Oak Bluffs strikes down Housing Bank

Town also denies a funding article for the regional high school’s feasibility study.

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Oak Bluffs voters denied two controversial articles, one concerning the creation of a Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank and the other funding the town’s share of a feasibility study for the regional high school, at annual town meeting Tuesday night.

Voters and town officials spent a little over an hour discussing the pros and cons of a Housing Bank before taking it to a vote.

Richard Leonard, a member of the Housing Bank campaign, opened discussion with an impassioned speech asking voters to give their support to the Island-wide cause.

“If we’re serious about our housing production plan and wanting to work together as kindred Island towns, martialing our resources of money and talent to creatively and collaboratively address the Island-wide problem, now is an opportunity,” Leonard said.

Others in the audience headed to the microphones to share support.

“I view the Housing Bank as a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and I urge my fellow neighbors to support it,” Bob Laskowski said.

Karen Tewhey, Dukes County associate commissioner for homelessness, also voiced her support of the Housing Bank, and said there has been an increase in slum landlords on the Island.

Despite the support, the proposal saw overwhelming opposition.

As people took turns to share their opinions, members of the crowd yelled out for moderator Jack Law to “call the vote.”

At the start of the meeting, a motion from Elizabeth Bonifacio to have the Housing Bank article moved to the beginning of the warrant was swiftly denied 132-103.

Town administrator Bob Whritenour showed a PowerPoint presentation detailing why the town opposes the Housing Bank, which included concentration of power to determine the physical development of the town, ambiguous authority, and use of short-term rental funds the town depends on.

“The proposal with the two articles as submitted robs the ability of the town to maintain financial stability and sustainability,” Whritenour said. “The petitions were fast-tracked … we feel it’s been done like that to limit public discussion and to limit public understanding of some of these details.”

Ewell Hopkins, the town’s planning board chairman, also opposed the Housing Bank. He said many of the pieces are in place to tackle Oak Bluffs’ affordable housing problems. The town’s housing issues should be decided as locally as possible, he said.

“We have the components in Oak Bluffs to get it done. We don’t need an Island-wide bureaucracy to make the tough decisions Oak Bluffs needs to make,” Hopkins said.

Town counsel Michael Goldsmith read a long list of concerns he had from a legal standpoint after analyzing the article’s text, saying much of the language in the article was problematic.

Selectman Gail Barmakian agreed. “There are inherent problems with the bill,” Barmakian said. “The bill says it cannot be changed … Town counsel has identified that as one of the inherent problems.”

A hand count was needed to call the vote, which Oak Bluffs overwhelmingly denied with 71 yes votes and 197 no votes.

While voters approved $5 million for the town’s share of funding the regional high school’s budget, voters denied an article submitted by the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee. The article asked for the town to fund its share for a feasibility study for the school in the amount of $292,723.

Assistant superintendent of schools Richie Smith gave a speech about the importance of funding the study.

High school committee chairman Kris O’Brien spoke after right after Smith, and said voters had a chance to make a change.

“I’ve tried for a year to say the funding formula is not working for the town of Oak Bluffs … and it’s falling on deaf ears,” O’Brien said. “I think a no vote tonight would give me leverage sitting on that meeting as a regional agreement member that I won’t have otherwise. This is our onetime opportunity if it is that you believe the regional funding formula is unfair for the town.”

In a sea of yellow voting paddles, voters denied the feasibility study funding.

Funding formulas were one of the hot-button issues of the night, and weaved in and out of discussion. In a budget presentation held at the start of the meeting, Whritenour said Oak Bluffs has better financial stability than years past, but would like a little more breathing room with its budget. The presentation showed Oak Bluffs as a victim of Proposition 2½ overrides, flawed state revenue-sharing formulas, and a volatile regional education formula, while depending too heavily on property tax revenue, putting a burden on taxpayers.

“We’ve created stability, but we’re still working on sustainability moving forward,” Whritenour said.

By the end of the night, voters approved a $30.9 million budget and $19,782 in Community Preservation Act funds to battle toxic jellyfish in Farm Pond. Other spending articles included $63,420 to be used by the Martha’s Vineyard Network for Homeless Prevention to purchase a property as permanent housing for low-income residents, and $160,000 for improvements to the town’s harbor.

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