Voters at the April 28 Wareham Town Meeting will be asked to choose between two funding proposals for the next fiscal year: a budget with severe cuts in municipal services, or a contingency budget that will require a $4.5 million tax-limit override.
Local officials say the override of Proposition 2½ — the state law limiting the amount of revenue a city or town may raise from local property taxes each year to fund municipal operations — is needed to adequately fund the police, library, schools, and other municipal services next year.
Finance Committee chairman Larry McDonald said that if the override is successful, a resident who owns a $230,000 home would see his or her annual property tax bill go up by $329, or roughly 90 cents a day.
The override is “very necessary, in my opinion,” said McDonald. “The most critical part of this is what happens if we don’t pass it.”
Without the override, the town would have to live with budget cuts of $9.3 million over the next five years. The schools and the Police Department will lose positions, and the library will most probably lose its certification, officials say. McDonald said Wareham’s total budget for fiscal year 2015 without the override would be $55,932,632, or $60,432,652 with the override. Without the override, the town would have to cut $2.5 million in expenditures in order to balance the budget at $55.9 million, he said.
McDonald said the Police Department would not be able to replace six officers that it lost through attrition (retirement, medical issues, or transfers); the town would be unable to replace a municipal maintenance employee who retired; and the schools would lose approximately 12 positions while their budget for supplies and materials would be level-funded.
The schools are “already funded at a minimal level to begin with,” said McDonald.
The override option has won the support of the Board of Selectmen, School Committee, and Finance Committee. If the article passes at Town Meeting, it will be up to the selectmen to put the override question on the ballot, and voters would have to approve it in an election. A special election could be held, or the question could be placed on the ballot in September, when the state primary elections are held.
“It’s going to be a big vote at Town Meeting, but it’s going to be a much bigger vote when it goes to the ballot,” said McDonald.
The override is critical to the future of the Wareham Free Library, which has been struggling with funding for several years. In 2007, the library’s annual budget was more than $700,000, according to Denise Medeiros, director of the library. If the override passes, the library budget for next year would be $432,835. Without the override, the proposed budget is under $125,000.
“If the override passes, we’ll go back to the hours we had in FY 2013,” said Medeiros. That would mean the main library would be open 40 hours per week and the Spinney branch would be open for 21 hours per week, she said.
The two libraries are open 25 hours per week now, and neither is open past 6 p.m., said Medeiros. If the override fails, and the library’s budget is slashed drastically, the 22,000-square-foot main library would close and be used for storage, she said. The plan would be to operate only the Spinney branch, which, because of its limited size (1,900 square feet), is less expensive to staff and heat. Spinney would then be open 34 hours a week; the state asks that libraries in towns of this size be open 50 hours a week.
“It won’t be pretty,” said Medeiros of the possible scenario. Wareham’s library system would probably lose its certification, which would mean it would no longer be eligible for state aid and could no longer borrow materials from other libraries.
The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has expressed concerns about Wareham’s library system and the deep cuts that it has endured in recent years. At its April 3 meeting, the board warned that Wareham may lose its certification next year if the town does not restore funding to previous levels.
In recent times, the Wareham Free Library has had to turn to nonprofit groups to make up for funding gaps. This year, Wareham Free Library Foundation Inc. came up with $70,000 to help pay staff salaries, and the Friends of the Wareham Free Library have raised money to support the costs of operating the Spinney branch.
Medeiros said the private donations are, in a way, a “two-edged sword.”
“Part of the problem is that [the library] is always crying about [funding], and then it’s OK” when donations come in, she said. She worries that voters may not realize how grave the situation is until it’s too late.
“People won’t believe until it actually happens,” she said. “People are busy and don’t pay attention until it really affects their life.”
The town moderator and members of the Finance Committee are hosting a “pre-Town Meeting” for the public to attend Thursday to learn more about the proposed override and other articles on the Town Meeting warrant. It will start at 6:30 p.m. at the Multi-Service Center at 48 Marion Road.Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.