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NATICK

Wrenching decisions on horizon

Fire station closing a sign of budget woes

By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2010

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Facing one of the town’s most challenging budget seasons, Natick officials have been offering stark options at public meetings on cuts to next fiscal year’s budget, and in the process showcasing the difficult decisions that department heads must make when livelihoods and town services are at stake.

A sign of the budget dilemma came recently when Fire Chief James Sheridan shuttered one of four fire stations for a few hours in response to the department’s dwindling overtime budget. For the fiscal year starting July 1, the department faces a $100,000 cut in its overtime budget, said firefighters union president Danny Hartwell.

“They expect us to do more with less and we just can’t do it,’’ he said. “We’re overwhelmed as it is right now.’’

Firefighters aren’t the only ones in Natick facing stern budget realities. Police, school officials, libraries and other departments also face tough choices dealing with next year’s proposed $107 million budget as revenues decrease and costs go up.

The grim scenario has one local resident, a business strategy consultant, suggesting that the town adopt a form of budgeting that reviews expenditures with an eye toward determining what sort of service citizens are getting from the spending.

“Let’s stop playing the game of death by a thousand cuts,’’ said Patrick Hayes, a former member of the town’s Expense Control Task Force.

The action by the fire chief touched off consternation among public officials and ire among residents concerned for their safety and suspicious of the timing, three days after the town approved tax increases for a new $89 million high school and a $10 million community and senior center.

“My bosses, the citizens, gave me hell. . . People were livid,’’ said Selectman John Connolly at his board’s meeting the following Monday. “What bothered me the most was I had no clue this was going to go on.’’

“It’s unfortunate that the closing of the station occurred seemingly out of the blue, especially so close after the town voted,’’ said Town Administrator Martha White. She said the Fire Department was able to secure an $80,000 grant to fund overtime costs for the rest of the fiscal year, but added that the town is reluctant to give the department more money since the budget should have been managed better.

Sheridan wouldn’t say whether the closing is a preview of events should the grant money run out, but said he’s working with officials to prevent further closings. He wouldn’t comment on whether the closing was a necessity or a public relations move.

Meanwhile, the Police Department is looking at a $167,000 budget decrease next fiscal year. It is less than the $392,000 cut the department initially faced, which would have meant laying off four patrol officers, but the town will still lose a public safety dispatcher, leaving police officers to fill in.

“We’re down to skin and bones,’’ said Police Chief Nick Mabardy.

The school district has been directed to cut $908,000 from the $43.3 million spending plan that Superintendent Peter Sanchioni presented to the town’s Finance Committee earlier this month. The figure translates to the equivalent of nine full-time positions, including an elementary school reading specialist and math curriculum coordinator, as well as media assistants at the school libraries.

But if next year’s situation is bleak, Sanchioni said, the schools will start off the following fiscal year without $1.2 million in federal stimulus funds that they are getting in fiscal 2011.

The town’s libraries are also getting hit. The Morse Institute Library is cutting $62,800 from its budget, dropping it to $1.67 million, and is on the cusp of losing its state accreditation if it reduces its operating hours any further.

And the Bacon Free Library, which is known for its standing-room-only children’s story hours, is facing an 8.7 percent budget cut to $105,800.

As the bad news occupied the recent Finance Committee hearing, Hayes talked about the need for new methods in dire times. His firm has advised the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in helping library systems.

Hayes suggested conducting cost-benefit analyses on every service in Natick to “surgically cut’’ the budget, instead of doling out percentage-based targets to department heads. This way, the value of libraries, for example, could be weighed against things such as the fall leaf pickup. Services that provide more value to residents could be spared at the expense of less valuable offerings, he said.

But White said that “much of the service we provide is either required by law or generally considered to be basic and essential, so conducting a cost-benefit analysis to determine if a particular service should continue is not a practical approach in many cases.

“That being said, we do constantly evaluate the means of delivering services: how can it be improved in terms of customer satisfaction and cost-effectiveness,’’ the town administrator said.

For now, however, town departments are left with needing to make cuts while the town’s needs are, in many cases, increasing. Mabardy, the police chief, gave as an example the strain the upscale Natick Collection mall has placed on his department. Recently, officers were chasing three shoplifters through the mall when someone called the station to report a man driving a car while repeatedly punching his passenger. As a result, there were less police personnel to handle a serious situation, said Mabardy.

And Detective Kevin Delehanty, a narcotics investigator who is head of the police patrolmen’s union and an outspoken supporter of the public safety departments, talked about the burgeoning drug problem in town that’s centered around oxycodone and heroin.

“If you’re not proactive with it, it will take over the town,’’ Delehanty told the Finance Committee.

Hartwell, head of the firefighters’ union, also talked about the town’s increasing needs thanks to new commercial and residential developments.

“You’ve got the Cloverleaf Apartments, high rises at the Natick Mall, the new developments set to go in at South Natick Hills, the Paperboard site, South Avenue,’’ said Hartwell. “All of it adds up.’’

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com.

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