Faced with the prospect of declining revenues and tax shortfalls, Island towns are slashing budgets, putting long-term capital projects on hold and giving up salary increases nearly across the board this year.

The pandemic has disrupted most major municipal revenue sources, from harbor receipts and marriage licenses to motor vehicle and excise taxes. It has also created uncertainty in state aid to towns. Wanting to avoid property tax increases to offset the potential losses, towns are eliminating many spending requests that might otherwise be considered routine.

“We’re going to cut by $1.9 million the total operating and warrant article budget,” Edgartown town administrator James Hagerty told his selectmen last week. “If you took the worst recessionary decline over the past 15 years, we’re going to be at the minimum of $1.2 million in loss.”

Cutbacks began in April, with Chilmark adopting an immediate budget freeze on all non-essential spending for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, asking town departments to examine their budgets and make immediate cuts as necessary. Edgartown soon followed suit. Oak Bluffs adopted a temporary hiring freeze, while Aquinnah is still in the process of instituting its own budget freeze.

Towns are also focusing on the next fiscal year. Discussion about austerity measures have centered on pairing down articles on warrants for annual town meetings, all now rescheduled for June.

In Tisbury, articles totaling $690,000 will stay on the warrant, but will be grouped in a way to give voters the option to take no action on the expenditure — potentially pushing the articles to a special town meeting in the fall or removing them completely from consideration. The no-action articles are mostly capital projects and department expenses that would have been paid from free cash reserves. That includes equipment and software for various departments. It also includes postponing an update to the town master plan that among other things would recodify zoning laws, which would have cost $170,000.

Oak Bluffs is aiming to reduce spending by $500,000, the estimated revenue shortfall amount, by eliminating vehicle purchases and other capital projects. West Tisbury is considering removing over $500,000 in warrant articles, mostly in departmental equipment purchases and repairs to town buildings. Edgartown is reducing what it spends on street and sidewalk repair by 75 per cent, in addition to significantly reducing department costs and building maintenance. Aquinnah is reconsidering the construction of new bathrooms at the Gay Head Cliffs and an extension on the town hall.

“These projects were aggressively pursued in the early spring . . . but are probably going to be deferred at least a year,” said Aquinnah town administrator Jeff Madison.

Town employee salaries, which make up a large part of town budgets, are expected to be frozen. All towns are expecting to reduce summer staffing positions, such as lighthouse tour leaders in Aquinnah and summer police officers in Chilmark. But the wage adjustments mostly affect full-time town employees. Most towns are seeking to defer cost of living adjustments (COLA) for town employees until the fall. Negotiations are in various stages; town selectmen and personnel boards have authority to suspend COLA and step increases for non-union positions, but must negotiate with union heads to alter contracts for employees who are members of collective bargaining units.

Non-union employees include department heads, building inspectors, harbor masters and other management positions. In Tisbury, the 17 non-union employees have been asked to forgo cost of living adjustments, for a savings of $40,000. In West Tisbury, the personnel board voted last week to suspend COLAs for non-union employees. Similar measures have been taken in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Aquinnah. Cost of living adjustments usually are about two per cent. Step increases for non-union employees are still anticipated in all towns.

The lone holdout appears to be the Dukes County commission, which decided to still grant COLAs to the 15 county employees. The county is projecting a deficit in the next fiscal year, which it plans to cover from town assessments. But Tisbury and other towns are considering removing a warrant article to cover the county’s budget shortfall, which county administrator Martina Thornton said would “seriously impact county services.” Tisbury and other towns plan to keep articles on their warrants that fund county services directly, such as Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard, the Substance Use Disorder and Homelessness Prevention program and others.

Negotiations over step increases and COLAs are under way for town police unions and the all-Island teachers union, elected officials confirmed. Both unions have been asked to forgo cost of living adjustments and reconsider step increases. Edgartown police have already voluntarily given up their cost of living increases.

“That shows a lot from their part, and shows solidarity with the town,” Mr. Hagerty, adding that salary reductions in all will save the town $341,000.

The regional high school committee voted Monday cut about $1 million from its 2021 budget, but the committee has not decided yet where the cuts will come from.

“There has not yet been any agreement as to what level funding means for the union,” said school committee member Kim Kirk. “There are a lot of things on the table now, and [COLA] is one of them.”

In addition to capital projects for individual towns, many multi-town projects will be put on hold. West Tisbury is considering pulling a warrant article to cover their share of the new Tri-Town Ambulance headquarters in Chilmark. And the three up-Island towns are considering putting their shares of renovation costs for the West Tisbury school roof on hold.

At a Tisbury selectmen’s meeting last week, finance director Jon Snyder underscored the importance of eliminating as many non-essential expenditures as possible from the town budget.

“If we have free cash, we can use that to reduce the tax burden on residents and have some more flexibility in the coming year,” he said. “Who knows where we will be, then.”

Noah Asimow, Louisa Hufstader and Aaron Wilson contributed reporting.