Oak Bluffs says yes and yes again

Former selectman and moderator Duncan Ross adroitly substituted for moderator Jack Law. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Over the course of three hours and a half hours, Oak Bluffs voters approved a town operating budget of $26,514,084 and all spending articles at the combined annual town meeting and special town meeting at the Oak Bluffs School Tuesday night.

They approved 36 of the 37 combined articles, which included approval of a county purchase of the VNA building for use by the Center for Living, establishment of a Lagoon Pond nitrogen management district, solar energy bylaws and town personnel policies.

Former selectman and moderator Duncan Ross substituted for moderator Jack Law, who was unavailable Tuesday night.

The 227 attendees represented six percent of the 3,679 registered voters in the town.

Voters go to the polls today to elect town officers. The polls are open between 10 am and and 7 pm in the Oak Bluffs Library meeting room. The only contested race is for two seats on the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen. The field of candidates includes incumbents Kathleen Burton and Chairman Gregory Coogan, who will face a challenge from Abraham Seiman, Raymond Taylor, and Brian Packish. Results will be available at mvtimes.com.

Speedy special town meeting
Initially, voters appeared to be in the mood for a brisk pace, and approved all 18 articles on the special town meeting warrant with little debate.

They approved all fire and police department transfers from the ambulance reserve fund, including $260,000 for a new ambulance, $74,000 for two new unmarked police cars and $45,600 for a battery-operated Jaws of Life. A $20,000 transfer from the ambulance reserve fund was also approved for police body cameras.

The ambulance reserve fund totaled $1,222,271 before town meeting, and after approved transfers of $488,695, ended with a $733,576 balance, according to town accountant Arthur Gallagher.

Voters enthusiastically approved a $23,000 transfer from free cash to upgrade the much-maligned town website, and even gave information technology director Travis Larsen a round of applause when he showed the newly designed homepage. Mr. Larsen said the new website will be much more user-friendly, and among many improvements, townspeople will be able to sign up for notifications, via text, email, or Facebook, for all town meetings and job openings. “We want you to feel like you’re part of your own government,” he said.

Townspeople also applauded the $80,000 transfer from free cash to replace the Seaview Avenue beach railing. A $20,000 free cash transfer was also approved for new Pay Beach stairs.

Free explanation
Voters kept up the swift pace at the beginning of the annual town meeting when they overwhelmingly declined town administrator Robert Whritenour’s offer of a line-by-line explanation of the $26,514,084 town budget.

Former Selectman Kerry Scott, in the first of numerous questions and challenges to town officials, asked selectmen why accounts from FY 2015, two-thirds of them in her estimation, were still not fully reconciled. She also asked for a reason why free cash was not approved until April 9. She received no response.

In a conversation with The Times on Wednesday, Financial and Advisory board (FinCom) Chairman Steve Auerbach said the delays were due in large part to town accountant Arthur Gallagher’s six-week absence due to illness, and to outdated accounting software.

In an email to The Times on Wednesday, Mr. Gallagher said that although a $37,000 expenditure for new accounting software was approved at town meeting last year, the town decided “to hold off any further investment in our current systems and to check the market for other municipal financial packages that would fulfill our needs in a more cost-effective manner.”

Side raise
The pace of the meeting came to a screeching halt when town clerk Laura Johnston petitioned for a 4 percent raise, instead of the 2 percent raise that was approved in the budget. “I believe this is fair and equitable in line with the raises of other department heads,” she said, citing Mr. Whritenour, Mr. Gallagher, and tax collector Cheryll Sashin as examples. Ms. Johnston also asked for an increased pay grade for assistant town clerk Catherine Plesz, saying she was among the lowest-paid assistant town clerks on the Cape and Islands.

Chairman of the personnel board Gretchen Coleman Thomas sternly rebuked Ms. Johnston’s assertions, and said the board followed proper pay-grade procedures evenly with all town employees. Selectman Walter Vail also objected to Ms. Johnston’s request. “I don’t think she’s telling the whole story,” he said. Mr. Vail said Ms. Johnston’s calculus was faulty, because years as assistant town clerk, a position she held until May 2013, should not be considered as years of town clerk experience when it comes to pay grade. Mr. Vail added that Ms. Johnston asked for a similar amendment to her salary at last year’s town meeting. “I’m objecting to her approach to getting more and more money from this town,” he said. “It’s not right for her to step away from classification scales. I oppose this change, and I think that it’s not fair to this town.”

Mr. Auerbach said that the FinCom also opposed the additional raise.

After some heated back and forth that saw Ms. Scott at one point accuse Mr. Vail of sexism, a standing vote was required. Ms. Johnston’s raise was approved 82-77, effectively raising her pay from $79,610 to $81,171.
Voters also overrode a strong FinCom recommendation when they approved the Oak Bluffs portion of the debt required to purchase the former Vineyard Nursing Association (VNA) building in Tisbury off State Road for $1.4 million, to provide a permanent home for the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living (MVCL). The town portion of the debt will be $335,680, plus interest, over 15 years. This amount does not include upgrades to the building, which include an estimated $45,000 for bathroom renovations and $60,000 for new windows. Costs for medical upgrades are also not included.

Mr. Auerbach said while the FinCom supports the creation of a new MVCL building, the advisory board felt the building was overpriced. “We are leery of taking on open-ended commitments on a building that is more than double the size of what the program currently needs,” he said, noting there are currently 23 people enrolled in the program, with no waiting list. “We have been told that we must sign up now or our chance will be lost, and we don’t like the hard-sell tactic,” he said.

Mr. Auerbach said FinCom was also concerned that said there is no written estimate for needed renovations, and that the location is difficult to access by public transportation, and is also difficult to access during the winter. “In sum, we think a more complete plan needs to be submitted before signing on to this long-term obligation.” he said.

Karen Achille, president of the board of the MVCL, made an impassioned plea for the town to pony up for the building. She said the VNA building was far and away the best option for a new MVCL home the board had seen in seven years of searching. “We were unable to find anything suitable, so the board asked the county for help,” she said.

Ms. Achille said the new building would allow the MVCL to operate five days a week, instead of four, which are split between the Tisbury Council on Aging and the Edgartown Council on Aging. It will also allow room for administrative offices, storage for medical supplies and food, and room for growth for the rapidly aging Island demographic. “None of us is getting any younger,” she said.

Ms. Achille said the cost to an Oak Bluffs homeowner with a $500,000 valuation would be $9.20 for the first year, and decrease annually thereafter.

With the vast majority of voters in attendance clearly elderly, the demographics were on the side of those in favor of a purchase. “I hope all the doubts FinCom has about the building prove to be unfounded, and it proves to be the kind of home they envision. I do have faith in Karen Achille; she’s a smart woman,” Mr. Auerbach told The Times on Wednesday.

Farm Pond, home of Vanessa the sea serpent, also came out a big winner at town meeting, with voters approving both warrant articles, totaling a combined $500,000, $125,000 of which will be reserved from next year’s budget, for the construction of a culvert that according to shellfish warden David Grunden, will make it the only pond on the Island, and one of the few in the state, to be in compliance with the 1972 Clean Water act. The money will make the town eligible for a $1 million federal grant. The total cost of the project is $1.65 million.

The only article rejected at town meeting was a bid by homeowners on and around Windemere Road to require Martha’s Vineyard Hospital to replace a greenway barrier between the neighborhood and the hospital campus. The article never came to a vote, because it was amended after the warrant articles were published, and there were not 10 people present to endorse the amendment, as required by law.