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Yvonne Abraham

Drowning in red ink

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / February 4, 2009
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WINTHROP - If you want to see how grim it's going to get in cities and towns all over this state, head over to Winthrop, which is already up to its neck in the miseries that are just starting to pile up elsewhere.

You can view the carnage in any number of spots: The Police Department in Metcalf Square, for example, where the police chief got canned Monday because the town can no longer afford his salary. Or the lovely old public library, already shut on Mondays to save on power bills and now facing outright closure.

Or the senior center on Harvard Street, where a couple of dozen elderly men and women passed a snowy morning together yesterday.

In the auditorium, Louis DiBiccari, 65, led eight gray-haired students in a tai chi class.

"Work the legs!" he barked as he bent and swayed, delighting his aged charges.

In the arts and crafts room, four women sat around a table chatting.

"We come here every Tuesday morning to gossip and tell jokes and knit and crochet," said Phyllis Chicarello, a stylish 80-year-old who reads the obits every day and thanks God she's not in them. "We take care of one other."

Barbara Carol, 72, waited in the center's cozy sitting room for a ride to the store.

"I'd be depressed at home," she said. "Nothing to do, you know? "

The center is usually a pretty jolly place, but there was some consternation there yesterday. Word was getting around that the city is considering closing it to help plug a $512,000 shortfall - a result of the governor's midyear cuts to local aid.

"You kickin' me out?" DiBiccari asked Nancy Williams, who runs the center.

Williams's clients get not just entertainment, but vital connections, van services, help in navigating the healthcare system, and good, hot meals.

"I don't know exactly what they're going to decide," Williams said. "They could close us down for a couple of months. When the new fiscal year starts, we'd be up again. That's if they can find a way to get some money."

"That's the last thing that would happen in Japan," DiBiccari said. "Seniors are revered there."

This is what it has come to here, and what it will come to almost everywhere.

Sweet old ladies could be sitting in their living rooms watching soap operas alone next week because Winthrop doesn't have the money to run a place that is a lifeline for many of them.

And what if the senior center dodges the ax? Then adorable little kids might arrive at the library for storytime to find the doors locked.

And if the seniors and the children are spared, then average Joes in every city department - people with kids and mortgages and more than enough worries already - could lose their jobs.

And on it goes.

Residents will find out next week which limbs the city has decided to sever.

Winthrop already had to cut $500,000 from its budget in December because of falling revenue. The city doesn't have a huge tax base to begin with, and has rejected property tax limit overrides several times. Even though the town raided its stabilization fund, some city workers were laid off.

And even after Winthrop resolves this month's quandary, financial planners have to turn around and slash another $1 million from the upcoming budget, because of even deeper state cuts next fiscal year.

A few city officials are talking about a tax override as the only way out of this. But if Winthrop residents rejected overrides back when times were relatively flush, are they really going to take the hit now, when they're gripped by the same anxieties about layoffs and cutbacks that have all of us sweating?

"Why don't they close something that's not important?" asked Barbara Carol, sitting glumly by her walker.

Problem is, there's nothing left that's not important.

Yvonne Abraham, a Globe columnist, can be reached at abraham@globe.com

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