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Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — If a reprieve comes to Middlesex County towns in the form of releasing them from the requirement to sock away all of the annual insurance money to cover unfunded retirement liability — which could mean more than $400,000 in savings for Pepperell — much of the 2010 budget shortfall will disappear.

Accountant Theresa Walsh told Finance Committee members last week that both Rep. Robert Hargraves and Sen. Steven Panagiotakos are fighting to move the idea through the Legislature.

If nothing changes, it’s time to “slash” further into an already diminished municipal budget in order to have alternatives to a potential override, FinCom Chairman Diane Gaspar said at the outset of the meeting. That means personnel cuts.

If the labor force must be trimmed, some departments can take a hit and some can’t, she said.

Thus far, the FinCom has discussed cutting only wages for hourly (or “bylaw”) employees because others are under contract. If the committee recommends a department “lose” a person, Gaspar preferred recommending the cash equivalent instead.

“We have more than a $500,000 shortfall (remaining after the cuts that have already been recommended) and the only thing we have left is staff,” Gaspar said.

Calculated by Walsh at about $480,000, the current shortfall estimate does not include projected revenue from the rooms and meals tax proposed by Gov. Patrick. The Department of Revenue advised against calculating its effect, Walsh said.

Throughout the ensuing discussion, committee member Christopher DeSimone voted against any staff cuts because, he said, non-union workers have already lost their step raises and cutting their hours or numbers is, in effect, “penalizing them for not joining a union.”

Last week the FinCom discussed the following:

* Shutting off street lights — approved 5-1 (Jeanne LeBlanc against).

The move would save as estimated $16,000. The town is reimbursed about $2,500 a year by utility and telephone companies for use and maintenance of poles. There are 488 lights each costing $96 per year to run. A shutdown reduces electric cost 35 percent. Shutting off 30 street lights saves $1,000.

“I’d rather save $16,000 and use it to pay a part-time employee,” said member Burke Bero in support.

* Closure of the Sis McGrath Community Center — tabled.

Options include keeping it open for paying customers, eliminating the program director’s $18,000 job, and making the center’s budget subject to an override. One user, the Recreation Department, has seen it’s summer program recommended cut.

“How do you justify laying off a cop and keeping the community center open, or lose the library?” DeSimone asked. “Get rid of that whole budget.”

“I’m not sure it’s our decision to say a cop versus the center,” Bero countered.

“The center is used all the time. I agree in doing it piecemeal. To say the Recreation Department is the least necessary (a previous vote) is wrong,” said member Stephanie Cronin.

Removal of the town’s $8,200 share of the director’s salary passed unanimously.

* Reductions to hourly staff work week.

“We’ve already asked salary people to take layoffs after we froze their salaries, when the (police) unions aren’t moving,” DeSimone said.

“In my view, someone has to go if the unions don’t make concessions (one police position),” Gaspar said.

Walsh reported that police Chief Alan Davis did not reduce his part-time clerk’s hours, as recommended, instead removing $14,500 from the overtime account. He promised not to seek a Reserve Fund transfer later. The town must pay 65 percent of COBRA insurance cost for laid-off employees.

A recommendation to cut one patrolman’s position passed unanimously. One previous resignation will not be filled.

One Highway Department position has been recommended for elimination ($24,773). Superintendent Peter Shattuck will stop hiring help from the Parks Dept., to keep the man on, then do a layoff for the winter months, Walsh said. The sand and salt account is $46,000 in the red. The FinCom tabled further discussion.

* Should wages be targeted or bottom line numbers be stressed? — no decision.

* Geographic Information Systems Committee — cut the budget to $5,000, approved 5-1 (Bero against).

Revisited a budget the committee voted to eliminate but which was later funded with $10,000 from the Enterprise Fund on recommendation of town administrator Robert Hanson.

“I remember they want at least a minimal amount in the budget, but in reality they aren’t cutting anything,” Gaspar said, to which LeBlanc added, “and the ratepayers are paying for it.”

Because the system is used by first responders, the committee recommended a cutback to $8,000 which failed in a 3-3 tie vote. The $5,000 cutback passed.

* Eliminate the $169,000 Senior Center budget entirely — $17,000 taken off in a unanimous vote.

“I’d love to keep it (but) it’s not under essential services, (yet) it does a wonderful job for a block of our population,” Bero said. “We can’t ignore it. The budget has to be on the table. Eliminate it.”

“It needs to take a hit, like everyone, but I totally disagree with Burke (Bero),” DeSimone said. “Our elderly population is growing and they have nowhere to go or nowhere else to go. You don’t realize the services offered — home visits, meals, socialization for folks otherwise locked in homes. You need to go down there for an hour and see.”

“It does fill an important function but the question is, can we afford it?” Gaspar said. “I’m thinking 10 percent (cut) in wages (or) might we consider closure or the override?”

“I raised the issue at the max to get the discussion going. Let’s put in an appropriate number and move on,” Bero said.

* Parks Department — unanimous vote to let the Enterprise Fund and donations by users of town fields pay the $83,473 budget.

“The message of Proposition two and a half was let the user pay. This is a classic example,” DeSimone said.

* Capital expenditures — the FinCom has set aside $80,000.

The Capital Outlay Committee has voted to recommend $60,000 be spent on two police cruisers, $15,000 for Fire Department hose replacement and has taken no action on a request for $2,700 worth of desktop computer servers.

* Stipends — cut all stipends 10 percent across the board, approved by unanimous vote.

* Printing the town report ($3,000) — eliminate the budget and rely on electronic copies or access, approved, unanimous.

With roughly $137,000 trimmed from the $480,000 shortfall, the committee will begin department-by-department examinations next week, having decided it is impossible to mandate a 10 percent across-the-board cutback.