After several difficult budget years, many communities are finding that finances are easing a bit. As things become less dire, some towns are even beginning to add staff again -- but not every town.
In Wareham, officials are wrestling with serious shortfalls as they look ahead to 2015. The future of the Council on Aging and the town's senior center are in jeopardy, and the folks who rely on those services are venting their frustration.
Like many Wareham senior citizens, Christine Roderick is upset by the looming possibility that the Council on Aging may close for good.
"We are residents of Wareham. We’ve been here all our life,” Roderick said. “Our grandparents, our parents and everything. That building is something that, like I said, we played ball as kids in that school, people graduated from there. I don’t know what’s happened to Wareham.”
Roderick’s one of about 20 older residents who recently attended a forum hosted by Town Administrator Derek Sullivan. Sullivan was there to address the concerns of the skeptical seniors. He said he wishes he could provide the definite answers everyone wants.
“I’m not trying to play coy. But asking me to tell you something that’s going to happen on a budget that hasn’t passed will make me the liar,” Sullivan said.
Wareham faces a nearly $3 million deficit in the current budget year. Meanwhile, two options for a proposed 2015 budget will be voted on at Town Meeting later this month. One is to pass a Proposition 2-1/2 override, which would provide funding to address budget shortfalls for the next five years. But that option comes with a $329 average tax bill increase for the first year. The other option is to pass a balanced budget, in which all departments would face serious cuts, and the Council on Aging would be eliminated. If that happens, seniors would no longer have access to their current space in the multi-service building. Many, like Barbara Russell, balk at the prospect of having to leave their familiar location.
"I worked here 8-1/2 years, and I’ve seen a lot of changes. That old building that we’re in means a hell of a lot to me,” Russell said. “I know I ain’t got much more time. And I’m not sayin’ this for anybody to feel sorry for me. What I’m sayin’ is I would like to still have Council on Aging and day programs in that building.”
Most other seniors at the forum said they felt the same way.
But audience member Richard Paulsen sided with Town Administrator Derek Sullivan, or, at least, he said he understands the challenge Sulivan faces.
“The real problem in this town is benefits. The growth rate in the rate of benefits has been going up far in excess of revenue growth. He has no choice. He only has a certain amount of money,” Paulsen said.
Wareham Selectman Alan Slavin listened from the sidelines. He said that if a balanced budget passes, there will be no way to avoid serious cuts - and not just to the COA.
“Every department’s taking some kind of hit. The Council on Aging will take a severe hit – it’s still being worked on,” said Slavin. “These are things which you really hate to do. I mean, you hate to do any of it, but you have to sit there and look. If you got a dollar in income, you can only spend a dollar. We don’t have a credit card.”
Still, Slavin is conflicted about what might happen.
“We have a responsibility to the senior citizens. They took care of their parents and their grandparents – we should be taking care of them. We just don’t have enough funding for it,” Slavin said.
But Wareham resident Christine Roderick wasn’t completely buying that argument.
“We know about the figures. We know how nice it is to be brilliant. We’re talking about elderly that feel comfortable. Maybe there’s something else, with all this genius, maybe you can find somebody to raise money so that we can stay in this building. There must be something you can come up with creatively,” she said.
Officials would love to see that happen. But for now, any fiscal solution to save the Council on Aging is in the hands of Town Meeting voters.