Hoping to put their financial problems behind them once and for all, Oak Bluffs voters agreed at a special town meeting Tuesday night to cut $303,561 from the fiscal year 2012 budget.
“We are at a crossroads and this is the night that decisions are made,” said interim town administrator Robert Whritenhour, who drew applause following a detailed 40-minute presentation on the town budget.
A total of 127 voters turned out for the meeting at the Oak Bluffs School to vote on the 10-article warrant. With little discussion, the meeting was a far cry from the contentious marathon sessions of recent years. In his presentation Mr. Whritenhour gave a condition report on town finances and explained the spending cuts outlined in the budget article.
“The elephant that’s in the room here with us is that we’ve had structural deficits over the last several years that have combined together to build into a significant general fund deficit,” he said. “The time to address those structural deficits starts now.”
Mr. Whritenour began his tenure as interim town administrator in September and inherited a 2012 budget in which state aid had been underestimated by $163,688 and budget line items had been underfunded by $146,300. Accounting for revenue shortfalls and a handful of other overlooked budget curiosities, Mr. Whritenour said the town needed to cut over $300,000 to balance its budget. The proposed cuts came from every town department and included $45,000 in savings by leaving a reference librarian position vacant for the rest of the fiscal year, $35,000 by leaving a cemetery maintenance position unfilled, $25,000 from changing the building inspector position to part-time, $40,861 in cuts to the town’s travel and training budget and $20,000 from the town’s self-funded worker’s compensation budget, among other things.
Mr. Whritenour said if the cuts were approved the town would retire years of holdover deficits and be on firm financial footing.
“I’m here to say that it’s my understanding that if we can achieve this, Oak Bluffs will be the only Island community that will have its tax rate finalized and its final bills sent out on Jan. 1,” he said. “I think that’s a source of pride. A lot of the financial people that have worked on this project want to see Oak Bluffs take a leadership role in Island finances.”
The article passed unanimously.
Voters had a harder time grappling with another skeleton in the town’s budgetary closet: The Seaview Heritage project which was originally budgeted for $799,204 but has ballooned to $874,432. The project, which is complete, included restoring the comfort station, Civil War memorial and fixing drainage problems in Waban Park. Voters were asked to approve another $75,00 to cover the shortfall.
“I know this is water under the bridge but I’m having a hard time understanding how renovation of that minute bathroom cost over $600,000,” said Susan Kimball. “We build houses complete with fixtures and everything for less than $600,000 . . . It just seems ridiculous.”
Selectmen chairman Kathy Burton struck a conciliatory tone
“We’re all really sorry this happened,” she said. “It’s an expensive lesson. We don’t ever want it to happen again. We’re definitely going to have better reporting and accounting and better accountability. We can’t undo this.”
The article passed.
The only article defeated was a proposal to eliminate some 45 street lights throughout town. Highway superintendant Richard Combra explained that he had been directed by a previous board of selectmen to identify redundant lights. Mr. Combra said he focused only on eliminating lights on residential streets that were already well-lit. The article had the backing of the police department. But voters rejected what would have amounted to $5,000 in savings.
“I think it would be dangerous,” said Marie Doubleday. “I’d hate to see a young child or teenager or one of us attacked because there’s no streetlights.”
• Approved joining the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative. The town is eyeing three sites, the Oak Bluffs school, wastewater treatment facility and library to develop 100 kilowatts of solar energy.
• Agreed to transfer $45,000 from the waterways improvement fund to dredge the harbor channel and repair and upgrade docks and moorings.
• Approved returning $342,131 in unused Community Preservation Act monies from the Bradley Square affordable housing project to the community preservation general fund.
• Reduced the appropriations for the wastewater department for fiscal year 2012 by $55,000 and transferred $100,000 from its Pennsylvania avenue land purchase account to its treatment upgrade account. The money will be used to pay for upgrades to the treatment plant to remove pharmaceuticals and other chemicals from town wastewater,