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The Boston Globe: “Town girds for service cuts if override fails”

SHIRLEY

Some time during the night of Aug. 11, someone broke into a condominium building on Catacunemaug Road and threw paint on two cars in the garage, smashed car windows, slashed tires, and destroyed mailboxes outside with baseball bats or by blowing them up with firecrackers.

In all, 10 vehicles in the area were vandalized that night, but police did not know about the incidents until someone called the following morning, according to Police Chief Paul Thibodeau. No arrests have been made.

Vandalism and larceny have increased this summer, a trend attributable to inadequate funding and fewer police patrols, Thibodeau says. The department’s expense account for gasoline has been level-funded for three years even as gas prices have escalated. So in May, he says, the department imposed a cap on gas, leaving officers just enough fuel to patrol 30 miles during their eight-hour shift – roughly half the distance they used to cover.

The troublemakers in town probably noticed.

“They know we’re not around and they can get away with it,” Thibodeau said.

Sadly, he said last week, the department’s ability to keep crime in check could be further hampered if voters do not approve a Proposition 2 1/2 tax-limit override on Sept. 9. If the nearly $740,000 override fails, the department will be forced to cut three of its 10 officers, leaving only one man on duty during some shifts, he said.

Thibodeau said an officer on his own cannot respond to a traffic accident or a domestic violence call without assistance from other towns or from the State Police. With an accident, a second person is needed to direct traffic, and, Thibodeau said, it’s too dangerous to send an officer alone into a family disturbance.

“The last officer [shot on duty] here was shot at a boyfriend-girlfriend disturbance about six years ago,” he said. “We just can’t rely on other towns to help us out all the time.”

The Fire Department, meanwhile, would also be forced to make drastic cuts without funding from the override, according to Fire Chief Dennis Levesque.

If the override fails, the department could lose three of its six firefighters. In that case, either the fire station will no longer stay open all the time, or there will be only one firefighter on duty during some shifts. In either case, the response time will suffer, said Levesque.

“I can’t send a truck out the door with just one guy on it – it’s just not safe,” he said. “I can’t send a guy into a burning building by himself.”

Because firefighters also serve as emergency medical technicians, ambulance response times could double from 5 to 10 minutes on average, said ambulance director Dwight “Mike” Detillion.

And there could be other compromises in public safety: The local Department of Public Works would lose one of its four employees, which would affect its ability to quickly put salt on roads during a snowstorm, said public works director Joe Lynch.

The local public library will also be forced to cut hours without the override money, jeopardizing its state certification. Officials said if the library does not receive the $20,000 it needs, they will reduce its hours from 36 to 25 per week.

But such doom-and-gloom scenarios won’t sway all voters. In Massachusetts this year, more communities have seen overrides rejected than adopted, despite voters being warned about serious consequences befalling their school districts, roads, and public safety services.

In Tewksbury, residents rejected an override in June, forcing the town to close a fire station and lay off six police officers and 34 school employees, while in Ashland a failed override in May led to the closure of all school libraries except the one at the high school. Overrides have also failed in Belmont, Beverly, Bridgewater, Chelmsford, Franklin, Freetown, Groveland, Newton, Norfolk, Pepperell, and Winthrop, among others.

Overrides were approved in a handful of communities, including Georgetown, Hamilton, Harvard, Ipswich, and Wenham, while Dunstable, Brockton, East Bridgewater, Mattapoisett, and Walpole have questions pending.

In Shirley, some say they are already dead set against paying more taxes.

Kevin Hayes, treasurer of the Republican Town Committee, said he will vote no on the override questions on Sept. 9.

“I feel horrible about that. We need more police, we need more fire” fighters, he said. But, because the system is broken, he said, “it’s not a good idea to just throw money at it.”

Hayes said the town should address some fundamental problems first. He suggested that Shirley should not be responsible for providing health insurance for retired employees, and for unfunded state mandates, such as special education.

Resident Bryan Dumont said the town should spend within its means, just like locals who have to make do with the higher prices of gas and heating fuel.

“We’re just going to have to tighten our belts,” Dumont said. “This town has over 60 percent of an elderly base – they just can’t afford any more [taxes] on a fixed income.”

Selectman Leonardo “Chip” Guercio said if the $739,545 override is approved, it will add about $1 a day to the average homeowner’s tax bill. If the measure fails, the cuts will be felt as soon as October, he said.

Shirley residents have never approved an override, except for trash pickup, according to Guercio.

A local group, called Shirley Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, has been urging residents to support the override. The group is sending postcards to 1,000 households this week, said member Dina Samfield.

“A lot of people are not keeping up with what’s going on,” she said. “We’re trying to reach those people.”

Voting will take place on Sept. 9 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Town Hall.

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