Oak Bluffs voters will be asked to approve a $600,000 override this spring as the town grapples with hefty increases in school spending.
Selectmen have approved a budget for the coming fiscal year which is 4.5 per cent higher than this year, and over the annual levy limit set by Proposition 2 1/2, the state tax cap law.
The total town budget is $25.7 million.
The largest area of increase is school spending, an item that is trending upward across the Island.
The town assessment for the regional high school budget is nearly 30 per cent, the largest share of any town. While enrollment has remained constant overall, 22 additional high school students moved to Oak Bluffs this year, while Edgartown and West Tisbury lost 17 students each.
That budget has already been certified, so the town has to pay that bill with or without the passage of an override, unless two other towns also refuse to pay their portion.
The town assessment for the superintendent’s shared services budget, which is up 22 per cent over last year, is folded into the Oak Bluffs school budget. That budget rose this year due to a spike in special education enrollment and a decrease in federal grant funding.
The Oak Bluffs School’s proposed general fund budget is $6.74 million, up 8.7 per cent from the prior year. The rise can be tracked to transportation costs, contractual staffing obligations and salary increases, as well as the reintroduction of the salaries of two full-time classroom aides to the budget, and an increase to the food services salaries, both of which were paid for with school choice funds in previous years.
School choice reserves have run dry, so increases to the operating budget are required to keep staffing at its current level, school principal Richard Smith said in January.
Combined spending for other town departments is up 1.1 per cent, which includes an increase in police staffing costs, due in part to the loss of grant money.
The police department will hire an additional patrolman next January, bringing the full-time officer roster to 16.
The town will also create new positions in the assessor’s office, the highway and the recreation department.
Highway superintendent Richard Combra plans to hire two attendants to maintain cleanliness of the public bathrooms at the harbor and on Kennebec avenue.
“We want to do a better job in keeping those clean,” Mr. Combra said. He also oversees the recreation portion of the budget, which includes a $10,000 increase to hire a summertime recreation director. This position was eliminated a few years ago, as were beach lifeguards, which were reinstated last summer. “I think people were generally happy to have them back,” he said.
The recreational director will oversee tennis, basketball and the lifeguards.
Mr. Combra has doubled the snow budget line to more accurately represent winter weather spending. This year, the town spent about $30,000, nearly $15,000 over the budgeted amount. “We went over quite a bit this year, trying to bring it up a little bit so it’s more in line with what we are spending,” he said. “Hopefully we won’t spend any of it next year.”
A public hearing on the budget two weeks ago was not well-attended, said finance committee chairman Steve Auerbach. His committee planned to make its final recommendations on the budget Thursday.
“Nobody wants to have to raise taxes but there are occasions such as this year when it’s an unfortunate necessity,” he said. He said school and staffing costs have driven the budget over the two and a half per cent cap.
After years of fiscal uncertainty in Oak Bluffs, relative financial stability has returned. The town announced earlier this year that it had certified $1 million in free cash reserves.
Town administrator Robert L. Whritenour said this week that free cash is best saved and not applied to the budget, though this is an option if an override does not pass the ballot vote.
“Free cash doesn’t come along every year,” Mr. Auerbach agreed.
“The tax increase becomes a permanent part of the operating taxing ability, so it would be there for us to use if we need it,” he said.
But selectman Gail Barmakian, who voted against the budget, said that is precisely her concern.
“We need to . . . explore other alternatives before we implement a permanent tax increase,” she said.
She said she didn’t think hiring more personnel in town was appropriate in the context of a substantial override.
“When we are facing override we need to look more carefully at that,” she said.
But chairman Walter Vail said holding back on a police increase would be counterproductive.
“The comp time liability is just increasing every year,” he said. “It is not something we can ignore.”
Gregory Coogan said he was impressed to see the other parts of the budget keep to a 1.1 per cent increase.
“I think it’s pretty remarkable that the budget is where it is and we have been very tight for a long time in a lot of areas,” Mr. Coogan said.
Mr. Coogan, Mr. Vail and Kathy Burton voted in favor of the budget. Michael J. Santoro was absent.
If the budget and override are approved as written, the tax impact on a home valued at $500,000 will be $118.
“We are being totally transparent with voters and asking them to partner with us,” Mr. Whritenour said. “We feel we’ve got the town’s finances going in the right direction.”