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Cuts coming after Pepperell tax hike fails

In the wake of Pepperell voters turning down a request to raise property taxes, the town’s library and senior center will be open fewer hours, two vacancies on the Police Department will go unfilled, and one highway worker will be laid off.

Officials will spend the next two weeks finalizing the cuts to departments, they said. The proposal to provide an additional $1.1 million for the town’s operational and capital budgets for next fiscal year was narrowly defeated in a special election Monday, 507-501. About 12.6 percent of the town’s registered voters cast ballots, according to the town clerk’s office.

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“It’s definitely going to impact services, but where exactly we don’t know yet,’’ said Selectman Stephen Themelis. “We’re going to work together. We’ll do the best we can to make things work so town government can function and services will function as best as possible. But the residents will notice a decrease in town services.’’

The override would have added $404 to the annual tax bill for a home with an assessed value of $275,000. Residents earlier this year approved a tax increase to pay for a new regional high school, which Themelis said may have had an impact on last week’s vote.

Without the additional funds, town departments will have to cut budgets by 5 percent for the year starting July 1, and money will not be available for maintenance on town buildings, officials said.

Police officers, for example, have been functioning out of two temporary trailers in their department’s front parking lot since March because of a mold problem in the Public Safety Complex.

“We are still piecing money together for the mold remediation and to get us back into the building, but for now, we will continue to work out of trailers,’’ said Police Chief David Scott in a statement. “We will be in our trailers at least through the summer.’’

‘This constant lack of funding is not going to attract talented young people to come work here.’

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While the lack of funding for maintenance is a concern, the chief said, the cut to his budget will have a broader impact.

Previous cutbacks led the department to reassign its only detective from investigations to a midnight patrol shift, he said, and several programs have been dropped over the past several years, including youth and drug education programs.

He will meet the department’s budget for next year by not filling two positions that became vacant in recent months, thereby avoiding any layoffs on the 14-member police force.

Scott said the loss of the drug prevention program coupled with the loss of his only detective position is a bad combination for Pepperell. And the latest cuts make it more difficult to cover shifts.

“Drugs are an issue in every city and town, and a police department needs both prevention and enforcement to help the community battle the issue,’’ he said.

Pepperell has had five drug overdose deaths since 2012, and Scott said he is also concerned about the reputation of the department and his ability to keep good officers.

“We have a lot of great people that work here at the Pepperell Police Department, but this constant lack of funding is not going to attract talented young people to come work here,” he said. “Votes like this have an impact beyond the current loss of two more officers.”

But the chief said the department will do the best it can and seek other sources of funding, such as grants.

“These guys are dedicated,’’ he said. “They will come running as aggressively as ever, every time someone calls 911. We’ll survive. We have to.

Debra Spratt, director of the Lawrence Library, said the budget cuts mean that it will be open less. She said the library will also be canceling subscriptions to most newspapers and magazines, and reducing its audio and book purchases.

The library will be closed for a week starting July 1, and after July 9 it will be close three hours earlier on Wednesdays, at 5 p.m.

“The essence is we have to cut $21,980 from the budget,’’ she said. “To do that, 830 staff hours and 200 hours of service to the public will be lost. It’s very disappointing. It’s not just a library but a community center in terms of where people gather.’’

Marcia Zaniboni, director of the Council on Aging, said she doesn’t know exactly where the cuts in her department will take place, but she knows they will have an impact on all residents.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed,’’ Zaniboni said. “The cuts are going to hurt us in some way.’’

She said the senior center is used by various community groups in the evening but that will likely have to come to an end. She said they may also have to close the center earlier in the day.

“A lot of our budget is just running the building so we’ll have to look at how we use the building,’’ she said. “We’re trying to make cuts to affect the fewest number of seniors as possible. We’ll manage this year but if it goes beyond this year, it will be serious cuts. Pepperell is a great town, though, so we’ll pull together and do the best we can.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@ yahoo.com.
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