In a town well known for spirited and lengthy town meetings, Oak Bluffs voters may have set a new benchmark this year, as intense scrutiny of town finances coupled with often emotional debate on a wide range of topics pushed the political season to 12 hours spread over four evenings.
Officials and residents said they could not recall a previous year when the town meeting had gone four nights. Although town leaders expected questions about town finances after unveiling a $22.5 budget that required $1 million in overrides and debt exclusions, they got more then they bargained for, as voters challenged spending articles for everything from library books to police details.
Through much of last week and into the third night of town meeting on Monday at the Oak Bluffs school, voters sifted through next year’s proposed $22.5 million operating budget line by line looking for areas to cut costs. Although various line items — especially those for salaries — stirred a healthy debate, voters in the end passed every line item by a healthy margin.
In fact, voters on Monday actually agreed to put $57,000 back into the budget to restore funding in the parks and recreation department budget for lifeguards at the town beach. Voters agreed keeping the lifeguards was more important in terms of safety and liability than any potential savings that might have been realized from eliminating them.
Although the first two nights of town meeting held last week at the regional high school drew both the largest crowds and most heated debates, Monday’s meeting at the Oak Bluffs school featured what was widely considered the two most controversial articles of the town meeting.
One was an override of $236,119 for the town elementary school and the other was an override of $157,294 for the town’s share of the regional high school. Although both override articles passed by a wide margin, both need to be ratified in a special town election now scheduled for May 28 from noon to 7 p.m.
Faced with the largest deficit in town history, the finance advisory board this year took the unorthodox approach of separating the portion of the school budgets that exceeded the Proposition 2 1/2 threshold. Finance officials said the plan would give voters more fiscal control, while school officials warned such a plan would send the message the school was to blame for the town’s financial problems and set the stage for voters to reject the overrides.
As a result, Monday’s meeting was packed with school officials, parents and teachers who rallied voters to support the override articles.
Regional high school Principal Margaret (Peg) Regan said a majority of the school’s spending increase was due to fixed costs such as salaries and insurance, over which officials have no control. She also recalled a frustrating meeting she had with the finance advisory committee earlier this year.
“We had a meeting with [the finance committee] and they made it clear they felt 25 to 30 students in each classroom would not affect graduation rates . . . I strongly disagree,” Ms. Regan said.
Massasoit avenue resident Brian Hughes said he disagreed with the finance committee’s decision to parcel off the school overrides, because it forced departments like the school and council on aging to compete for funding. “Your putting voters between a rock and a hard place . . . our children and our seniors,” he said.
Thad Harshbarger, chairman of the finance committee, said separating part of the school budget onto overrides was a hard decision for the committee. He said the committee asked school officials for a detailed breakdown of the school budget and projected student populations, but received nothing.
“We know there has been criticism of the high school budget because of declining enrollment, and we just wanted some answers . . . we wanted some type of explanation. But didn’t get it,” Mr. Harshbarger said.
Mr. Harshbarger said he encouraged voters to support the override article so it would appear on the town-wide ballot next month. “You determine for yourselves if you think school officials are doing a good job with the resources provided to them. I don’t have the answer to that question.”
After a lengthy debate, finance committee member Joe Alosso took the microphone and reminded voters the town is obligated to pay the entire assessment for the regional high school, even if voters reject the override article. Perhaps with this in mind, voters easily passed the high school override soon after.
When voters took up the second override, for the Oak Bluffs School, school committee member Priscilla Sylvia said rejecting this article would have a more immediate effect than the previous override. “If we don’t pass this, it means we lose seven full and part-time employees at the Oak Bluffs School . . . it’s that simple,” she said.
Mrs. Sylvia also took exception with the finance committee’s decision to split off the school override from the rest of the budget. “I thought we were through with this ‘us versus them’ mentality in Oak Bluffs, but now it’s back,” she said.
Selectman Gregory Coogan encouraged voters to approve the article so it would appear on the townwide ballot. “I would vote for this today, because I feel strongly that nothing is more important than educating our children. But for those in support and opposition this is a chance to get out there and educate people and get them to vote,” he said.
As was the case with most hotly debated spending items, the override article passed comfortably.
The next skirmish of the evening centered on a request for $400,000 in community preservation act funds to create 10 affordable living spaces, including four designed for artist studios, at the former Bradley Memorial Church. The affordable units are part of an ambitious plan to create a mixed-use complex at the corner of Masonic and Dukes County avenues featuring housing, an office space for the NAACP, several artist work spaces and a community center.
While several residents — including members of the so-called arts district along Dukes County avenue — said they supported the multi-faceted project, others questioned whether the town should be using community preservation act funds to specifically support artists or subsidize businesses.
Pocasset avenue resident Catherine Deese said the scope of the project was too much for the proposed location.
“This is way too big for that little piece of land. There isn’t any parking to begin with in this neighborhood. We need to think about this first before we start approving money,” Ms. Deese said.
Tammy Deese said she worried that the arts district was slowly taking over what has traditionally been a blue collar neighborhood. “What is this arts district? It’s not on any map . . . it just sort of popped up. When did this neighborhood become so artsy-farty?”
Renee Balter, former president of the Oak Bluffs Association, said adding affordable housing to the building may be the town’s best and only chance to preserve what she called a historical treasure. “We don’t have to tear down another historic building in this town . . . we can save one of the most important pieces of our history, one that has sat derelict for decades,” she said.
The $400,000 for Bradley Memorial Church, as well as six other community preservation act funding requests, passed easily.
In other town meeting news this week:
• Voters defeated an article that would have allowed 25 town meeting voters to stand and force a secret ballot for any article on the warrant on the floor of town meeting. Selectman Duncan Ross seemed to sum up voters’ feelings about the article when he described it as unconstitutional. “I think this is undemocratic . . . it allows a small group of people to replace the will of the majority,” Mr. Ross said.
The article was defeated by a unanimous vote.
• Voters approved $200,000 in community preservation funds to restore the Ocean Park bandstand; $100,000 for the restoration of the Tabernacle cupola; and $24,000 for the conversion of the old town library into a new multi-use building with a pharmacy on the ground floor and several affordable housing units on the second floor.
• Voters approved $72,000 for emergency repairs of the town beach following the collapse of a 30-ton retaining wall in March.
Joan Hughes, chairman of the conservation commission, said the funding would be used for emergency repairs of the waterfront. She disputed rumors the town has already endorsed a plan to repair the waterfront which would call for the permanent removal of the so-called comfort station, the building along the seawall that houses a snack bar, showers and bathrooms.
Ms. Hughes said officials have not chosen a permanent plan and said there is still a possibility the comfort station would remain.
Several residents, including Patricia Bergeron, said the old comfort station was an integral part of the town waterfront. “That snack shack is part of that beach; it’s part of people’s memories. A lot of people want it to stay,” Mrs. Burgeron said.
• Voters approved a change to the zoning bylaws that would increase the maximum height of a structure in the town health care district from 50 feet to 60 feet. The article was placed on the warrant through a petition from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, that would accommodate a tower at the front of the newly renovated building marking the entrance.
While some Eastville residents complained the zoning change might open the door for other taller structures in the health care district, some hospital officials argued the tower would provide an abundance of ambient light, which studies show is therapeutic to patients.
• Voters approved an article to disqualify part-time elected officials from receiving town-provided employee health and dental benefits. The finance committee recommended the article to discourage candidates from running for elected office just to receive health benefits.