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BRIDGEWATER

Deep cuts hinge on override

Insurance fund shift to schools leaves gap

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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After 30 years of saying “No’’ at the polls, are the stakes finally high enough for Bridgewater voters to support a tax increase for the town’s operational budget?

Local officials hope so: They are asking townspeople to get behind a $2.8 million Proposition 2 1/2 tax-limit override when they cast ballots at a hastily set special election on June 19.

The timeframe — just five weeks out — is tight because of extraordinary circumstances. The proposed tax hike is the result of a recent Town Meeting maneuver by school supporters, who took $2 million from Bridgewater’s employee health insurance account for the coming year and it to boost Bridgewater’s contribution to the Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School District, which has been clamoring for increased funding.

The maneuver left the town’s public safety, library, senior center, and recreation budgets to absorb the expense.

Without the override, town leaders say, the $2 million insurance account shortfall will have to be partially covered by cutting $850,000 each from the police and fire departments — a move that would slice staffing levels in half. For the police, that could mean no midnight to 8 a.m. shift, a tough situation in a town that hosts both a college and a prison. The State Police would have to cover those hours.

“We would have to lay off 13 fulltime officers, leaving us with 14 officers including the chief,’’ Po lice Chief Michael Bois said.

Meanwhile, the Fire Department would no longer be able to provide ambulance service. Fire Chief George Rogers said his department would lose 20 out of 36 firefighter-paramedics.

“There’s no way we could run the ambulance,’’ Rogers said. “It would bring us back to the staffing level of 1965, when the town was a quarter the size it is now.’’ The town of about 6,900 would rely on private ambulance service.

The satellite fire station would also be shuttered. And property owners could well see increases in their insurance rates based on longer response times, Rogers said.

The cuts wouldn’t stop there, town leaders say. All funds would be drained from nonessential services, resulting in the closure of the public library, senior center, and elimination of the recreation department, come July 1.

Selectmen are promising that the proposed tax increase will be a “$2.8 million override with reforms.’’ Officials are working toward concessions from the town’s various unions, whose contracts are set to expire. One major item would be increased contributions from employees toward their health insurance programs.

“It’s got to be a partnership of the unions, this board, and department heads to come forward with a united front,’’ said Selectman Michael Demos.

The ballot question will be for a single lump sum of $2.8 million, which if approved would add $1.14 per $1,000 to the local tax rate. It will cost the owner of a median-priced $300,000 property in Bridgewater $342 annually.

A sub-paragraph will explain how the money will be spent. Of the total, $2 million would replenish the insurance account, staving off the huge cuts planned for general government. The remaining $800,000 would help restore some items lost to past budget reductions.

The police and fire departments would receive an additional $200,000 each, which would most likely be used to restore positions cut in recent years. The public library would also receive an additional $200,000, helping it to expand its currently meager 15 hours of operation per week. The senior center, highway department, and recreation department would each receive an additional $50,000. Elder Affairs director Lorraine Carrozza said the senior center could be open more and restore some of its programs.

The remaining $50,000 in override money would be set aside for expenses related to the conversion of town government to a Town Council, set to take place this January.

Money shortages over the last several years have caused friction between the schools and other departments, and the recent $2 million funding shift from general government to the school budget worsened the situation. But officials were reluctant to comment, saying the town, as a whole, has to work toward a better future.

Resident and longtime volunteer Marilee Hunt said the hard feeling is definitely there.

“The divisions have just deepened,’’ she said. “Now there are chasms, and it’s really too bad.’’

She said she understood how school supporters feel, since the schools have sustained major cuts over the last several years and have failed to get override support for their budgets at the polls. “I think things have been so divided in this town for so long that people feel they have to fight tooth and nail for everything,’’ Hunt said.

Meanwhile, Bridgewater’s increased contribution to the regional school budget means Raynham will also have to bump up its contribution by about $1.1 million. Officials in Raynham plan to ask for a $950,000 override to help pay for it.

Raynham has a solid record for supporting its schools, so local officials expect the proposal to pass when Town Meeting voters act on it tomorrow. The ballot vote will be scheduled for late June, according to Raynham Selectman Donald McKinnon.

Raynham’s Finance Committee has already voted its support of the override. McKinnon said he will endorse it when his panel takes its vote. Raynham officials have been given a long list of items the schools would lose if the town fails to come up with its full share.

“They didn’t have to go beyond saying they would have to close the Merrill School, without the money, to get my vote,’’ McKinnon said.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.

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