in budget trimming. Even in a room full of people determined to find cuts, resistance to many of the ideas surfaced immediately.

Ms. Burton facilitated the brainstorming session, while cautioning that the goal was to assemble a comprehensive list of ideas as a starting point, not debate the merits of each item. As each idea was proposed it was added to a list of proposals that ranged from the drastic to inconsequential.

Short term proposals included: close the council on aging; reducing the Oak Bluffs library to 20 hours per week from its current 36 hours; ask department heads to cut from 3-5 percent of their budgets and take a cut in salary; negotiate with unions to reduce hours of operations for all departments; and eliminate trash pickup.

Long term ideas included: sell town-owned property; move the police station and sell the current site; eliminate trash pickup; seek contributions from other Island towns for regional activities hosted in Oak Bluffs; and negotiate agreements with nonprofit organizations for payment in lieu of taxes.

Other suggestions included opening a town-owned thrift shop; sell Oak Bluffs souvenirs, increase parking fines, review fuel usage; sell residential parking stickers; and stop maintaining the gardens in town parks.

No dollar amounts were attached to the ideas.

Will vs. way

In past years, even relatively small, symbolic budget cutting has met strong opposition.

At the 2010 annual town meeting, finance and advisory committee members recommended eliminating stipends for elected town officials, an idea that they raised again last month at a joint meeting with selectmen.

At the annual town meeting, faced with a severe budget crunch, voters eliminated stipends for town moderator, tree warden, members of the board of health and board of assessors, and cemetery commissioners. That decision saved $13,096. But at that meeting, voters rejected a move to eliminate stipends for the board of selectmen, which total $16,500 annually.

One of the ideas that generated much discussion at the Friday workshop was elimination of the $15,000 appropriation for salaries and operating costs of the information kiosk at the foot of Circuit Avenue. Two years ago, the town picked up those costs after the Chamber of Commerce of Martha’s Vineyard could no longer fund it through grants.

In February, while struggling to cut $238,000 from the budget after a state review revealed an unexpected revenue gap, selectmen discussed at length eliminating the $5,000 still unspent for the information kiosk line item. They declined to cut the money, which would have left the information booth unstaffed, or staffed with volunteer help, for the month of June.

Voters have steadfastly refused to fund services when they are presented as Proposition 2.5 override ballot questions, which have the result of raising taxes and the compound effect of raising the town’s levy limit.

In May, voters rejected two Proposition 2.5 override questions totaling $484,361, that would have funded, among other things, animal control services and accounting services. Town officials are now scrambling to cut other areas of the budget to fund those services.

The town’s negative free cash account, leaves little flexibility for unplanned expenses.