The future is not looking bright for Wareham’s libraries and Council on Aging.
After a $4.5 million property tax override question was defeated by voters on June 17, the Wareham Free Library is left facing a grim reality: It will have to survive on a budget that is less than 20 percent of what it once was. Meanwhile, the Council on Aging is set to receive no town funding at all for fiscal 2015.
“We’ve issued layoff notices already,” said Wareham Town Administrator Derek Sullivan.
Seven layoff notices were sent to employees of the council and the library, he said.
Library director Denise Medeiros did not return phone calls seeking comment. Calls to the Council on Aging were referred to the town administrator’s office.
Sullivan said that as of July 1, the main library at 59 Marion Road is expected to be open for a total of approximately 20 hours per week. The Spinney branch in Onset will be closed, he said.
“We think we can keep the [main] library open three days per week,” said Sullivan.
But, moving forward, he said: “I don’t see the town being able to fund the library at all. It would have to be all donations. Even with the cost savings and consolidations that we’re looking at, I don’t see any way to get [town] funding back to the library or COA.”
The Wareham Free Library has already endured a series of deep cuts to its budget in recent years, prompting the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners to express concern. Since 2007, the library budget has been reduced from approximately $700,000 to less than $125,000. At its April 3 meeting, state library commissioners warned that Wareham could lose its certification if the town did not restore funding to the fiscal 2013 level of $432,835. The library’s fiscal 2014 budget is $325,637.
But just the opposite has occurred. Since the override question failed, the library will be given less than $125,000 to operate in fiscal 2015.
The Wareham Free Library now appears to be heading for decertification. If that occurs, the town’s library system would no longer be eligible for state aid, and it would most likely be unable to borrow materials from other libraries.
“It’s just very sad,” said Priscilla Porter, president of the Friends of the Wareham Free Library Inc., a local group that holds book sales and other fund-raising events to support the library.
Porter said she was disappointed that the tax-limit override was voted down and that the town plans to close the Spinney branch. She would like to see both libraries stay open.
She said the Friends has enough money to operate Spinney for the next year. That money was specifically raised to benefit the Spinney, and the funds are restricted to that purpose. If the Spinney branch closes, she said, “that’s money that cannot be used.”
The plight of the town’s under-funded libraries has sparked a lively debate among residents. On Wareham Week, a local news website, suggestions have poured in from all sides on how to help the situation. Some readers want to launch a big fund-raiser. Others have proposed establishing user or membership fees. One reader said the town should be prepared if both libraries shut down completely, and perhaps set up public computer kiosks in Town Hall for people to use.
Meanwhile, the Wareham Council on Aging faces an even more difficult situation, because its budget for the coming year has been obliterated.
The June issue of the council’s newsletter, The Senior Beacon, stated that “funding for the COA will be gone come July 1. . . . Seniors are understandably upset that they will have no place to go in less than a month’s time, but there is no way to offer them any encouragement about a future for them, a place to meet or to eat, play cards, exercise, [or] mingle.
“With some kind of luck, we’ll be issuing a July edition. Right now, the future doesn’t look bright,” it said.
Most of Wareham’s programs and activities for seniors are likely to come to an end, with two exceptions that are already supported by outside funding. Sullivan said that an elder services grant will provide funding for one employee to help direct local seniors to services, and that the adult supportive day care program, which serves the local elderly population, will also continue to operate.
He said town officials are considering the possibility of moving the supportive day care program and the grant-funded position from the Multi-Service Center to the main library. The Wareham public schools would most probably take over the Multi-Service Center space, he said.
Wareham is a town of 21,822 people, 21.5 percent of whom are 62 years old or older, according to 2010 Census figures. Wareham’s property tax rate ranks among the lowest in the state, and in fiscal 2014 Wareham’s average single-family tax bill was $2,480, compared with the statewide average of $5,021, according to the state Department of Revenue.
More fiscal challenges lie ahead for the town, according to Alan H. Slavin, chairman of the town’s Board of Selectmen.
“We’re dealing with a budget that requires cuts in order to balance it,” he said. “Unfortunately, over the next five years, every year we’re going to have to cut more. The town’s not going to shut down, but we’re going to cut whatever we can legally, and do the best we can with what we have.”
Slavin pointed to Proposition 2½, the state law that limits the amount of property tax increases that a municipality can collect each year to 2.5 percent. Slavin said that Wareham’s tax revenues aren’t keeping up with increasing costs of health care and pensions, which has “caused a real problem for us.”
On June 17, Wareham voters defeated a proposed $4.5 million override of Proposition 2½ by a vote of 2,811-1,332. Twenty-nine percent of the registered voters in town showed up at the polls, and the majority of them cast their votes against the potential tax increase.
Among those disappointed that the override failed is Larry McDonald, chairman of the Wareham Finance Committee. June 30 will be his last day on FinCom. His term is up, and he said he won’t be serving another term.
“Everybody on that committee did a remarkable job working together,” said McDonald, 55. “I’m very disappointed. We worked very hard to put this together.”
McDonald describes himself as politically and fiscally conservative, yet he said he supported the override because he felt it was necessary to “do what’s best for the town.”
“This town is in dire straits. It’s really in trouble,” said McDonald. “I don’t see a bright future for Wareham at this point, I just don’t.”
McDonald said he thought the override question failed because many residents live on fixed incomes, and some are barely scraping by. Perhaps it was due to a mistrust of town officials, or some residents not understanding what the financial impacts would be, he said.
Regardless, the voters had their say.
“The vote count was decidedly no,” he said. “The people spoke, and we just have to live with that.”