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HARVARD — Facing yet another fiscally challenging year, town department heads must build constrained operating budgets for Fiscal Year 2011 and were asked to move the belt-tightening process up another notch. The Finance Committee — which will ultimately makes a recommendation on each department budget for the Annual Town Meeting warrant, has called for proposals based on two separate scenarios: one level-funded, the other reduced by five-percent.

The heads of four departments under the selectmen’s jurisdiction — Police, Fire, DPW and Council on Aging — presented their budgets at the Feb. 19 meeting.

No department can make cuts without feeling it but a five percent cut would be particularly hurtful to the COA, whose expense budget was just $3,000 last year.

The bulk of the COA budget — over $50,000 — is payroll. COA Director Ginger Quarles said a 5 percent cut would have a “fairly major impact” on the part-time staff, which in addition to the director includes a program coordinator and an outreach worker.

A five percent reduction could slice the program coordinator’s time on the job from seven to four hours per week.

If the outreach worker’s time were cut from 16 to 14 hours per week, she said, it would translate to 50 fewer home visits. There would also be 300 fewer calls to seniors and families for follow-ups, referrals and other needs-based services the COA provides.

While volunteer time, donated supplies and fundraising activities may help close gaps, supportive supplements are not stable revenue sources that can be counted on to pay the bills or ensure that programs and services are sustainable.

Selectman Lucy Wallace asked how many people the staff works with. Her reason for asking, she said, was to “get a sense” of how services to this “growing population” stack up against town resources committed to other age groups, specifically, the schools.

Quarles said that seniors over 60 make up more than 20 percent of the town’s population.

Citing clinical and social work versus recreational activities, she said the COA caseload is about 60 to 80. She and outreach worker Maria Holland spend about 56 hours a week contacting people in this group, which includes residents and their families, some from out of town. In some cases, residents seek advice about how to help elderly parents who live elsewhere, she said.

Selectman Peter Warren said he’d “hate to see” budget reductions result in increased user fees, but adding a dollar per person for every senior trip would go more than half way to closing the funding gap. Quarles said the fee now is $2 per person, plus the cost of restaurant meals and event tickets. But fee hikes can be a “slippery slope,” she cautioned. The COA board upped the minimal price tag reluctantly, she said. “Scholarships” are available, she said, but few will ask for them. “We hope we don’t have to charge too much,” given what older residents already contribute to the community, she said.

Wallace agreed. “I find the five percent reduction unacceptable” for the COA, she said. “Even I find it draconian,” added Chairman Ron Ricci.