Fiscal Squeeze

In Aquinnah, the hours of operation have shrunk for the town landfill and the library. In Oak Bluffs, the town is facing an operating deficit of as much as $2 million.

The scale may be different. But the service cutbacks in Aquinnah and the serious fiscal shortfall in Oak Bluffs are part of the same picture: a slowing economy, rising costs and Island towns caught in the middle.

Proposition Two and One-Half, the state law that limits annual increases in a town’s property tax levy, has had little impact on Vineyard towns in recent years. Surging property values and a willingness on the part of Island taxpayers to fund expanding budgets mostly has allowed the towns to stay within the strictures of Proposition Two and One-Half, or to fund debt exclusions to finance particular capital projects.

Signs are growing, though, that the days of waving at town budgets as they fly through annual town meetings are coming to a close.

Oak Bluffs faces the most drastic situation, where voters may be asked to consider an override for the first time in six years to address a projected deficit of between one million, four hundred thousand dollars and two million, one hundred thousand dollars.

Selectmen, the finance committee and administrators are mulling options that include getting rid of salaries for elected officials, restructuring town departments and eliminating positions.

While the situation is nowhere near as serious in other Island towns, elected and appointed officials realize that a fiscal day of reckoning is on the way: if not this year, then quite possibly the next.

As Tisbury town administrator John Bugbee says, “Less people are going to be building new homes, less people will be visiting the Island, less money will be coming in . . . meanwhile we are paying more for everything.”

Unease even is being felt in West Tisbury, where residents consistently have supported town budgets despite paying the highest average property tax bills on Cape Cod and the Islands. Over the past five years, the town’s budget has grown forty-two per cent.

Al DeVito, chairman of the town’s finance committee, speaks of the squeeze between falling revenues and rising costs for everything from heating oil to health insurance.

In the coming months and years, Island voters facing their own personal budget crunches may choose to halt growing town budgets and more capital spending. That is their right and power.

Tighter fiscal times also offer Island towns opportunities: to scrutinize spending more closely, to pursue regionalized services that make sense, to explore what is and what isn’t essential.