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We are just open. But just barely

Saugus can't raise enough money through taxes to cover its expenses. The state Department of Revenue has taken note, saying it will intervene if the town doesn't improve its bottom line.

SAUGUS -- The public library will reopen tomorrow for the first time since a "closed" sign went up last month, amid a budget crisis that threatened the town's fiscal health.

But now the library is looking for new "patrons." And not just folks to check out books and CDs, or drop in to read magazines. Officials hope to raise at least $100,000 in private money to expand operating hours in fiscal 2008, which starts today.

"We need people to sign checks," said Mary Rose Quinn , director of the Saugus Public Library. "It's time for everyone who wants us open to step up."

The new fiscal year brings the same old money woes for Saugus. The town can't raise enough through property taxes to cover its expenses. The state Department of Revenue has taken note, saying it will intervene if the town doesn't improve its bottom line.

"We don't have a spending problem," said Town Manager Andrew R. Bisignani. "We have a revenue problem."

Voters rejected a $5.2 million property tax increase in April. Town Meeting voted down a controversial trash fee, which could have raised almost $1 million in new revenue. The result is steep spending cuts and sharply reduced services for the 26,000 residents of this town straddling Route 1.

The town's biggest financial challenge is healthcare costs. The new $56.4 million budget includes $7.8 million for the medical trust fund. It also includes money to pay off a $2.5 million healthcare deficit carried over from the fiscal year that ended yesterday.

Spending cuts include $1.3 million for the school system, $712,884 for the Fire Department, $587,536 to the Police Department, and $113,000 for 911 dispatchers, according to an outline from Bisignani.

Job cuts will hit multiple departments. The schools will lose 30 teachers and 20 classroom aides, along with one elementary school nurse and one custodian. No cuts now are planned to the district's sports or fine arts budgets, most of which are paid for through user fees, said Superintendent Keith Manville.

"I'm going to fight like heck to keep those in the budget. It's going to be a pretty bleak year around here as it is. We need something for the kids," he said.

In the Fire Department, two vacant firefighter jobs have been eliminated. The police will lose four vacant patrolmen's jobs, plus a clerk. Dispatchers, who answer 911 emergency calls for police and fire, will lose two positions. Most overtime for police, fire, and dispatchers was also eliminated. Public works will lose three laborers.

Funding for the Senior Center, and youth and recreation programs was cut completely. As a result, their departments will have to rely on state grants or turn to private donations to keep the doors open this year. The state budget now being debated on Beacon Hill contains $200,000 for the Senior Center and $100,000 for the Youth and Recreation Department.

"Smaller items like this make a difference," said state Senator Thomas M. McGee, a Lynn Democrat who represents Saugus. "It's a tough budget cycle. A lot of communities need things funded. . . . But there is also a recognition that Saugus is in tough shape."

The state Department of Revenue warned Saugus in December that it will intervene if the town does not do a better job matching expenses to revenues. The state will continue to closely monitor Saugus in the new fiscal year, Bisignani said.

"I will have to prove to them that we are not overspending," he said. "Time will tell."

The state has required the town to submit by today a statement outlining projected revenues, and the amount of expenses, for the new fiscal year. The town must also submit an audit report to the agency before it will approve the town's new tax rate in December.

"We are monitoring them a little more closely than other communities," said Lisa Juszkiewicz , a spokeswoman for the Division of Local Services at the DOR. "By taking these steps, we're being proactive, and not have something come crashing down on them in February of next year."

The state Board of Library Commissioners is monitoring the library. The state gave Saugus a $1.2 million grant 10 years ago to build a new library building. A condition of the grant required that the library be open for at least 20 years, and for the town make a "good faith" effort to fund it.

The library closed last month after Town Meeting rejected a trash fee. Money from the fee would have been used to keep the library open. Staff needed time to collect books in circulation and mothball the building. The closing prompted the library commissioners to decertify the library, making Saugus ineligible for state or federal grant funding, or to borrow books from other libraries.

A spokesman for the commission said the 15 hours the library plans to be open -- five hours each on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday -- won't be enough to restore certification.

Across Massachusetts, communities are straining to provide services under the limits of Proposition 2 1/2, the state's property tax cap law. The law limits the amount a community can increase its property taxes to no more than 2.5 percent over the prior year's levy, excluding new construction.

Soaring costs, most notably health insurance and pension obligations, go up far more than 2.5 percent. But voters are reluctant to pay more taxes to fund services. Ballot questions to increase taxes have lost in 33 communities. The outcome means reduced services for communities of all sizes, an observer said.

"There is a scaling back of services," said John Robertson , deputy legislative director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a statewide group. "Sometimes that includes reducing hours, whether it's town hall or a senior center."

"We're looking to outside sources," said Dick Barry, chairman of the Saugus Council on Aging, which runs the Senior Center. "I'm hopeful we won't miss a beat."

The council approved spending a total of $133,189 from its gifts and activities accounts to open this year. If the state grant is received, that money won't be touched, however. In addition to line dancing and other activities, the center also provides a lunch program, paid for with a federal grant, delivers meals to shut-ins, and runs four vans that take seniors to doctors' appointments.

"We do so much more than teach line dancing," said Frances Rigol , the center's director. "People need to be educated about services that seniors need."

Rigol led the cheers to save the center during a rally Tuesday outside Town Hall. The Massachusetts Senior Action Council, a statewide advocacy group, organized the rally to highlight the need for state and local governments to fund senior services.

"Senior services are vital," said Pam Edwards, an organizer at the council. "Our job is to make sure those services are improving."

But the library got a reprieve when Town Meeting approved taking $277,271 from other town departments to allow the library to open part time. Among the cuts: overtime and training funds for 911 dispatchers, office supplies, eight temporary jobs at Town Hall, including nurses for free flu clinics for senior citizens.

Bisignani said the impact on public services will be widespread. Training for 911 dispatchers will be reduced. Overtime cuts in public works will make it harder for crews to respond on weekends to water main breaks and other emergencies.

"I'm not disappointed that the library will be open. I never wanted it to close," he said. "I just have a concern for the impact on other services. There will be consequences."

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com.

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