Brevity has rarely been a hallmark of town meeting season in Oak Bluffs, and next week's line-up of 52 articles spread across two warrants could well last more than one night. Voters will act on a range of issues - from affordable housing and funding for the hospital emergency room to new regulations for cell phone towers.
As in past years, Tuesday's program will begin with a special town meeting at 7 p.m. in the high school Performing Arts Center, followed immediately by the annual town meeting. Despite the length of the warrants, selectmen are not expecting any one topic to dominate voter discussion.
"Once again, by the time we get to town meeting, things are pretty much in order," said selectman Richard Combra. "Our budget won't require any override ballot." Town leaders spent the last few months cutting departmental wish-lists down to a balanced budget of $14.8 million.
If one proposal can generate interest, Mr. Combra said it will be the push for a new library. While voters won't be asked to spend any money, they will be pressed to support the plan for a 15,000-square-foot library next to the new town hall and facing Pacific avenue.
Library advocates need voter approval if they want to have a shot at winning state grants that would pay about half of the total $3.5 million project. Fundraising is also planned to offset costs. If grant money is available in the June cycle of awards, then voters would be asked later to appropriate funds.
Selectmen chairman Ken Rusczyk favors the plan. "It's undeniable that our library is way too small for the town," he said. "The increase in use has been ten-fold in the last several years, and the new library anticipates growth needed for the future. We need a modern library."
But some voters could balk at the pricetag, especially as the town is poised to start paying back loans for its new wastewater treatment plant.
The issue of affordable housing will also come before voters, who will decide whether to set aside 7.7 acres just east of the ice arena for resident homesite lots or for a more ambitious affordable housing venture. Last winter, a group of Island church members, going by the name Bridge Housing Group, told selectmen they wanted to use the land to build dozens of affordable rental units that would be reserved for Islanders earning about $32,000 a year, 60 per cent of Duke County median income.
Selectmen have resisted that idea and are hoping to see the land divided into several house lots for residents who need to build an affordable house. They recently revived the resident homesite committee.
"We better understand that if there's a large amount of affordable housing, there will be an impact on the school system, which is already bulging at the seams," said Mr. Rusczyk. "To burden our schools at this time would be a tragedy."
While the special town meeting is made up mostly of money transfers, one proposal has grouped together several capital expenses, totaling $309,000. The proposal is to spend that money from free cash on a new boat for the harbor master and for repairs to town streets and the Sailing Camp Park. Other capital costs in that article include money for extending a pier in the harbor and revitalizing the downtown.
One of the first proposals to come up at the annual town meeting is an unusual project aimed at getting senior citizens to work for the town in exchange for a reduction in their tax bills. Mr. Rusczyk said board members jumped at the idea as a way to tap the expertise of town elders while giving them a chance to reduce their tax burden. "It's a win-win for everyone," he said.
Selectmen have not mapped out the details of the program, but Mr. Rusczyk said senior citizens who join up would get at least $10 an hour in tax credits for their work.
Selectmen don't expect the hospital proposal to face much opposition. That plan calls for voters to approve $84,708 for the town's share of the intermunicipal agreement to procure emergency medical services. In essence, it's a complex way of getting public funds - $500,000 in all - to the private hospital. Edgartown and Chilmark voters have agreed to fund the plan. At least five of the six Island towns must commit to the funding plan for it to take effect.
In Oak Bluffs case, the money for the hospital is already earmarked to come from the town's free cash supply. While selectmen support the plan, Mr. Rusczyk plans to lobby next year for a discount in the Oak Bluffs share since the hospital is located in town. "We provide the hospital with police and fire protection we can't charge them for," he said.
Three separate proposals would regulate vending machines, cell phone towers and dogs on beaches. The historic commission wants to make it tougher to get permission to put up vending machines in the historic district of town.
A lengthy article from the planning board spells out a proposed new zoning bylaw for wireless communications facilities, also known as cell towers. The bylaw tries to strike a balance between meeting the needs of cell phone users and providers and protecting public health. The law would require up to three providers to share a single tower when possible and would limit the height to 45 feet. Approval would be granted only by special permit.
The new dog regulations would actually make town beaches more dog friendly during the off-season. Mr. Rusczyk explained that the new bylaw would allow dogs on the beaches between mid-September and mid-May, but prohibit them during the summer months between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. "In the winter time, who cares if you walk your dog on the beach?" asked the selectman.
Three other money articles ask for $120,000 for a new ambulance, $25,000 to buy a truck for the new sewer plant and $73,000 to control water pollution and road run-off into the Lagoon. Mr. Rusczyk said the water pollution efforts would be reimbursed by the state.