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COMMUNITY PROFILE

Slow-growth town struggles to balance budget

By Thomas Grillo, Globe Correspondent, 5/25/2002

SWANSEA -- Cheryl Wheeler, one of the nation's most popular folk music performers, has lost track of how many songs she's written at her rustic contemporary home here on 46 acres. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

"In the 18 years I've lived in this house, I've composed zillions of songs while walking in the woods," Wheeler said. "I love Swansea. It's a cute little town, and the location is fabulous -- and the setting makes it easier to compose."

   
 AT A GLANCE

Incorporated: 1785
Distance from Boston: 70 miles
Area: 23.07 square miles
Population: 15,901
Tax rate: $13.39
Government: open town meeting
Services: town water
Schools: 4 elementary, 1 junior high, 1 senior high
Per-pupil expenditure: $5,382 (state average is $5,876)

 More information on Swansea from Boston.com's Your Town section.

 
Wheeler's music is rarely heard beyond coffeehouse walls, but the haunting "If It Were Up to Me" was played coast-to-coast on radio stations after the 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The song, which Wheeler wrote in her backyard, lists 68 reasons for the violence, including:

  Maybe it's the drugs, maybe it's the parents

  Maybe it's the hairdos, maybe it's the TV

  Maybe it's the fathers, maybe it's the sons

But the song ends with this:

  If it were up to me, I'd take away the guns.

Swansea's popularity stems from its rural and suburban setting, say longtime residents. Just minutes from Fall River and Providence, yet uncluttered by growth, Swansea is a place where the population has risen by less than 1,000 since the late 1980s.

The town, though, is facing a $2.5 million deficit. Voters recently rejected a Proposition 2 override. In addition, trash costs have been spiraling out of control, residents say, yet town officials want to raise collection fees. Without more cash, officials anticipate having to lay off employees, close Town Hall on Fridays, and cut hours at the Building Department and Board of Health.

Property values in Swansea did not see the dramatic growth in the 1990s that many other Massachusetts communities enjoyed. In 1994, the median price for a single-family home was $113,250, but it fell to $107,890 in 1995, according to Warren Group data. Since then, values have risen steadily each year. For the first quarter of 2002, the median single-family home price was $165,500.

The MLS Property Information Network listed 63 homes for sale this week in Swansea, from a one-bedroom cottage for $94,000 to a 4,200-square-foot ranch on 14 acres for $589,900.

For those who prefer new construction, Sunnyfield Farm, just off Route 118, offers three-bedroom Colonials with two baths for $279,900. Construction is scheduled to begin this summer.

While Swansea's elementary school students did well in the most recent Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, 10th-graders finished 228th out of 268 school districts in The Boston Globe's ranking.

Swansea also played a role in history. In 1675, tensions between Native Americans and colonists erupted into the brutal conflict that began in Swansea: King Philip's War, named after Philip, the Wampanoag Indian leader.

After the war, ironworks and fishing on the town's rivers accounted for a big part of the local economy. Small villages were the sites of cotton, grist, and yarn mills. When the larger nearby cities of Fall River, Taunton, and Providence absorbed the town's industries, Swansea concentrated on agriculture.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 5/25/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company
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