Just a few months ago Oak Bluffs leaders idealistically looked to the future and discussed plans like the renovation of the town waterfront, the creation of a fund to pay for employees’ post retirement benefits and the dredging of Sengekontacket Pond to reduce bacteria levels.
But much like the New England weather, things change pretty quickly on the Oak Bluffs political landscape.
In late February, a 30-ton retaining wall holding up a sleep slope along Sea View avenue collapsed, putting plans to renovate the town waterfront on hold while officials concentrate on shoring up the infrastructure of the waterfront. Around that same time, town officials revealed a budget deficit of some $2 million.
Although finance officials have since whittled the figure down, the town has been forced to put a number of plans once envisioned for town meeting on hold.
So when voters assemble on Tuesday night for the annual town meeting, they may be struck as much by what is not on the warrant, as what is on it.
The meeting begins at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the Performing Arts Center of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School with a 12-article special town meeting. The 31-article regular town meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. the same night.
Town moderator David E. Richardson will preside.
As recently as January town officials had hoped to place an article on the warrant to allocate funds to overhaul the town waterfront. The plan included the installation of new railings, new walkways and an improved concession. But in the wake of the largest deficit in town history, the plan was placed on the back burner and will not appear on the warrant.
Another proposal once discussed to spend up to $500,000 to dredge Sengekontacket Pond has also been put on hold. Although town officials have said the plan needed more work, they also conceded the town’s financial situation prompted to hold off on the dredge plan.
Among the articles voters will consider is one that would authorize the creation of a stabilization to start setting aside funds for post-retirement benefits for town employees. But the amount of $596,403 recommended by an actuarial study has now been reduced to $250,000.
Unlike previous years, there is no real hot button topic that will appear either on the special or regular town meeting warrant. Perhaps the biggest issue may be the budget itself which at $22.4 million represents a 7.5 per cent increase over last year.
For the first time in six years, voters will consider several overrides of Proposition 2 1/2, the state law which limits the annual increase in a community’s tax levy to 2.5 per cent.
While overrides are not new to Oak Bluffs, this year marks the first time 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 agree in concept to permanently add approximately $643,000 to the town tax levy.
The largest of the three override articles is for $236,119 for the town elementary school, while another article would authorize an override of $157,294 for the town’s share of the regional high school. A third override request for $250,000 would go toward funding post-retirement benefits for town employees.
Voters will also consider several articles for 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 busses at the regional high school; 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 bill of someone with a home valued at $600,000. The three overrides alone would add up to a permanent increase in those same tax bills of $133.
School funding requests that go beyond a 2.5 per cent increase are normally absorbed into the rest of the town budget. But faced with such a large deficit, the finance advisory board this year agreed to separate out the school overrides and give voters the power to approve or deny a portion of the school budgets that total more than 2.5 per cent.
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.
Another article would authorize the town to rescind a vote taken at last year’s town meeting to allocate $200,000 in community preservation funds for the Veira Park baseball field project. The same article calls for reallocating the same funds to build baseball fields and make other improvements to town-owned land on Pennsylvania avenue commonly known as the Leonardo property.
An article on the special town meeting warrant asks if the town should adopt a state law allowing town retirees who are otherwise eligible for Medicare benefits but are still on town-provided health insurance plans to switch to Medicare at no cost.
Another article would authorize the implementation of new pay schedules suggested by a classification and compensation study that was adopted at special town meeting in December. A total of 42 town employees would be affected by the change in pay rates; the article also stipulates that the financial impact will now exceed $80,000 in next year’s budget.
Voters will also consider giving the town the authority to arrange flexible work hours for town employees. The new policy would be available only to employees covered by the town personnel bylaws, and would be subject to review and approval by the corresponding department head and town administrator.
Voters will also be asked to allow the town to enter into an inter-municipal agreement with Dukes County that would shift the financial burden of employing a county-wide engineer onto the six towns. The article was one of only a few not endorsed by the finance advisory board, which voted 8-1 in opposition.
A similar request would shift the burden of payment to the towns for the county health care access and pest management programs.
Voters will also consider:
• Amending town bylaws to allow 25 town meeting voters to stand and require a secret ballot vote for any article on the warrant.
• Disqualifying newly elected part-time officials from town health and dental benefits. The finance advisory board suggested the article as a means to save money and also discourage people for running for office just to receive health benefits.
• Increasing the library board of trustees from five to six members.