Oak Bluffs annual tackles sharks, roads, marijuana

— File photo by Mae Deary

Oak Bluffs voters will consider a $25.5 million operating budget for the next fiscal year when they gather for annual town meeting Tuesday. The budget, up less than 2 percent, is another step toward fiscal stability town officials said.

Resurfacing at town meeting, is the continuing debate over the Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament. Voters will be asked to weigh in on that topic in a non-binding referendum.

There are 25 articles on the annual and special town meeting warrant. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 pm in the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center.

“I always look forward to town meeting,” said Kathy Burton, chairman of the board of selectmen. “It’s an important time, to pass a budget, to review progress with voters, and hear their views and opinions.”

Town officials call their budget very lean, despite large increases in education costs, and a three percent step raise for all non-contract town employees.

The town remains strapped for cash, and limited in the amount of funds it can raise through property taxes. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) recently certified the town’s free cash account at the end of the previous fiscal year at a deficit of $600,087. It is the fourth consecutive year Oak Bluffs has operated in the red. The deficit is about $200,000 larger than town officials anticipated, but indicates progress over the previous year, when DOR certified free cash at a deficit of $888,046.

Free cash, roughly equivalent to a checking account in family finances, is the amount of unrestricted funds the town has left over after fulfilling all of its obligations for the fiscal year. Town administrator Bob Whritenour said this year’s budget reflects a continuing effort at conservative revenue projections. He said the town is currently well ahead of its conservative estimates, and on target to erase the free cash deficit by the end of the current fiscal year, June 30.

Budget pressure

The budget includes contractual raises for all police officers and teachers, and a 3 percent step raise for all other town employees.

The town also plans to increase the stipends paid to call firefighters, add funding for a full-time enforcement officer who will share duties between the health department and the building department, and restore summer positions in the Parks and Recreation department, including funds for a limited number of lifeguards at town beaches.

The budget reflects an appropriation of $3,775,202 to educate Oak Bluffs students at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, an increase of 5.6 percent over the previous year. The Oak Bluffs School operating budget is $6,205,633, up about 2.5 percent, according to Mr. Whritenour.

Tournament tussle

A non-binding referendum question submitted by petition asks whether “all shark fishing tournaments held in the town of Oak Bluffs shall be catch and release only.” Such a change would effectively end the shark weigh-in at the edge of the town harbor, which draws large crowds to the July event.

Ms. Burton predicted voters will approve the non-binding question at town meeting and on the ballot in town elections. In a 2007 town meeting vote, voters approved the use of town property for the tournament by a margin of 458 to 386.

Ms. Burton said she will be guided by this year’s referendum. “It will shape my opinion, it’s really important,” she said. “It was never something that personally I was engaged in, but the town voted for it in the past, so I felt the need to support that.”

Selectmen have already approved an application to stage the shark tournament this year, but added a condition that organizer Steve James appear before the board. Selectmen are scheduled to meet with Mr. James at 4:30 today, Thursday.

Road repairs

Also on the town meeting warrant is an article that would appropriate $975,146 for roadway repairs. Town officials intend to borrow the money, and ask voters to exempt the appropriation from the Proposition 2.5 tax limiting law.

Highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr. said the town’s highway repair and maintenance budget was slashed as the town dealt with a severe budget crunch, and the projects are long overdue.

“The longer we postpone infrastructure repairs, the more expensive it gets,” Mr. Combra said. “Over the past ten years, the price of asphalt has tripled and it’s not going down anytime soon. Pay now, or pay later.”

Selectmen will ask voters for approval to borrow $426,000 to build a marine fuel facility near the harbormaster’s office, a project opposed by nearby residents. The sale of fuel would finance repayment of the bonds.

The fuel facility on Church’s Pier operated by businessman Mark Wallace needs extensive repairs following a fuel spill last fall.

Mr. Wallace said he is willing to absorb the cost of the repairs in exchange for space on town property to build a new fuel pier to supply boaters.

Along with other Island towns, Oak Bluffs will debate two articles that relate to the state’s new medical marijuana law. The first article will ask voters to change town bylaws to prohibit the use of medical marijuana in any public place, including streets, sidewalks, parks, and beaches. The warrant article does not specify penalties for violating the proposed bylaw.

The second article asks voters if they want to change zoning laws to declare a one-year moratorium on growing or selling medical marijuana.

No contest

Town elections are scheduled for Thursday, April 11. The only contested election is for a seat on the water district commission. Michael deBettencourt is seeking reelection against challenger George Brown.

Running for reelection unopposed are Gail Barmakian, board of selectmen; Richard Combra Jr., park commission; Lisa Reagan, school committee; and Robert Iadicicco, wastewater commission.

John Cambell is running unopposed for a seat on the board of health, while Herbert Kiehn Jr., James Klingensmith, and Michael Taus are running unopposed for a seat on the finance and advisory committee.

Polls will be open at the Oak Bluffs Library meeting room from 10 am to 7 pm.