The first two tumultuous nights of the Oak Bluffs town meeting are over, and despite some frayed nerves, the town has an approved budget for next year. Voters ratified a balanced budget in the amount of $24.7 million.
But that is only because at the town election last Thursday they rejected 11 of 12 Proposition 2 1/2 override articles, totaling some $650,000.
The result will mean no pay increases for the fire department, more than $200,000 cuts in road maintenance and improvements and no lifeguards at town beaches for the second summer in a row.
Town administrator Michael Dutton said this week the decision to defeat most of the overrides will require no further adjustments or cuts to staff or services. And considering the national economy and overall mood of the town, Mr. Dutton said he was not surprised a majority of override questions were defeated.
“Going in, I think we all knew the townspeople were in a fiscally conservative mood. Personally, I did not think there was much chance the overrides would pass. I am surprised the school override even passed, to be honest,” he said.
Mr. Dutton said the failure of the override questions will primarily affect two positions: the assistant shellfish constable job will remain vacant and the current board of health assistant Natalie Woodruff may be laid off. Under union contract rules, Ms. Woodruff has the option of bumping off a less senior employee, Mr. Dutton said.
Other than that, there are no immediate plans to reduce staff, he said, although some positions could remain open if someone retires next year. “My guess is we will put a hold on new hires when someone retires. We will look at each situation on a case-by-base basis, but I think the ongoing goal here is to reduce staffing levels,” Mr. Dutton said.
“We wanted to give the voters more control over their budget. We gave them choices, and they spoke with their votes,” he also said.
The annual town meeting will continue on May 4.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dutton said there are lessons to be learned. Even though the finance committee held several informational public hearings leading up to the town meeting, he said it failed to translate during the first two nights of town meeting last week.
“I think we can do a better job helping people understand all the hard work by the finance committee that goes into budget. [Oak Bluffs] town meetings have their own personality, we can talk to people for months about budgets and spending, but when it comes town meeting time, people raise questions about many things we have already discussed at length,” he said.
Mr. Dutton said he plans to work with the finance committee this year to reduce the town’s health care costs and approach unions about renegotiating contracts. And he dismissed comments made by some that officials had done a bad job with the budget.
“We are the only town that uses the maximum amount of local receipts to offset the burden on the taxpayers. In a year when we saw massive reductions in local aid, I think everyone pulled together and put together a very sound financial plan moving forward. It’s easy to sit and point fingers, it’s a lot harder to come up with a solution,” he said.
Mimi Davisson, chairman of the finance committee, said she too heard the grumbling, but she defended the work of her board. “We presented voters with a balanced budget, let’s not forget that. And that was the result of a lot of hard work, deep thought and public input,” Ms. Davisson said.
She too was not surprised when voters rejected most of the override questions. “All you had to do was sit there for the first 30 minutes of town meeting to get an idea of the mood people were in. We knew it was possible the overrides could fail, so we took the attitude of: if they pass, that’s fine. If they fail, we will do without,” she said, adding:
“As a finance committee that’s the best you can do — give people options.”
Looking ahead, Ms. Davisson said she would like to see the town explore a payment in lieu of taxes program for large nonprofit institutions located in town such as the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. She also said the town should look seriously into joining with other towns to regionalize services and departments.
And she agrees with Mr. Dutton that union contracts should be reopened. She said the finance committee asked selectmen this year to go to the unions and ask them to give up step increases, but selectmen declined.
“And I understand their decision. You have to realize the finance committee deals with numbers and facts, while the selectmen deal with politics. The finance committee took the budget as far they could, and it’s the selectmen who have the final authority. I don’t think there is any type of disconnect there,” she said.
Ms. Davission agreed things could get worse before they get better, and she said drastic measures may be needed to prevent budget problems next year. But this is not because of poor financial planning, she said, but can be tracked to other factors outside the town’s control.
“We provide more services, and we have one of the smallest tax bases in terms of property valuation on the Island. Meanwhile our state aid keeps getting cut. We are being asked to do more with less, and I think we have managed to do just that,” she said.