Forum generates heated debate, not a lot of good news

By Cary Shuman
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If townspeople were looking for some optimistic news from the Winthrop Town Council’s annual public forum Tuesday night at the Senior Center, there wasn’t much.

Near the end of the forum, Planning Board Chairman Dick Dimes revealed the town should receive some significant revenues from the Winthrop Hospital project, the Dalrymple School property, the Atlantis Marina complex and other developments upon completion, but those combined taxes (as much as $900,000) coming to the town coffers could be at least five years down the road.

The fact is, the town is facing a major deficit in the budget that is expected to be even larger in the next fiscal year (2010) if state aid and local revenues continue to drop precipitously. While some at the forum tried to lay the blame for the town’s dire financial situation at the feet of the councilors, financial analysts are calling the economic downturn the worst in years, and officials throughout the commonwealth have had the unenviable task of making serious cuts in services.

It was against that backdrop that Council President Thomas Reilly and his eight colleagues, town department heads, Finance Director Michael Bertino, and Interim Town Manager Larry Holmes gave direct responses to residents who were seeking information about the town’s financial state and the impact of their vote in the Proposition 2 1/2 override election scheduled for May 19.

No question was left unchecked or considered irrelevant. One resident wanted to know whether the results of each of the 10 questions on the override ballot would be tabulated and produce one “yes” or “no” result for the roughly $2.6 million in funds sought in the election. Reilly explained each question will stand alone, on its own merit. For example, if the voters want the library to receive its budget, then a yes vote would keep the library operations in tact for the coming fiscal year. In other words, there are 10 questions on the ballot and voters will make 10 individual decisions on May 19 about fire, police, Department of Public Works (DPW), the schools, trash collection, Parks and Recreation Department, Council on Aging/Senior Center, etc.

Some residents alluded to a wage freeze for town employees. However, Reilly explained Winthrop town employees haven’t received a raise in almost two years.

“We don’t expect to be in a position to grant any raises this year,” said Reilly. “We are in negotiations, but there is, in fact, a freeze in wages because there hasn’t been a wage for almost two years now.”

The forum wasn’t without its moment of disagreement, either. Winthrop resident David Osborne, a frequent speaker during the public speaking portion of council meetings, raised the ire of Parks and Recreation Department Director Sean Driscoll when he criticized his department and its budget deficit. Osborne also seemed to be taking a verbal stab at Winthrop’s state legislative delegation when he mentioned senior center and recreation grants the town of Saugus received, saying, “I’d like to have [State Representative Mike Falzone] as my state representative. He’s apparently very powerful and has a lot of authority within the State House.”

Reilly cautioned Osborne, “We go through this frequently, and we’ll do this again. At council meetings, we do not talk about individuals.”

Immediately following Osborne’s remarks, Driscoll asked to respond to Osborne’s criticisms.

Driscoll said two years ago, he sat down with then-Town Manager Rick White and said the Parks and Recreation Department would have a budget of $108,000 to cover salaries and some working expenses. At that point, White asked Driscoll about using an enterprise funding concept to run the department.

“The first year we did this, we made it. We did it and things were a little bit better financially than they are now,” said Driscoll. “Last year, our biggest problem was the $31,000 deficit that we have. That shortfall came from an adult program. What we were finding was that the adults were gearing their participation in the program toward their children.”

Driscoll said he and his staff have done a good job on cutting back expenses since fall. “There’s a lot of forecasting involved in this process. We also budgeted ourselves based on having a full-time skating rink year round – ice nine months out of the year and three months of indoor activities. We haven’t had that opportunity for a lot of reasons.”

Driscoll also refuted Osborne’s claim about Saugus’ recreation department, saying, “Saugus does not have a recreation department anymore. They have a teacher that works on a stipend pay to help run a program.”

The town’s trash collection was also a frequent topic during the forum. Town councillors Jeanne Maggio and Linda Calla said afterwards that results of the council health committee’s trash survey will be announced at the last council meeting in April. Some observers feel the results of that survey could affect how people vote on the trash collection question in the May 19 override vote.

One other revelation at the forum served as another blow to the town’s tough financial situation. Because of stormy winter, it was disclosed that the town needed a $300,000 expenditure for snow removal efforts. Hopefully with spring starting, residents have seen the last of snowstorms.

During the regular portion of the council meeting following the forum, council members decided to hold a meeting on Tuesday, March 31, at which time they will finalize the wording of all 10 referendum ballot questions and money requested for each item.

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