Voters Face Major Budget Issues at Annual Meetings in Three Towns

In Oak Bluffs, Expect the Unexpected

By CHRIS BURRELL

Voters in Oak Bluffs will be asked next week whether they want to ban dogs from town beaches, declare their opposition to the war in Iraq and borrow $750,000 to build an addition to the town hall on School street.

Those are just three of the proposals on tap for back-to-back town meetings that get under way Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center.

All told, only 31 articles face voters at both the special town meeting and the annual town meeting that immediately follows it. By Oak Bluffs standards, that's a lean warrant. Past years have seen warrants nearly twice as long.

Town administrator Casey Sharpe credits the finance committee with crafting a balanced budget of nearly $16.7 million that requires no override of the Proposition 2 1/2 limits. Under pressure from the finance committee, some departments did even better than level-funding, she said.

"The police budget is cut by eight per cent. The highway department cut by four per cent, and the Oak Bluffs School is cut by one per cent," said Ms. Sharpe.

Asked if she expected any one item to generate heated discussion, the town administrator pointed to the anti-dog and anti-war measures. "I'm sure there will be some vigorous debate around that," she said of the proposal to ban dogs from town beaches between May 15 and Sept. 15.

Currently, dogs are banned from the public shoreline in the summer months between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., but selectmen sponsored the article after hearing complaints from summer residents, especially a dedicated crew of people who swim every morning at Inkwell beach.

The proposal, on the special town meeting warrant, calls for a fine of not more than $50 for a first offense and not more than $100 for each subsequent violation.

As for the anti-war measure, it's the last proposal on the annual town meeting warrant, and it calls for a proclamation by the people of Oak Bluffs to oppose "preemptive military action against Iraq by the United States."

The proposal was placed on the warrant by petition, but Ms. Sharpe said town hall has already received telephone calls from people upset about the proclamation now that America is fully engaged in warfare.

But while officials can try their best to predict what might spark debate, half the fun of town meetings is waiting to see exactly what raises the ire of voters. Two years ago, after a bruising annual town meeting session, Ms. Sharpe told the Gazette, "There's no amount of planning to help us expect the unexpected. That's democracy and that's how it works."

It would be an understatement to say that town officials are hoping voters back a plan to build an addition onto the town hall. Almost two years ago, town crews used a backhoe and cables to pull down the old school gym, demolished the ground floor locker rooms and old cafeteria and then pretty much walked away.

What's left is a gaping hole on the Pacific avenue side of the building and an office building on the other side that just doesn't quite work. There is scant meeting space, and while a new vault is being installed downstairs for the town clerk, the conservation commission has lost its office space.

"It would be outrageous to have this continue to look like an eyesore," said Ms. Sharpe. The plan is to spend $750,000 for an addition over the structure that was torn down. The town would borrow the money to pay for the project. "We want all the services on a single floor," said Ms. Sharpe.

Meeting space downstairs would finally allow selectmen to begin meeting in town hall. "We could easily hold 100 people down there," she said.

Selectmen chairman Todd Rebello told the Gazette that the work would coincide with the construction of a new library next door on town-owned land along Pacific avenue.

The special town meeting warrant includes seven articles, most of them money requests or money transfers from existing accounts. The town is looking to spend $150,000 from a special fund to alter and upgrade the solid waste transfer station used by the private trash hauler BFI.

Voters will also be asked to approve a transfer of $27,323 in the police budget to help pay for a labor settlement reached earlier this month with the police officers union.

New vehicles could also be coming to town departments if voters support spending $55,000 for a pick-up truck for the highway crew, a four-wheel-drive car for town hall employees and another four-wheel-drive vehicle for the council on aging.

In the annual town meeting portion, spending articles also dominate. Voters will be asked to approve $38,000 for the first phase of restoration of the town dock along the harbor bulkhead. That's where the harbor master office is located and where the Island Queen ferry docks all summer long. A fast ferry from Rhode Island is also expected to dock there beginning this summer.

Harbor management committee member Fred Sonnenberg told the Gazette that a recent study of the dock structure showed that it is within a year of needing significant repairs. But the $38,000 would pay only for a planner to help the town design both structural improvements and a better way to run the dock operation.

Officials are hoping to win grant money and also point out that an improved dock could allow the town to reap even more revenues from the cruise ship tenders which currently use the dock owned by Terry McCarthy.

The board of health has come back to annual town meeting with another plan that would enable some landowners to build on land that was previously ruled unbuildable. The lots are located in an area designated as Zone 2, close to one of the town wells.

In other town meeting action, voters will be asked to broaden the income eligibility requirements that would offer tax breaks to some senior citizens 65 and older. Voters will also be asked to approve revamped zoning bylaws and updated personnel bylaws. Voters will also decide whether to preserve the historic character of a large portion of the town center, known as the Copeland District. The town historic commission is proposing the creation of the Cottage City Historic District, a 75-acre area that includes almost 400 houses and 12 parks. Passage of the measure will require a two-thirds vote.