Reflecting the hard financial times being felt across the nation, Oak Bluffs voters at a special town election on Wednesday defeated three funding measures for Proposition 2 1/2 overrides and debt exclusions for next year’s operating budget, while narrowly approving three others.
This year marked the first time in six years voters faced overrides of Proposition 2 1/2, the state law which limits the annual increase in a community’s tax levy to 2.5 per cent. Voters also considered several debt exclusions to temporarily add to the town tax base, as opposed to an override, which permanently increases the tax levy.
School leaders breathed a collective sigh of relief after voters approved an override request for $236,119 for the balance of the Oak Bluffs School budget; the vote was 414-353. Also approved was an override for the balance of the town’s share of the regional high school budget totaling $157,294.
The high school override vote was largely symbolic, as the town is obligated to pay its district assessment because the other Island towns have already voted to approve their share. If voters had rejected the override, the balance would have needed to come from the town operating budget.
If voters had rejected the override for the Oak Bluffs School, however, the deficit could not have been made up from the rest of the budget. In recent weeks, school officials discussed a plan to cut employees and eliminate programs.
“I think we all can exhale now,” said school committee member Priscilla Sylvia after the vote. “There was this sense of dread around the school, but thanks to the good people of Oak Bluffs we can provide the same level [of education] to our children and will not have to start making cuts.”
Although the two school overrides passed, voters were in a less giving mood for another override question asking for $57,000 for several lifeguard positions at the town beach. Although voters at the annual town meeting rallied to put the lifeguard funding back into the budget, the question was defeated this week, 444-317.
Another override for $177,000 for repairs to the town bulkhead was approved 399-342, but voters defeated a debt exclusion question for $99,990 for the town’s share of buying busses for the regional high school. Voters also defeated a debt exclusion question for $136,500 for the first bond payment for the Leonardo property; the vote was 433-306.
Selectmen and the finance committee held a special joint meeting yesterday afternoon to discuss the election results, but took no action. Town administrator Michael Dutton said the town is only obligated to make up the $99,000 for the high school busses that was defeated by voters.
He said the lifeguard positions will be eliminated, and funding for the Leonardo property will not need to be made up until next year. He said the wastewater department has agreed to pay the $136,500 for this year’s bond payment on the purchase of the property.
Mr. Dutton said there are now three town positions vacant; a part-time position at the library, a part-time position with the board of registrars and a part-time position in the tax collector’s office. He suggested the positions be left open for now, which could save the town over $100,000 in salary and benefits. He also said the town might receive additional funding when the state legislature certifies its budget later this year.
Mr. Dutton suggested that the town wait until the fall before making changes to the budget. Several selectmen and finance committee members said they agreed they could wait, but they also warned that the town’s financial problems have not been solved.
At some point the town will have to start setting aside money to cover town employee post-retirement benefits. The town needs to set aside $7 million to meet a new accounting standard called GASBY 45, or run the risk of damaging its bond rating.
At the annual town meeting in April, voters defeated an article that would have set aside $250,000 as the first payment in a long-term plan to cover post-retirement benefits.
“In one sense it looks like we dodged a bullet, but on the other hand nothing has gone away. These problems will be back next year and they will probably be even worse,” finance committee member Peter Palches said.
The finance committee and selectmen will hold another joint meeting Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the Sailing Camp Park on Barnes Road.