Oak Bluffs voters leave Island Theater in limbo

Bill McGrath, town hall building committee chairman, talks about the $9.8 million proposal. Voters approved it and now it goes to the polls. —Stacey Rupolo

The mellow tones of Dexter Gordon were playing as the good people of Oak Bluffs filed into the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center for annual town meeting Tuesday night, and the good vibes continued as town administrator Robert Whritenour received a hearty round of applause after detailing the continued upswing of town finances.

He showed the town’s general fund balance went from $434,500 in the red in 2011 to $2.2 million in the black in 2016, and free cash certification went from almost $900,000 in the red in 2011 to $1.5 million in the black in 2016.

“This is significant for the town because the [$1.5 million] will give us the revenue that we need in the town’s stabilization fund and meet our financial goals for this fund, which is our rainy-day fund,” he said. Mr. Whritenour stressed the town would have to remain fiscally conservative because of Proposition 2½ spending limits and the minimal amount of state aid the town receives due to a formula based on property values. “The town’s finances are very stable, but we have very limited revenue growth, so we need to keep these amounts under 3 percent,” he said. “It’s important to note that this budget is in balance, and there’s no use of free cash or other other nonrecurring funds whatsoever.”

After Mr. Whritenour’s presentation, townspeople were eager to get to work — so much so that a rather lengthy feel-good music video of the daily goings-on at the Oak Bluffs School was shut down by a voter revolt, led by Brian Patrick Hall.

Voters approved departmental expenditures with minimal discussion — most of it about the necessity for another full-time police officer — and eventually approved the recommended $29.3 million budget for FY18, an increase of just under 3 percent from last year’s budget.

The next 16 warrant articles were quickly approved, with voters endorsing expenditures such as $80,000 to replace electrical service at Oak Bluffs Harbor, $50,000 for a new tractor for the Highway Department, and $12,000 to winterize the Shellfish Department work shed. The fire department got approval for several expenditures, including $80,000 for safety gear and $68,000 to refurbish an ambulance, to be paid out of the Ambulance Reserve Fund. Prior to the meeting, the Ambulance Reserve Fund had a balance of $610,000. A warrant article to spend $10,000 on exercise equipment for the police department was indefinitely postponed.

“Town hall is a mess, and it needs to be replaced,” town hall building committee chairman Bill McGrath said as he went into a detailed presentation of the decrepit, unsafe, non-ADA-compliant, state of town hall. Mr. McGrath also went into detail about the minimal financial impact the $9.8 million debt exclusion would have on taxpayers. “It’s the cost of two [ferry] excursion fares for the average Islander,” he said. Several people expressed concern about a repeat of 2014, when a $6.8 million debt exclusion for a new town hall was approved at town meeting and subsequently crushed at the ballot box. Russ Wendt got one of the biggest laughs of the evening when he suggested that the voting booths in Thursday’s election be placed in town hall.

The town hall debt exclusion was almost unanimously approved.

When it came to the $200,000 expenditure to make the Island Theater structurally safe, Oak Bluffs voters were full of sound and fury, but in the end, decided to do nothing.

Not surprisingly, the warrant article sparked the longest, and most spirited discussion of the evening, with more momentum swings than the 2004 Red Sox/Yankees ALCS. The first swing came when selectman Walter Vail introduced an amendment to change the wording of the article from “make safe” to “raze.”

“I don’t think making it safe is best for the town,” Mr. Vail said. “Very little of outside will change, and you’ll be looking at what you’re looking at now for the next three to four years.”

Selectman Michael Santoro said he was changing his stance from “make safe” to “raze.”

Selectman Gail Barmakian lobbied strongly for passing the article. “This is the safest thing to do at this point in time,” she said.

Ms. Barmakian, who is also an attorney, explained the $200,000 would be a lien on the property, which would be paid back to the town when the property is sold or mortgaged. She also expressed repeated concerns about the aftermath of a proposed demolition. “Do we want to see a filled-in hole at the end of Circuit Avenue?” she said. “Once it’s knocked down, there’s nothing unless they want to purchase the property. We could possibly be stuck with a vacant property and a fence around it saying ‘danger, keep away’ at the entrance to our town.”

Fred Hancock made a forceful argument for demolition. “I believe we had a board survey that determined this building is unsafe to the public, and I think we’re dithering around here and putting money in the Halls’ pocket with this. For public safety, the building needs to be demolished.” Many in the crowd agreed with Mr. Hancock.

After making it clear to the audience that he was not a member of the Hall family that owns the theater, Brian Patrick Hall, a frequent contributor during the evening, asked who will be responsible if the building collapses on a busy summer day. “Who will have blood on their hands?” he said. “If we [make the building safe] we’re exposing ourselves to a lot more money being spent on this project.”

Building inspector Mark Barbadoro advocated for a more cautious approach. “I know it’s frustrating to look at, but let’s not lose sight of what this article is for. It’s to make the building safe … The work does not make the building usable. It doesn’t benefit the Halls’ in any way, except to allow them to rent it to someone who will fix it up, which is what I think everybody would like to see. Let’s get past this vote and raise the money to make it safe. There are ways to recoup the money.”

Mr. Barbadoro said state officials from the Department of Public Safety have expressed concerns about the building, and if the town does not act to shore up the building, that end of Circuit Avenue could be fenced off this summer.

John Freeman expressed concern that if the building is not made safe, the town could be exposed to substantial legal settlements if someone is hurt or killed as a result.

Attorney Michael Goldsmith said state law limits a town’s liability to $100,000. Addressing frequent calls for taking the property by eminent domain, Mr. Goldsmith said that was not part of the article, therefore a fruitless discussion.

Over the hourlong discussion, demolition advocates continued to beat a path to the microphone. At one point Mr. Law tried to call a vote, but the townspeople had more anger to vent.

Although it appeared that the razing amendment might prevail, Mr. Whritenour stemmed the momentum. “Everyone has anger which appears to be well justified toward the property owners, demanding that the building be removed from our downtown and eliminated,” he said. “Without a specific redevelopment plan, which does not exist, it really could diminish the appearance and potentially the value of the remaining structures.”

Mr. Whritenour explained the lien was not a gift to the building owners, and that it could be collected in a year when it is transferred on the tax bill, and will accrue 16 percent interest. He said he had discussions with the Massachusetts Office of Business Development Municipal Real Estate Assistance Office, and that officials have agreed to meet with selectmen to formulate a long-term plan for “problem property with a problem owner.” He said the plan could include obtaining the financing for the potential eminent domain proceedings and not putting the taxpayers at risk.

“I urge you to not be too quick to knock that building down, because you might not like what the result is,” he said. “I don’t want our anger to lead to a decision that is irrevocable.”

The article to spend $200,000 to make the Island Theater safe, and the amendment to raze it, and were both rejected.

The last hot debate of the evening came after finance and advisory committee (FinCom) chairman Jason Balboni recommended that the article authorizing an $18,320 expenditure from free cash to fund First Stop, a resource to connect seniors and their caregivers to critical services, be indefinitely postponed. FinCom unanimously opposed the expenditure. If Oak Bluffs did not ante up, the program would be lost to the entire Island. A steady stream of seniors, and Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) executive director Julie Faye, took to the microphone to challenge the postponement. The article passed easily.

Moderator Jack Law, adhering to town bylaw, closed the meeting at 10:30 pm.

Of the 3,767 registered voters in Oak Bluffs, 319, or 8.5 percent, attended Tuesday night’s meeting. Voters were back at it Wednesday night to finish the town’s business.