Clawing their way through two nights and a combined seven hours of town meeting action, Oak Bluffs voters narrowly approved a decision to retain residential trash collection in town and call for a tax override.
The 71-59 vote will have to be reaffirmed at a special election in the next few weeks as will another budget override decision to increase the salary of the animal control officer by some $6,000 a year. The override total of $232,635 would push the town budget to just shy of $15.1 million.
Such issues ate up hours of discussion time. Meanwhile, voters acted quickly to approve $84,708 in funding for the hospital emergency room and also endorsed plans - but committed no money - for a new library on Pacific avenue.
By any account, it was a bruising show where the politics got personal and voters lashed out at their leaders. At one point, Kevin Keaney threw up his hands when moderator David Richardson refused to entertain his question about whether public funding for health care would support contraception or abortion services. And Robert Iadicicco called it "inexcusable" that selectmen were not better prepared to guide voters through the maze of line items involved in the rubbish collection debate.
But in the aftermath of the grueling April 10 town meeting, executive secretary Casey Sharpe said, "There's no amount of planning to help us expect the unexpected. I am confident we were prepared. It wasn't easy, but that's democracy and that's how it works."
The storm over rubbish collection, however, wasn't exactly a surprise. After two public hearings, it was lopped out of the budget altogether last month in a 3-2 decision by selectmen as part of an effort to narrow a $930,000 gap in the next year's proposed budget. The majority argued that the private businesses could offer residents the same service.
But the issue did not die there. Last week, Linda Marinelli pulled off a petition campaign to demand a special town meeting on that topic alone. Then, Tuesday night, voters called for closer scrutiny of any part of the budget connected to trash collection, and by Wednesday, Mrs. Marinelli was leading the charge again to put that money back in the budget.
"Let's return this service to the voters who get little enough as it is," she said in a prepared statement read from the floor of the high school Performing Arts Center. "Private business will only escalate their prices to meet the payroll. If BFI can make a profit, why can't we break even? Our seniors will be affected the most."
But selectman Richard Combra argued that the issue hinged on fairness. Only about half of the residents in town receive curbside trash pickup, and Mr. Combra put it in the bluntest terms: "Half of us get and half of us don't, but we all pay for it." Instead, Mr. Combra proposed an all-or-nothing deal, asking voters to consider spending an extra $352,000 to provide trash collection services to all residents.
Debate lasted well over an hour, and it was drawn out by confusion over which departmental budgets would need to be restored and by how much. Joe Alosso of the board of health reminded leaders to add $3,000 for the printing of dump stickers, and Richard Combra Jr. from the highway department asked for an additional $6,000 to keep the trash trucks "limping along for another year." Voters opted to support restoring the status quo.
Leaders were visibly worn by the minutia. Mr. Combra rubbed his eyes and face, and Ms. Sharpe shook her head as she approached the microphone to field yet another question about a budget that they had labored to balance within Proposition 2 1/2 limits.
Already in the first night, voters had wrangled over both the animal control officer's salary and the police department budget for patrolmen salaries, slashed by $140,000 in a hiring freeze mandate.
Voters questioned the cut and proposed beefing up the police budget. Asked to explain the situation, police chief Joseph Carter argued that voters had approved an override request back in 1999 to hire four extra officers. "It's politically, morally and ethically right. The will of the voters was to hire four people," he said. The cut means the chief cannot accept a $308,000 three-year matching grant.
Voters worried that the police would suffer a "manpower deficiency" and that public safety would be in jeopardy, but town leaders assured voters that a police force numbering 18 officers, including the top brass, would do an adequate job.
"I don't feel that by supporting this management initiative, we would be putting anyone at risk or compromising the safety of the town," said Mark (Ambrose) Seward, the chairman of the finance committee. Voters defeated a measure to amend the police budget to a higher amount.
Animal control officer Sharon Rzemien fared better in her pursuit of higher pay, but it was no easy fight. In a 100-56 decision, voters decided to increase her salary from about $26,000 to $32,000 a year. Ms. Rzemien convinced voters that she deserved more pay because the job requires her to respond to emergency calls at any hour of the day or night. Town officials praised the animal control officer's performance but they chastised her for dragging the issue to town meeting.
"Many other department heads have chosen not to stand up and argue their own salary," said Mr. Seward. "Sharon, you do a wonderful job, but it's inappropriate to do this."
Still, Ms. Rzemien's plea struck a chord with voters who had earlier considered the issue of affordable housing. "With due respect to the speakers, $26,000 just doesn't cut it," said Don Lambert. "This is not an easy position to fill."
Clearly, the mood was sympathetic to people struggling to make a living on the Island. After emotional debate, voters approved a measure to allow the new resident homesite committee to consider a proposal to construct dozens of affordable housing units on seven acres of town-owned land east of the ice arena.
The proposal comes from a group of Island church members, going by the name Bridge Housing Group, who want to use the land to build rental units reserved for Islanders earning about $32,000 a year, 60 per cent of the Dukes County median income. Selectman Ken Rusczyk urged voters to hold off on taking any action, preferring to let the homesite committee make its own recommendations about use of the land. But voters had no patience.
"We can't keep putting this off," said one man. "Families can't stay here, and pretty soon, I'll be one of those people who had to leave."
Others cautioned residents to consider the ramifications of so many units of low-cost apartments. "It looks innocuous," said Peter Palches. "But what is the likely school-age population of a housing complex?"
But Mr. Combra broke ranks with his fellow selectmen when he asked voters to support the article, arguing that the town could put its trust in the homesite committee to decide whether the church group's idea was worthy. "As much as [Oak Bluffs] has stepped up to the plate in the past, we're now lagging behind other towns which may surpass our efforts," he said. "All this does is allow them to consider other options."
While voters appeared anxious to approve the measure, they were not quite ready to trust the homesite committee. They agreed to an amendment that would bring the church group back to annual town meeting for final approval. The measure then passed on a voice vote.
In other town meeting action, voters agreed to support plans for a new library and to ask for state funding of about $1.5 million to help pay for the proposed $3.5 million project. If the grant is approved in June, voters would then be asked to commit town funds to the project.
Voters defeated a proposal to change the way the Copeland District review committee processes applicants. The measure would have given exclusive power to the board to consider requests, taking building inspector Richard Mavro out of the loop. But Mr. Mavro argued successfully that his role is to approve requests for simple maintenance jobs such as reshingling or replacing doors and windows.
Residents aged 60 and older will have a chance to work off up to $500 of their property tax bill now that voters have approved a new plan. Seniors will earn a minimum wage of $6.75 an hour for their work, according to Ms. Sharpe, who is counting on the work force to fill in as temporary clerical staff in town hall.
Voters approved a zoning change that will extend the Copeland District to include the neighborhood near the Oceanview Restaurant. Planning board chairman John Bradford told voters that his board held two public hearings on the expansion and received no negative feedback from residents.
With little or no discussion, voters also approved the following spending measures - $55,000 for a town-wide property revaluation; $120,000 for a new ambulance; $73,000 to control water pollution and road runoff into the Lagoon; and $309,750 in capital expenses for a new boat for the harbormaster; road improvements; pier repairs, and repairs to the Sailing Park camp.
The planning board withdrew its proposed regulations for cell phone towers, and the historic commission also withdrew its article to require special permits for vending machines.