When Oak Bluffs voters go to town meeting on April 8, they will consider for the first time in six years an override of Proposition 2 1/2, the state law which limits the annual increase in a community’s tax levy to 2.5 per cent.
And while overrides are not new to Oak Bluffs, this year marks the first time that town leaders have opted to split off the portion of the Oak Bluffs School and regional high school budgets that went beyond the Proposition 2 1/2 threshold and place them on separate override articles. If voters approve the override, which is broken down into three separate warrant articles, they will be agreeing in concept to permanently add approximately $643,000 to the town tax levy.
However, they will not have a chance to formally ratify the override until a special town election expected to be held sometime next month.
The largest of the three overrides is $236,119 for the Oak Bluffs school, followed by $157,294 for the town’s share of the Martha’s Vineyard regional high school. A third override request for $250,000 would go towards funding the town employees’ post-retirement benefits.
Voters will also consider a pair of debt exclusions that will temporarily add to the town tax base, as opposed to an override, which permanently increases the town tax levy.
One debt exclusion is for $100,000 each year over the next five years for buses at the regional high school; and another is for $177,450 each year for 10 years for repairing the town bulkhead.
The total cost of the three overrides and two debt exclusions would translate to a $187 addition to the tax bills of someone with a home with a median value of $600,000.
The three overrides alone would add up to a permanent increase in their tax bills of $133.
Normally the funding requests for the two schools that go beyond a 2.5 per cent increase are absorbed into the budgets of the other town departments, thereby negating the need for an override.
But faced with the largest deficit in town history, the finance advisory board this year took the unorthodox approach of giving voters the power to approve or deny the portion of the school budgets that total more than 2.5 percent than last year.
Thad Harshbarger, chairman of the finance committee, said finance officials went through the budget line by line to try and find areas to save money.
In the end, he said, the committee agreed an override was the only option, and felt separating the overrides for the Oak Bluffs school and regional high school would give voters more fiscal control.
“At the very least we wanted [voters] to have a clear understanding of what those overrides were paying for. Historically the school budgets have gone up faster then the rest of the town budget . . . what this does is simply give voters more choices,” he said.
Mr. Harshbarger said the finance committee considered the possibility that separate school overrides might set a precedent in the years to come, but decided they had few other choices.
“The school budget goes up each year faster then we are allowed to raise taxes,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is saying [that school officials] are making bad [financial choices], not at all, but something has to give.”
Margaret (Peg) Regan, principal of the regional high school, said she understood Oak Bluffs’ financial dilemma; but also warned that separating a portion of the school budget onto an override might send an unfair message that the school is to blame for all the town’s financial problems.
“I hope people remember we’re in this together,” she said.
Oak Bluffs school committee member Priscilla Sylvia also warned against anyone taking an “us versus them” mentality. “It’s an unhappy situation with few easy answers. I hope we don’t start looking for someone to blame instead of working together,” she said.
Normally an override request would appear on the ballot of the annual town meeting that directly follows the annual town meeting. But town officials this year missed the deadline for the annual town election, and were forced to place the override questions on the ballot of a special election that will take place 35 days after the town meeting.
As of yesterday, town officials had yet to schedule the special override town election.