Oak Bluffs denies OPEB ballot question

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Selectmen denied placing a OPEB override question on the ballot.

During a marathon meeting Tuesday night, Oak Bluffs selectmen denied placing a Proposition 2½ override question for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School on the town’s ballot.

The $84,579 override ballot question was for other post-employment benefits (OPEB) for the high school.

A Proposition 2½ override increases property taxes indefinitely, and is usually for an ongoing expense the town needs to fund now and in the future. 

High school financial manager Mark Friedman said the amount is the first of what could possibly be another four years of increases, resulting in potential $85,000 increases on top of the previous year.

OPEB are retirement benefits other than a pension, such as health, life, and other insurance benefits, to which municipal employers have a liability to contribute for current and future retired employees.

Selectman chair Jason Balboni voiced opposition to the ballot question. “I’m all in favor of OPEB,” Balboni said. “But the approach to just increase our taxes and other towns’ taxes to get you to a spot where we can’t even get to, to me, is a problem.”

He said the town is already funding the high school’s OPEB, but is being asked for additional funding.

“We have our own OPEB liability issues, and I understand we all have to do them,” Balboni said. “I’m just not willing to raise the taxes of the residents of Oak Bluffs this year of COVID so we can get the high school where it needs to be.”

Selectman Brian Packish agreed. “It’s virtually every year that we’re having a conversation about the financial scenarios of the high school. It’s constant, there’s no forethought in the planning, there’s excess and deficiency funds in the middle of a selectmen’s meeting we have to approve,” Packish said. “The high school needs to recognize none of this feels good for our community, none of this makes our students feel supported, none of this is healthy for any of this conversation.

“Everybody has a request, and yet somehow it’s the one from the high school we’re trying to slice differently for them. It’s getting old. In my short time as a selectman, I’ve had to do it too many times.”

In a 4-1 vote, selectmen denied placing the question on the ballot, with selectman Greg Coogan voting to keep it on the ballot.

Selectmen did approve two Proposition 2½ capital exclusions ballot questions that will only increase taxes for one year — $183,572 for technology infrastructure, and $73,128 for electric school buses.

Selectmen moved discussion of the annual town meeting warrant to a future meeting. After some discussion, selectmen agreed, but didn’t vote, to hold the annual town meeting at its regularly scheduled April 13 date. Other Island towns have moved their town meetings to allow more residents to get vaccinated.

 

Oyster farm seeks eco-label

Cottage City Oysters secured a new, two-acre site next to its existing farm for aquaculture research.

Dan Martino, who co-owns Cottage City Oyster with his brother Greg, applied for the new site at the selectmen’s meeting Tuesday night.

The new acreage is located 50 feet from the brothers’ existing farm, but won’t be used for growing oysters.

Martino said he was approached last year by the University of Southern Connecticut to establish the first eco-label for the aquaculture industry. Eco Labels are marks placed on products that meet specific environmental performance criteria and are deemed “environmentally preferable,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The first-of-its-kind label would give other aquaculture farms that ability to be certified for biodiversity and ecosystem services they are creating.

Cottage City is working with the university, as well as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), to use Environmental DNA (EDNA) technology to monitor different species in the water.

The project will take place over the next five years. Cottage City began collecting data in September 2020, and will continue to do so through September of this year. After establishing a baseline of data, they will gradually introduce aquaculture gear and probes to the new site.

“Using the EDNA and using those probes, we hope to be able to quantify how much biodiversity these cages attract to that environment. We need data to support our evidence we see, and through all that data collection, we will be able to come out with the first eco-label,” Martino said.

Cottage City still needs to go through several state and federal agencies before coming back to the selectmen for final approval. Once the five-year project is complete, Martino said, he would likely want to maintain the site for either research or farming.

Martino said the five-year lease is solely for research, and Cottage City will not be farming oysters at the site.

Shellfish constable Chuck Fisher said Cottage City has been leading the oyster industry, and strongly supported the project. “I think that this parcel is a big part of the future of aquaculture and shellfishing in general,” he said.

In other business, selectmen unanimously appointed Wendy Brough as the interim town administrator once current town administrator Robert Whritenour ends his tenure on March 26. Brough is the current assistant town administrator.

Whritenour, who has been with the town since 2011, was hired as Yarmouth’s town administrator in January.

Selectmen unanimously approved a business license for Winston’s Kitchen. The new food establishment will be located at 2 East Chop Drive, next to Our Market, and will be takeout only.