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ABINGTON

Officials get message, gird for a tight year

Abington voters say no new taxes

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / July 1, 2010

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Abington enters the new fiscal year today with fewer town services, after voters last weekend rejected eight tax-increase proposals totaling $1.6 million.

The message sent via the ballot box was clear: no additional money for local government until there’s some serious belt-tightening, according to an opponent of the Proposition 2 1/2 override requests.

“The town needs to rein in spending,’’ Cynthia Whiting said.

Selectman Michael Franey, the board’s chairman, agreed that the public has given officials its mandate. “We are going to work with the cards we’ve been dealt,’’ he said after the vote.

As a result, said Steve Maguire, cochairman of a group supporting the tax increases, UNITE Abington, residents are going to see a different town.

Police Chief David Majenski won’t be able to bring two newly trained officers on board, due to lack of funds. His department is already working without a detective unit.

Fire Department staff will be stretched thin as well, with some shifts falling below five firefighters. The satellite fire station in the northern part of town will remain shuttered. Response times to public emergencies are likely to increase, and property owners may see their homeowners’ insurance go up.

The school district, meanwhile, will lose 20 positions, said Superintendent Peter Schafer. This fall, elementary school students from four schools will be crowded into two buildings. The high school, already put on warning status by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, may be in danger of losing accreditation.

At the Abington Public Library, a truncated schedule could put state certification in jeopardy. The senior center will be open, but will provide fewer services than last year. The Parks and Recreation Department depended entirely on its override request; upkeep of the town’s playing fields will now fall to the groups using them.

Opponents of the property-tax increases say the town must face the reality of the current economy.

“We’re a small, working-class community,’’ said Tricia McDonnell, chairwoman of the Abington Taxpayers Protection Group. “We’re going to have to cut just like the private sector. When you’re in a recession, you’re not going to have the services you normally have.’’

She added that some of the cuts could be avoided if municipal employees were willing to give a little. “If the unions made some concessions, a lot of our issues would be resolved,’’ McDonnell said.

Franey, who opposed the tax increases, wasn’t surprised by Saturday’s outcome. “There’s no doubt the town is hurting, but the taxpayers are hurting, too,’’ he said.

Fellow selectman Gerald Corcoran said that the pocketbooks of property owners are already getting hit hard. In April, voters approved $1.57 million in Proposition 2 1/2 overrides to cover loan payments on capital improvement projects, temporarily raising the levy on the town’s average property, valued at $312,000, by $100 this year. “People are already going to be hurt,’’ he said.

Measures to pay for municipal operations, like Saturday’s proposals, stay on the tax rate permanently, Corcoran added. If those had passed, the average tax bill would have gone up another $271 per year.

Even though the requested tax increases failed, Maureen Jansen, a Finance Committee member and a staunch override supporter, said her group is committed to helping the town move forward.

“We’ll do the best with what we have,’’ Jansen said. “We all still love this town.’’

Residents on both sides of the tax issue have become more involved in town government over the last several months, said Maguire. “The silver lining of this is that more people are paying attention now and people are being held more accountable,’’ Maguire said. “We have a commitment to stay involved that didn’t end with the vote.’’

Franey said the community should use its resources more wisely. “The town manager had told us that even if the overrides passed, the money would have been quickly eaten up with health insurance, raises, and other benefits unless contracts are changed,’’ Franey said. “If we have a five-year plan and we get the right concessions, then we could have an override in the future.’’

Town Manager John D’Agostino, who started work a couple months ago, has identified several cost-saving measures, including consolidation of services through department mergers, regionalization of some functions with neighboring communities, and more reasonable contracts for town employees.

D’Agostino is already moving to improve the town’s bottom line. Police union members have agreed to increase their contribution to health insurance, from paying 25 percent of the premiums to 40 percent. D’Agostino is discussing similar arrangements with two other bargaining groups.

“If the other unions agree to this, the town saves $800,000,’’ D’Agostino said.

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

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