In a show of confidence for the fiscal management of their town, Oak Bluffs voters at their annual town meeting Tuesday approved a large increase in the operating budget and said yes to spending a combined $15 million for a new town hall and fire station.
A total of 282 voters persevered through a 31-article warrant at the regional high school Performing Arts Center. Town moderator Jack Law presided.
The bulk of the three-hour meeting was spent discussing spending requests, beginning with the $25.7 million town operating budget for the coming fiscal year, which is up 4.5 per cent and exceeds the Proposition 2 1/2 tax cap.
The budget was approved, but not without debate. At several intervals during the line item review, voters pressed town officials to explain the significance of budgetary terms and finance decisions, and called on department heads to defend their spending choices.
Increases in educational spending, most significantly at the high school which saw a steep rise in student enrollment this year from Oak Bluffs, are the major reason the budget has gone up. A $600,000 override question was set to come before voters at the town election Thursday. To ease the tax burden of the potential override, the finance committee voted to apply $250,000 of the town’s free cash reserves to the operating budget, meaning the overall tax impact will be only $350,000.
If successful, the override will have a tax impact of $69 on a home valued at $500,000.
But if the override question fails, the high school bill, a regional obligation, will still have to be paid and town leaders will have to cut $350,000 from other departments. (Election results were due after press time Thursday night and will appear on the Gazette website at mvgazette.com)
At the meeting Tuesday, resident Charlie Miner pressed the town to identify savings in the proposed budget to reduce the override amount. “None of us feel comfortable about having a potentially one-time item drive a permanent increase,” he said. But a motion he advanced to that purpose was voted down.
In response, resident Thad Harshbarger said finance committee meetings were open to the public, and any qualms with the budget could be discussed there.
“That would save the rest of us from having to hear it now,” he said.
Kerry Scott said she felt unprepared for town meeting as the most recent audit had not yet been made available to the public. “We are being asked to spend millions tonight, and I don’t know that the town is in the kind of shape that we are being told it’s in, because I can’t study it,” she said.
Much of the meeting was spent discussing financial initiatives, accompanied lengthy slide show presentations.
Town administrator Robert L. Whritenour said the town had made progress in the past few years since dipping to a point of negative free cash, but was not yet out of the woods. He warned that stripping town funding further would damage services available to residents.
“The actions you are going to be taking this evening are all about creating a pathway for financial stability for the town,” Mr. Whritenour said. He announced that the town had certified $961,542 in free cash, and said the town hoped to increase that amount next year.
In return, voters showed overwhelming support for the two capital projects the town will undertake in the next two years: construction of a new town hall for $6.8 million and a joint fire and emergency services station for $8.3 million.
The total combined tax impact of the projects for a property valued at $500,000 will be $3,700, paid over the course of 18 years.
“These are for 50-year buildings . . . that is a pretty nice price,” said capital programs committee chairman Bill McGrath, wryly noting that he, like others present, will not be here at the end of that 50 years. “In fact, I am counting on not being here at the end of those 50 years,” he said.
The two projects were also tied to ballot questions Thursday to exempt the debt from the provisions of Proposition 2 1/2. If the questions pass, both buildings will be rebuilt at their current sites. The fire station will occupy the same lot, but will be turned 90 degrees. The town will pay for the projects through two separate bonds.
Construction is expected to begin in September and last 14 months.
Karen Achille said bringing the buildings into the 21st century would enhance the town, just as the library’s renovation did years ago. “For that reason, I personally endorse bringing the town hall and fire station up to speed, so to speak,” she said.
Some voters wondered if one project might be tackled at a time, and others questioned the wisdom of taking on long-term debt, but in the end both were approved.
The evening began with a tribute to outgoing Oak Bluffs school committee member Priscilla Sylvia. Principal Richard Smith praised the former school teacher’s tenacity and fierce passion in her school career, which began with negotiating equal pay for female and male teachers.
“And I have loved it all,” Mrs. Sylvia said, holding a bouquet of lilies.
Former town clerk Deborah Radcliffe also received a farewell from her successor, Laura Johnston.
“She is funny, wise and kind and I have seen her go above and beyond many times for the voters of our town,” Ms. Johnston said.
In articles authored by the Community Preservation Committee, Oak Bluffs joined Edgartown and West Tisbury in backing funding for the Gay Head Light project, for ACE MV and in approving Island-wide fertilizer rules.
The Oak Bluffs portion of the regional formula for ACE is $19,170, which will come from free cash. The town will dedicate $111,600 in CPA funds to the Gay Head Lighthouse project.
In her endorsement of that question, Community Preservation Committee chairman Joan Hughes said: “We felt there were some things we should support as being part of the Island.”
Voters also agreed to have the town accept ownership of the East Chop Bluff. This should help the town in its quest for federal funding, said Craig Dripps, president of the East Chop Association. “I think everybody would hopefully agree that we need to save the road,” he said.
In a move intended to speed up certain permitting processes, members of boards that hold hearings will now be able to vote on a matter if they have missed a maximum of one hearing, as long as they review audio and video recordings to familiarize themselves with the issue.
In the final article, voters backed a nonbinding resolution to shut down the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth.
“It’s been an informative, very good town meeting,” pronounced Mr. Law the moderator.
And to the tune My Favorite Things from the Sound of Music, voters shuffled out of the auditorium and into the night.