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Beyond belt-tightening

Bridgewater sacrificing library, senior center, more

BRIDGEWATER - There's no denying the severity of Bridgewater's finances. Last week the town began shutting down its library for the foreseeable future. The Senior Center is slated to suffer the same fate within the next two weeks.

Selectmen will leave just enough heating money in each budget to keep vacant buildings' pipes from freezing. The rest of the money in the two budgets is being rerouted, for the most part, to save fire, police, and highway jobs.

Such are the choices selectmen say they are facing in the wake of the defeat earlier this month of a $2 milion budget override.

While special Town Meeting voters will have the final say on the operational budget when they meet the week of Oct. 8, alternatives to the selectmen's package will be few. Department managers have already sent out layoff notices, effective on the Town Meeting date.

"We have to look at making sure the public is protected as best we can," said selectmen chairman Herbert Lemon of the board's decision to sacrifice the Senior Center and library to preserve public safety budgets.

Eight firefighter positions, seven police officers, and six highway staffers had been slated for the chopping block. Now, with the library and Senior Center money available, layoffs in those departments may be unnecessary.

Library closures have been rare since the early 1990s. "Saugus Library did close briefly this spring, but they were able to reopen after six weeks," said Nancy Rea, deputy director of the state Board of Library Commissioners.

Bridgewater's public library stopped lending books and other materials last Monday. It will remain open an hour or two each day this week to allow residents to return borrowed material, and then close its doors on Friday. Library staff, all slated to be laid off as of the special Town Meeting, will spend the next two weeks planning for long-term closure.

Residents said good-bye to their library at a Tuesday night vigil.

"We home-school our children and use this resource," said resident Lori Tunewicz-Gavin, who turned out, with her three children. "Now we won't be able to use the other libraries in the . . . network either. I don't know what we're going to do."

Trustees at most of the libraries in the regional lending network with Bridgewater have already voted not to lend library material to patrons whose town libraries have lost their state certification.

According to the state Board of Library Commissioners, Bridgewater Public Library loses its certification the day it closes. Rea said a library has to be in full compliance with all the state requirements for a least a year before certification is granted again. Bridgewater's library, she noted, has already required waivers from the state for required hours of operation for the last several years.

Resident Betty Gilson, a longtime educator who is on the board of directors for the Literacy Place in Bridgewater, said the program's tutors often meet with their charges in the public library. "Now it will be more difficult," Gilson said. "A town without a library is like a town without a soul."

Library trustee Carlton Hunt condemned the town's financial team, including the selectmen and Advisory Board, for not presenting voters with the full impact of a $2 million override failure prior to the vote on Sept. 8. Since that vote, further costs associated with the layoffs, such as sick time and vacation time payments, have created an even greater deficit for the town to cover.

Fire and police officials also came forward recently with estimated needs of more than $400,000 to cover overtime costs that would result from staff reductions.

Paul Sullivan, the town's municipal administrator, and other financial officers were able to scrape together about $1 million using the town's anticipated free cash, proceeds from the sale of town-owned Roberts Road property, and a $50,000 gift from Bridgewater State College.

But shoring up police, fire, and highway budgets, and covering layoff costs, will use up the entire amount as well as money that would have gone to the Senior Center, library and Recreation Department. Only about $40,000 will remain available to cover unanticipated expenses for the remainder of the year.

"This is us finally, really hitting the bottom," said resident and longtime town volunteer Marilee Hunt. She said the change in figures from the budget presented prior to the override has left "a lack of trust in our public officials."

Resident Becky Demling, a devoted library patron, said "I think people are in disbelief."

Demling said she voted for the override, but even those who opposed it have repeatedly assured her officials would never shut down the library. "On both sides, no one feels good about this town right now," Demling said. "It will be interesting to see how officials go about bringing this town together."

Lorraine Carrozza, director of elder affairs, said she was "completely floored" by the board's decision to zero out the budget for the Council on Aging and Senior Center.

One part-time staffer, an outreach worker partially paid through a state grant, will continue to offer such services as insurance information and fuel assistance, but that worker will have to relocate to some other place, with the Senior Center closed.

"This isn't just a budget issue," Carrozza said.

"It's a community issue and a quality of life issue. This is a sad day for Bridgewater."

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