With newfound financial stability as a backdrop, Oak Bluffs voters will be asked to shoulder some hefty spending items at their annual town meeting this year, including millions to replace the town hall, fire and EMS buildings. And with a town operating budget over the line when it comes to the Proposition 2 1/2 spending limit, voters will also be asked to approve an override to the state tax cap.
The annual town meeting begins Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the high school performing arts center. Moderator Jack Law will preside. A quorum is 50 voters. The annual town election is Thursday, with a race for selectmen on the ballot.
There are 31 articles on the warrant, including a $25.7 million operating budget that is 4.5 per cent higher than last year, prompting the override question which appears on the town ballot.
But the big ticket items are replacement of the town hall, fire and EMS buildings.
At a special town meeting in November, voters approved money for architectural drawings for separate projects to rebuild the town hall at its current location and put up a new fire house at the site of the current station on Wing Road.
The town hall replacement project will cost $6.8 million. The fire station project will cost $8.3 million.
Town officials say both are badly needed.
The fire station, at the corner of Wing and County Roads, has been out of compliance with state regulations for a number of reasons for many years. Office space is cramped, dorm facilities are not separated by gender, and the bays do not accommodate all department vehicles.
The proposed metal-frame station, would be 19,970 square feet, according to plans, and would accomodate solar paneling. “There won’t be a lot of bells and whistles; it will be just exactly what the chief needs to operate a good department,” architect John Keenan said last week.
For the town hall, Mr. Keenan and his colleague designed a traditional cedar-shingled building of 18,950 square feet, which would occupy slightly less than the footprint of the current building. The layout of offices will be more user-friendly, he said.
The town hall currently occupies the former home of the Oak Bluffs School, which was deemed uninhabitable 14 years ago when the school moved to a new building on Trade Winds Road.
“It has foundation problems, it is not handicapped-compliant, the heating and air conditioning system is terrible, the rooms are not set up in any kind of efficient manner, it’s ridiculous,” said finance committee chairman Steve Auerbach. “The new building will address all of those concerns and in fact should save us money with heating and air conditioning.”
If voters agree, the town plans to complete the projects, which have a life expectancy of 50 years, by April 2016. The estimated price includes temporary rehousing of offices. A link to an informational website is on the town website.
Voters will be asked in a ballot question on April 10 to allow the town to exempt the bond debt for the projects.
Despite the relatively recent financial stability acquired by the town in the last few years, town leaders say this is the time to invest in infrastructure.
“If we have the plans, and we have the need, there is a significant financial benefit moving forward with these proâ¨jects,” said town administrator Robert L. Whritenour this week.
Mr. Auerbach agreed. He said interest rates are low, construction costs are rising and debt from the Oak Bluffs School construction project is currently in a state of decline. Bond debt from the new projects would maintain near constancy in the tax rate in the coming years.
Meanwhile, rising school costs have driven the town operating budget up, and voters will be asked to approve a $600,000 override on the ballot this year. The town’s share of assessments for the regional high school budget is up due to the fact that 22 new high school students moved to Oak Bluffs this year, while Edgartown and West Tisbury lost students. To ease the tax burden of the potential override, the finance committee voted to apply $250,000 of the town’s free cash reserves to the operating budget, meaning the overall tax impact will be only $350,000.
But if the override question fails, the high school bill, a regional obligation, will still have to be paid. Instead, town leaders will have to cut $350,000 from other departments, potentially affecting the Oak Bluffs elementary school, and police, fire and highway departments, among others.
“We are extraordinarily concerned,” Mr. Whritenour said. “We have brought all the programs down to the bone, and we don’t think the services can take another cut. There is not any single department that has any excess.”
Passing an override will mean a permanent increase to the tax levy capacity, which Mr. Whritenour said is important for long-term fiscal stability in town, especially in light of the rising education costs.
Mr. Auerbach said there is little wiggle room in the budget under Proposition two and a half. The override will allow the town to assume a buffer, Mr. Whritenour said. “It’s the same thing as how we build a seawall to protect us against a storm,” he said.
In another key article on the warrant this year, voters will be asked to take ownership of 4.4 acres at the East Chop bluff. The bluff, which has been badly undermined by erosion, is currently owned by the East Chop Association.
Association president Craig Dripps said the transfer in ownership is needed because the road is in danger of collapse and the association does not have the means to protect it. The road is owned by the town.
Five years ago voters approved an article transferring ownership of the bluff to the town, but the transfer never happened after town counsel cited risks associated with liability.
But that was before Hurricane Sandy and winter storm Nemo, which accelerated erosion and slumping on the bluff which underlies the scenic East Chop Drive. The town was preliminarily denied FEMA funding for storm damage repair in part because the majority of the land holding up the road belongs to the East Chop Association.
“We want to save it, and in order to save the road, we have to save the bluff, in order to save the bluff, we need a tremendous amount of money,” Mr. Dripps said, adding that it might cost $10 to $12 million.
Oak Bluffs voters will be asked to participate in spending on a number of regional initiatives from the Gay Head Light relocation project to the Adult Community Education program. ACE is petitoning voters Islandwide to pay their administrative costs through a conduit provided by the all-Island school committee. The Oak Bluffs portion of the regional formula is $19,170, which if approved will further raise the amount the town is over the tax levy limit.
Regional questions also appear in the town’s 11 Community Preservation Act requests, which this year total $746,664. These include a petition for $50,000 for restoration of roof and chimneys at the marine hospital, which is expected to become the new site of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. If voters agree, CPA funds will also go toward rental assistance and the construction of a single family home through Habitat for Humanity. Dukes County is asking for $11,715 to perform an electrical upgrade at the Edgartown courthouse.
Oak Bluffs will be asked to dedicate $111,600 in CPA funds to the Gay Head Lighthouse project.
CPA funds are requested for landscaping at the new ballpark, Penn Field, for a study of the health of Lagoon Pond, and a study of the effects of climate change on the town’s coastline. If voters agree, $91,600 will be spent to create a public trail system at the Sailing Camp Park and perform bank restoration along the coastline there.
Another regional article concerns the adoption of Islandwide fertilizer regulations under a proposed new district of critical planning concern aimed at reducing nitrogen in Island ponds and groundwater.
The last article on the warrant asks voters to speak out about an off-Island issue. A citizen group wants town voters to back a nonbinding referendum for the decommissioning of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth.
The group says the Island has no evacuation plan in the event of a nuclear emergency; the Vineyard and Nantucket were left out of a statewide plan. “I agree that we need to make some noise,” said selectman Gregory A. Coogan, who supported putting the item on the town meeting warrant.
Ivy Ashe contributed reporting.