Annual town meeting in Oak Bluffs was a collegial gathering this year, with 272 of the town’s 3,865 voters — 7 percent of the polity — giving their benediction to a $30.3 million budget in less than an hour. The FY19 budget is a $1 million increase over the $29.3 million budget for FY18, or roughly 3.4 percent. It was the first Oak Bluffs town budget ever to break the $30 million mark.
Seven-year veteran Jack Law moderated Tuesday night’s proceedings at the MVRHS Performing Arts Center with his usual alacrity.
No vote at 2018 town meeting required a hand count, or got close to one.
The meeting began, after the Pledge of Allegiance, with a standing ovation for retiring chairman of the selectmen Kathy Burton.
“She’s the only level-headed one in the group,” selectman Greg Coogan said.
One of the few line-item discussions was about a $5,000 increase to the cost of the Information Booth, bringing it to $20,000 per annum. Burton noted the booth as built by the recently deceased Peter Martell, who was honored with silence at the beginning of town meeting. The expenditure was approved.
Big-ticket items like $350,000 to design repairs and renovations to the Oak Bluffs School roof and HVAC system, $250,000 for electrical work in the harbor and renovations to the harbormaster’s office, $600,000 in CPA funds to rehabilitate and restore Sunset Lake and Lakeside Park, $208,000 from the Ambulance Reserve Fund for public safety vehicles and equipment, were quickly approved. The voters agreed with the finance and advisory committee, and unanimously endorsed spending $250,000 of CPA funds to upgrade the Oak Bluffs School outdoor recreation areas.
All department budgets were passed with unanimous votes, or close to it. Ron Mechur, a frequent commenter about town finance, said new revenue sources like parking meters on Circuit Avenue during the summer should be explored before another Proposition 2½ override is required. Many voters agreed. A number of revenue streams were discussed, including increased participation in pickleball at the Niantic Park courts to compensate for flagging tennis revenue.
The vote for a home-rule petition to ban moped rentals passed unanimously, without debate. The petition will now go to the legislature. Rep. Dylan Fernandes, who attended the meeting with Sen. Julian Cyr, told The Times he would back the will of the Oak Bluffs voters on Beacon Hill. Senator Cyr indicated he would do the same if the petition makes it to the Senate.
A petition article to ban the release of helium balloons was unanimously passed.
The petition article by Dukes County Sheriff Robert Ogden for $100,000 in funding for the regional communications center was indefinitely postponed.
Funding of social services and affordable housing sparked the most spirited debates of the night. Article 19, a request for $40,000 to help fund regional services — Dukes County Human Services, Substance Abuse Prevention, Healthy Aging MV, and First Stop and the CORE program at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services — became a discussion about how much the town should fund regional support services overall. The $40,000 was still $23,667 less than the services had collectively asked for from the town.
“Everybody agrees these human services are incredibly important to our town and to our Island,” selectman Brian Packish said. “The number of entities each year is growing, and the amount of money they’re asking for is growing. We’ve reached a tipping point of how many buckets we can put into.”
“I think the selectmen deserve a little more credit,” town administrator Robert Whritenour said. “The override is $275,000. There are over $325,000 annually that go from Oak Bluffs to private human service agencies. Costs in the past three to four years have grown astronomically because there’s a great need. We need to combine some of these services.”
“I don’t have a problem with what we contribute to worthy causes, I have a problem with us contributing more than our fair share,” Peter Palches said. “Edgartown has 700 properties worth over $2 million, Chilmark over 400. No one is saying that these payments should be based on [town] wealth.”
“The County Advisory Board is controlled by Edgartown because votes are based on wealth, but the proportion of who pays what is not based on the wealth of the town,” Steve Auerbach said. “Edgartown and Chilmark get a free ride.”
“I support all these great issues,” Bill McGrath said. “If the County Advisory Board supports it, it should be on the county budget, but it wasn’t.”
Christine Todd, who spearheaded the drive for funding for substance abuse prevention, said substance costs the Island $18 million a year and that the amounts being requested for social services were a tiny fraction of the $30.3 million budget.
During earlier department budget votes, former selectman Walter Vail called for an amendment to shift $23,667 from the $124,800 Center for Living assessment to the funds being sought for social service nonprofits. The amendment was soundly defeated.
A separate article -— $30,000 to replace beach stairs at Bayview Avenue — was later withdrawn by parks commissioner Amy Billings, saying, to robust applause, repairs could make the current stairs last a few more years.
When voters debated $40,000 funding for Article 19, Vail again pitched an amendment, this time to allocate the $23,667 not used to fix the stairs to fully fund the original requested.
This time Vail’s amendment was approved, almost unanimously.
Allocations of $100,000 of Community Preservation funding to two regional affordable housing projects in Tisbury developed under the Island Housing Trust (IHT) — Greenwood Avenue Affordable Housing and Kuehn’s Way — elicited a long, spirited discussion about the Island housing crisis, and what Oak Bluffs can and should do about it. One of the six units at Greenwood Avenue will be offered for purchase by a person working or living in Oak Bluffs at the original offering. Two of the 20 rental units at Kuehn’s Way will be offered to people living or working in Oak Bluffs in the initial offering.
“It’s become clear to us we’re not building anything in the next two years,” Oak Bluffs Affordable Housing Committee chairman Peter Bradford said.
“The problem grows, and people looking for homes don’t have any options.”
All six towns are being asked for Community Preservation funds for the two projects. Bradford said Tisbury is being asked to contribute the most.
“Affordable housing cuts across all towns, and we need to work together to solve this problem,” IHT board member Dee Lander said. “It takes Community Preservation funds, private donations, state grants, favorable financing from Island banks, and each dollar is equally important. We need to break down town barriers. When you go to the hospital, you don’t ask the doctor what town they’re from.”
“I think we’re getting numb to the housing problem,” housing counselor Karen Tewhey said. “It is probably the biggest humanitarian crisis we have on this Island. Kuehn’s Way will transform the lives of 20 families.”
$100,000 for Greenwood Avenue housing was unanimously approved. $100,000 for Kuehn’s Way was a few votes shy of unanimous approval.
Town elections will be held on Thursday, April 12.
A separate ballot question will ask voters to approve a debt exclusion to pay for renovations to the Oak Bluffs School.
If the $275,000 Proposition 2½ override fails at the ballot box, selectmen will have to cut that amount out of the approved budget, except for approved Community Preservation Fund expenditures.
Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Walter Vail suggested money be transferred from the Council on Aging budget to fully fund Article 19. He suggested the funds be transferred from the $124,800 Center for Living assessment.