Oak Bluffs bond rating gets a big boost

Dredging at Little Bridge will take place as soon as newly awarded FEMA funds are transferred to the town treasurer. — Michael Cummo

Citing reduced deficits, increased reserves, and a stable outlook, bond rating agency Standard and Poor’s (S&P) has upped Oak Bluffs’ town bond rating two grades, from AA- to AA+.

“It’s a direct result of the town’s effort and this board’s effort to get a handle on the town’s finances and to put the town on a stronger financial footing,” Town administrator Robert Whritenour told selectmen at their regular meeting on Tuesday night. ”It’s not surprising to see our bond rating going up; what is startling is to see it jump two notches in one review.”

Mr. Whritenour added that the improved rating will make upcoming bond issues more appealing to investors, which will help finance town infrastructure improvements like the new fire station. Selectman Michael Santoro gave kudos to Financial Advisory Committee (Fincom) chairman Steve Auerbach. Mr. Auerbach deflected the approbation to Mr. Whritenour.

“It’s been a team effort, starting with the strategic plan,” Mr. Whritenour said. “We’re clearly on the right track.”

Oak Bluffs had a AA- rating with a negative outlook, meaning future downgrades were likely, when Mr. Whritenour came on as interim town administrator in 2011. The new AA+ rating is one level below AAA, the highest in the S&P grading system.

The S&P report concluded the two-page assessment of town finances with a caveat. “The stable outlook reflects Standard & Poor’s opinion of Oak Bluffs’ strong economic profile and budgetary performance, coupled with very strong liquidity … While we do not expect to change the rating further within the two-year outlook period, we, however, could lower the rating if budgetary performance were to diminish, resulting in lower financial reserves and pressuring liquidity.”

Fuel for thought
More positive financial news came from selectman Michael Santoro, who informed the board that harbormaster Todd Alexander reports the new Oak Bluffs fuel facility has surpassed the 60,000-gallon sales goal, and with the temperate September weather, sales could exceed 70,000 gallons. “There were naysayers who said we’d never sell 30,000 gallons, and we didn’t start until early July,” Mr. Santoro said. Chairman of the selectmen Greg Coogan added that he’s had a great deal of positive feedback from boaters about the competitive pricing at the Oak Bluffs harbor vis-à-vis Falmouth and other Island fuel depots.

FEMA funds Sengie dredging
In other business, Mr. Whritenour informed the board that the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) has given the final approval on funding for the Sengekontacket “Little Bridge” dredging project. Little Bridge is one of two channels that connect Sengekontacket Pond and Nantucket Sound. FEMA originally estimated the project cost at $596,131, which included moving the dredge spoils to the Inkwell and Pay Beach. However, in reviewing Oak Bluffs projects in a process known as “recapture,” FEMA reclassified the project as a dredge project, in part to expedite the funding process, according to FEMA official Robert Grimley. Under the new conditions, the dredge material will be deposited on Sylvia State Beach.

Mr. Whritenour said the town has bids in place to do the project for $321,750. The town will commit 25 percent, $80,437.50, of the project cost once FEMA funding is in place. Mr. Whritenour said that the town can act immediately once the FEMA money arrives, and that it’s feasible the dredging can be done in October.

Beach malnourishment
In other business, 12 members of a newly formed citizen beach committee attended to voice their concerns and displeasure with the condition of town beaches. The lack of amenities, limited access for the elderly and disabled, and the overall shabby condition were recurring themes.  “I think our beaches are the most-used beaches on the island, and they’re the worst,” seasonal resident Jill Nelson said. “Now when I come back from the beach, I don’t brush sand off my feet; I have to take a shower because they’re caked with dirt. We pay $16,000 a year in taxes, and I can’t even go to the beach. I have friends that come here and say, ‘I heard Martha’s Vineyard is a big deal, but this is a dump.’  I’m sure it hurts tourism. We’re not just ranting summer people, we have a point. It’s really discouraging.”

At one time we had a shower, a toilet, and a lifeguard station, and now we have nothing,” seasonal resident Gus Gaskin said. “Now it’s 1.3 miles to get from the jetty to the nearest restroom.”

“I’m a business owner, and I think you’re right,” Mr. Santoro said. “I think a lot of this comes back to money, and I’m sure you know we hit rock-bottom five years ago, and it’s taken us time to get back on solid financial ground. We have breathing room now, and the beaches are on our radar.  I think you need to go to Conservation Commission meetings and keep telling them what you’re telling us. There’s a lot of permitting involved in these fixes.”

“We’ll be sitting down just about a month from now for our strategic planning session, where we lay out priorities for the coming year,” Mr. Coogan said. “Your coming to us puts this in the forefront of our mind.  When we talk about what we can address this year, this will be at the top of the list.”

Sign up for signs
The Oak Bluffs Downtown Streetscape Master Plan Committee is seeking volunteers to form a wayfaring committee to improve signage in the town. Volunteers can write to Shelly Carter at scarter@oakbluffsma.gov.