In a two-night annual town meeting, Oak Bluffs voters ratified a town budget of $24.1 million, approved a $500,000 dredge for Sengekontacket Pond and rejected a move to cut money from the schools.
Voters were in a generous mood overall, giving thumbs-up to $770,000 in Community Preservation Act projects, substantial pay raises for the town clerk and town administrator, and a three per cent raise to most town employees. They also approved a new animal control bylaw and a trust fund to provide affordable housing for low-income families.
The two articles that generated the most heated debate seemed mundane at first blush: one sought to prohibit people from washing cars on town streets in the business district; the other would allow the planning board to issue special permits for building affordable homes on undersized lots.
Voters approved the ban on car washing, but rejected the plan to use undersized lots for affordable housing. It was the only article defeated during the two-night town meeting.
The meeting got off to a patriotic start, with students from the elementary school reciting the pledge of allegiance, first pausing to greet and shake hands with neighbors. The good vibrations continued in a tribute to longtime selectman Roger Wey, who is retiring after 21 years on the board.
Nell Coogan, Vineyard liaison for state representative Tim Madden, presented Mr. Wey with proclamations from the Massachusetts House of Representatives and state Senate. Mr. Wey, visibly moved by a standing ovation from the audience, said he would still be around the town and its politics.
“I’m not going far, just changing seats from where I am now to where you’re sitting,” Mr. Wey said. “I will always help to make Oak Bluffs the best it can be. As we all know there is no better place to live. Thank you.”
Moderator David E. Richardson then banged the gavel, and voters zipped through the first five articles of a special town meeting warrant with minimal discussion, approving proposals to join other Island towns in establishing a trust for town employee post-retirement benefits and to spend $15,000 to fix storm water runoff at Seaview beach.
But some voters bristled at an article to adopt a classification and compensation study. Although the study was about establishing uniform pay grades for town employees, discussion turned to the salary of town administrator Michael Dutton, who jumped to pay grade eight this year, his salary increasing from $99,000 to $117,000, or just over 17 per cent.
Rupert Robinson said he was against any pay raises for town employees this year, noting the recession and widespread unemployment. The article to ratify the new compensation and classification study was approved easily, but the issue lingered as voters took up the $24.1 million town budget.
Mr. Robinson again questioned the substantial raise for the town administrator. “We’re getting answers. But we’re getting answers we don’t like. Why are those people getting increases? I’ve heard nothing but complaints at the senior center,” he said.
Selectman Duncan Ross defended the raise for Mr. Dutton. “He hasn’t gotten a raise in two years,” Mr. Ross said. “Right now he is one of the lowest paid town administrators on Martha’s Vineyard . . . he deserves this adjustment.”
Mr. Robinson said he was not debating the administrator’s job performance, simply the timing of the raise. “I am questioning for the people who lost their jobs this year, who didn’t get a raise . . . there are people in other jobs that deserve a raise, too,” he said.
“It seems to me like we’re taking away services to give raises,” added Catherine Deese.
During the budget debate, Thad Harshbarger, chairman of the finance advisory committee, proposed an amendment to slice $109,145 from the $6 million budget of the Oak Bluffs School. Mr. Harshbarger said his committee asked all town departments to level fund this year, meaning they would ask for the same amount of money as last year. While most town departments complied, he said, both schools asked for more money, prompting the finance committee to try to reduce the amount on the town meeting floor.
He noted the town highway department gave up around $200,000 for road repairs this year to achieve level funding. “Money was taken from the highway department and given to the Oak Bluffs School and the high school . . . it balances the budget, but it’s an unbalanced situation. It deprives the town of needed infrastructure development. This amendment would put the schools back at the same amount they had last year,” Mr. Harshbarger said.
Finance committee member Peter Palches picked up the theme. “One thing I hear all the time is, ‘We’re all in this together.’ But really, some of us are all in this together, and some of us are not. If the raises systematically go to the school department, then the cuts have to systematically go to the other departments,” he said.
Mr. Palches then hit on what quickly became a refrain: concrete versus children.
“It’s true. We love children more than we love concrete. We also pay more for children more than we pay for concrete . . . which is also important in our lives,” he said.
But school supporters opposed the amendment. School committee member Priscilla Silvia said the Oak Bluffs School already had cut positions to get down to a 1.85 per cent increase; she said there was no more room to cut.
