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Joe Lawrence lunched at a church in Hampden. The town’s senior center was closed July 1.
Joe Lawrence lunched at a church in Hampden. The town’s senior center was closed July 1. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Landers)

It's lights out in Hampden

Voters reject Prop. 2 1/2 override; brutal budget cuts strap services

HAMPDEN -- Until last month, Hampden had a full array of local services: a town library gearing up for its summer reading program; a busy new senior center with a fireplace and pool tables; a parks and recreation office with a full-time director.

But no longer: The library, the senior center, and the recreation office in this rural town just north of the Connecticut border were closed July 1 until further notice, their budgets cut to zero after voters rejected a hotly contested proposal to increase property taxes to keep them open.

Cash-strapped even after the closings, the town also laid off two highway department employees -- a move expected to slow snow removal next winter -- and will turn off all 150 of its streetlights to save about $8,000 this year, officials said.

Hampden's 5,200 residents may be facing the most drastic consequences, but they were not alone this spring when they voted, 1,071 to 862, not to override the state law known as Proposition 2 1/2, which limits local tax increases to 2.5 percent a year. Statewide, voters have been much more reluctant to approve overrides this year, said John Robertson, fiscal policy analyst for the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Two years ago, 57 percent of towns proposing overrides won approval on at least one measure. Last year, 47 percent were at least partly successful. This year, while data is still being analyzed, Robertson said the success rate is expected to drop sharply, possibly to as low as 25 percent.

''It has not been a good year for overrides," he said. ''I think we're seeing resistance from taxpayers, who see their tax bills going up."

In Harwich, where voters defeated a proposed $2.9 million override in May, beaches are being cleaned less frequently as a result, the cost of memberships in the community health club may increase from $50 to $500 per year, and coverage at one of the town's two fire stations has been cut back to a sporadic schedule, Town Manager Wayne Melville said. Residents will vote on a scaled-back, $1 million override this month.

The crunch may be most keenly felt in tiny Hampden, where some residents said the loss of the library and senior center has crippled community life.

At the Hampden Public Library, housed in an old brick school near a stone-studded brook, slatted blinds shade the windows, and child-size wooden chairs rest upside down on tables. Outside the locked senior center, weeds have sprouted in the once well-tended gardens, and birds and crickets make the only sounds around the abandoned shuffleboard court.

''I don't think people thought it would happen," said Joe Lawrence, 59, a Vietnam veteran who used to spend hours playing pool with friends at the senior center. ''People thought the selectmen would find the money. But there's only so much in the bucket, and then you've got to put some back in. For me, it's like I've lost some family."

Selectmen clearly outlined what would happen if the override failed, but because the consequences of past failures were largely invisible -- frozen salaries; dwindling cash reserves -- residents may not have listened, Board of Selectmen chairman James Smith said.

The $1 million senior center had opened in 2001, replacing a cramped space in the town hall basement. Built largely with private donations after two decades of determined fund-raising, the bright and airy building hosted fitness classes, trivia contests, knitting groups, and card games, and served hot lunches daily, but was also a clearinghouse for vital information about tax breaks and Medicaid regulations, seniors said.

The lunch program has found temporary space in a church down the street, but the crowd is half the size, said volunteers. Some Hampden seniors are attending fitness classes five miles away in East Longmeadow, but many are unwilling or unable to drive that far.

Some senior citizens are questioning how much the town cares about them, said Becky Moriarty, the senior center's executive director, who is looking for a new job. Hampden's 1,000 seniors make up about 20 percent of the population, she said.

Yet some who frequented the senior center said they had to vote against the override. Finishing a plate of roast pork with gravy at the relocated lunch program last month, George Schnare, 73, said he pays about $2,200 a year in property taxes, and does not want his bills to rocket higher.

The proposed tax increase in Hampden, designed to boost the $9 million budget by $585,000, would have added $317 to the annual tax bill for the average home, valued at $250,000, according to the town clerk and tax collector.

''People are starting to rebel a bit, and the only way to do it, and keep taxes in check, is to beat the override," Schnare said. ''You have to start saying no somewhere."

But that strategy could backfire if property values decline because the town has fewer services, said selectman John D. Flynn. When homebuyers compare Hampden to other towns, he said, ''it's not apples-to-apples anymore, because we're a town without a library and senior center."

A frequent borrower of library books and movies, Schnare admitted he ''felt like a leper" when he tried to take out DVDs at a library in a nearby town and was refused because he lives in Hampden. Several neighboring communities decided not to loan books to residents of Hampden after the town chose not to support its own library.

At a downtown preschool, one parent who supported the override said the town seemed divided by age.

''A lot of the older people need to sit down together with the younger people," said Debbie Reeves, 38, ''because we're not talking to each other."

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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