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ABINGTON

Voters get say on $1.7m

Override aimed at restoring jobs

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / July 23, 2009

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Three weeks after slashing teacher, public safety, and other jobs to stay within a tight fiscal 2010 budget, Abington is weighing a tax increase that would restore many of the lost positions.

On Saturday, the town will hold a special election on a proposed $1.7 million Proposition 2 1/2 tax-limit override to help the school, police, fire, and library departments meet fiscal 2010 operating costs.

In addition to restoring jobs in those four departments, passage of the override would avoid the planned closing of an elementary school this fall.

Abington becomes the latest community south of Boston to hold a ballot vote on a tax increase this year. Most recently, Lakeville voters Saturday soundly defeated two alternative overrides - one for $1 million and the other for $1.7 million - to help fund that town’s fiscal 2010 budget.

Supporters and opponents of Abington’s override are pressing their cases.

“As a citizen of Abington, I love the town. It’s a lovely place to live. I’m afraid if these budget cuts happen, we are just going to lose the quality of life we all enjoy so much,’’ said Donna Gendreau, chairwoman of Come Together for Abington, a group promoting passage of the ballot question.

But Mary-Jo Franey, chairwoman of the Abington Taxpayers Protection Group, which opposes the measure, said that given the difficult economy, “Now is not the time for an override.’’

“Everyone is in the same predicament,’’ she said. “No one has any money. People have lost their jobs. People aren’t getting raises.’’

The override would add $303 to the tax bill of an average single-family home valued at $350,000, according to Jack Pistorino, deputy assessor.

Abington residents have agreed to Proposition 2 1/2 tax increases on four previous occasions over the past two decades. Most recently, they approved a $650,000 override - by five votes following a recount - last year to continue town trash collection.

At Town Meeting last month, voters adopted a $42.3 million budget based on anticipated revenues. But they then approved a series of motions appropriating additional dollars contingent on passage of overrides, including $1.4 million for the School Department, $181,339 for the Police Department, $114,000 for the Fire Department, and $43,457 for the library.

Selectmen at the conclusion of the meeting voted, 3-2, to schedule an override election, and to adhere to the meeting’s request that the overrides be considered as a single question.

Based on the budget as currently approved, the town on July 1 cut 41.5 school employee positions, 21 of them teachers; a police officer; a firefighter; four civilian dispatchers in the Fire Department; the town planner; two Highway Department laborers; two part-time librarians; and an employee in the town clerk’s office. Also eliminated was the position of building inspector; the town plans to share an inspector with Norwell.

The School Department cut seventh-grade foreign languages, increased fees, and eliminated funding for freshman and junior varsity sports. (The local booster club has committed to covering the costs of the JV program, and the fall season for freshman athletics.) The district has also begun preparing to close the North Elementary School.

Passage of the overrides would restore the jobs cut in the Police, Fire, and library departments, according to Dori Jamieson, the assistant town manager. It would also restore all but nine of the school jobs, including all the teacher positions, keep open the North Elementary School, and restore languages in the seventh grade, according to Peter Schafer, school superintendent.

The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously on July 13 to oppose the override.

Board chairman Thomas Corbett said selectmen do not believe residents can afford the tax increase. “I personally know people who have lost their homes. I know people who have lost their jobs,’’ he said.

Corbett said he was also disappointed that the town’s teachers’ union would not agree to waive a 3 percent raise that teachers are due next year, a step he noted would have saved the town $690,000.

Several other town and school unions and non-union employees have agreed to pay freezes or comparable furloughs.

Corbett said leaders of the police and firefighters’ unions said at a selectmen’s meeting prior to Town Meeting that their unions would take a zero-percent raise in fiscal 2010 if the teachers’ union did. He said he could not discuss the subject further because the town is in contract negotiations with the police and fire unions.

He acknowledged that the recent cuts are “extremely difficult.’’ But, he said, “They are typical of a recession. . . . It’s very, very devastating, but we will get through it. We will survive together.’’

Gendreau said she understands the tax increase would be difficult for many to afford, noting, “I’m one of those people.’’ But she said: “I think it’s worth it. I want to maintain Abington at a level I feel comfortable with.’’

But Franey said she would like to see the town tighten its belt and try to make it through the year with the existing budget.

“Let’s go with what we have and see what happens next year,’’ she said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.