School committee member Lisa Regan disputed the suggestion the school took away money from the highway department. “[The highway department] offered money out of their budget, it wasn’t the school taking. This is everyone working together,” she said.
The amendment to reduce the town school budget was easily defeated, as was a similar article to reduce the town payment for the regional high school.
There was debate over a set of 10 Community Preservation Act projects, which included $224,000 to convert the old library into a pharmacy and affordable housing, $300,000 to restore the North Bluff comfort station, $24,000 for window replacement at Trinity Methodist Church in the Camp Ground, and $24,000 to restore the nearby Tabernacle’s clerestory.
Some bristled at the idea of subsidizing repairs to the Tabernacle and Trinity Church.
“The town can’t afford to do this just because half the money comes from the state,” said business owner Mark Wallace.
Others disagreed. “[The Trinity] church is more than just a place of worship. It’s a historic place in a historic Camp Ground. It’s also an important tourist attraction,” said Bob Iadicicco.
In the end all 10 projects were approved.
The final arguably most entertaining debate of the first evening came over the bylaw to prohibit washing cars on town roads in the business district. Mr. Dutton said police receive complaints during the summer from pedestrians who must walk into the street to avoid puddles when rental car companies wash their vehicles.
Christine Todd opposed the bylaw as oppressive and unnecessary. “Where do we draw the line. What’s next? Do we stop someone from power washing their house? Do we stop them from washing their dogs?” she said.
The bylaw passed after two voice votes.
The meeting resumed on Wednesday with 82 voters, compared to 202 the previous night — but the smaller crowd was still in a mood to debate. Voters split over whether to allow the planning board to grant special permits to build on undersized lots if the structures were to be used for affordable housing.
Planning board chairman John Bradford said the bylaw would allow hundreds of otherwise unbuildable lots to be used for affordable housing, which would allow struggling town residents to buy property and build their own homes.
But some voters said they worried the bylaw still needed some work. Mr. Palches said the town did not know how many lots would be affected, or what impact it might have on town services. Some felt the criteria for affordable housing eligibility was too restrictive; others felt it was not inclusive enough.
In the end the bylaw was defeated but voters asked the planning board to revise it and bring it back to a future town meeting.
A new animal control bylaw, drafted by animal control officer Heather Jaglowski, drew lively debate. Among other things, the bylaw would establish new definitions for a nuisance animal and set more restrictive rules for keeping dogs under command and on a leash.
The bylaw also would change the time when dogs are allowed on town beaches. Currently dogs are banned from town beaches between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. from May 15 to Sept. 15; the new bylaw would change the hours to between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Chris Seidel moved to amend the bylaw to loosen the restrictions, keeping dogs off beaches only from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from June 15 to Sept. 15.
Peg McGrath opposed the amendment. “On behalf of my summer friends and neighbors, I would like to point out that dogs and beaches don’t always mix, especially for older people and younger people,” she said.
Voters approved the more restrictive bylaw.
Finally, there was debate over a request for $500,000 to dredge a channel in Sengekontacket Pond parallel to the Joseph Sylvia State Beach. The article was by petition and was backed by a committee charged with overseeing water quality improvements in Sengekontacket.
Bill Alwardt, a shellfisherman and petitioner, said the project would help reduce elevated bacteria levels that forced the state to close the pond to shellfishing for the past two summers. “This pond is in dire need of a dredge . . . you can blame the dogs, you can blame the birds, but from what I see man plays a big part in destroying our ponds; either way, the pond needs help. You can practically walk across the channel [under] the Little Bridge, and it’s become a crisis,” he said.
Mr. Ross, chairman of the Sengekontacket committee, agreed. “Oak Bluffs needs to do this, and we need to do this yesterday. Last night there was a lot of talk about improving the infrastructure, but I submit to you that Sengekontacket is part of the infrastructure of this town,” he said.
Some said this was not the year to spend $500,000.
“I am adamantly opposed to borrowing money to do this . . . this is not a onetime project, it will need to be repeated within 10 years. Further, the permits to do this project are not in hand,” said Terry Appenzellar, chairman of the Community Development Committee. “Sengekontacket will not die tomorrow . . . and dredging will not prevent further degradation to this pond.”
Ron DiOrio, chairman of the board of selectmen, agreed. “It’s not a question of whether this pond should be dredged. It should be. But this is not the time to go out borrowing more money,” he said.
Voters disagreed and approved the funding.