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Wareham's Fiscal Woes Force Closures, Cutbacks

Brian Morris/WCAI
Budget cutbacks have forced the Wareham Free Library to maintain limited hours - it's open just 18 hours a week.

The South Coast town of Wareham has struggled for the past few years to maintain essential services in the face of a declining tax base and ever-increasing costs. While other area communities have largely recovered from the financial turmoil of the late 2000s, Wareham is still cutting its budget. With voters unwilling to raise taxes more than 2-and-a-half percent, the Wareham Council on Aging has essentially closed. And the operating budget for the town library has been drastically reduced – a move that’s had a ripple effect for local residents of all ages.

Page Feskins is a junior at Wareham High School. She’s in an Advanced Placement English course. And it’s challenging.

“We have term papers, and the teacher requires two book sources,” said Feskins. “You can’t take them from offline, so it’s a lot harder to get book sources when the library is so limited in hours.”

Feskins now has far less time to search for the books she needs. Since voters rejected a $4.5 million Proposition 2-12 override last year, the library is only open 18 hours a week. Some students and community members say that’s not enough time. But the library was deemed a non-essential service, a label that library Director Denise Medieros disputes.

“I think they were labeling it non-essential in the world of finances as opposed to in peoples’ lives,” said Medieros.

The library also was de-certified by the State in November, and the Spinney branch in the village of Onset was closed altogether.

At Town Hall, just across the street from the library, Wareham Selectman Alan Slavin used simple math to explain the town’s fiscal woes.

“At the end of the day, if you get 10 dollars in and you got 12 dollars in expense, that means you gotta cut two dollars of your expense out, which means that every year you’re cutting more services,” said Slavin.

As a Selectman, Slavin said he has to be a realist. He knows the choices are difficult and often very unpopular. But speaking as a private citizen, Slavin said it’s a shame for any town to be without a full-time public library.

In the meantime, the library remains closed for a good portion of the week. Denise Medieros hopes something can be worked out so the library can return to its role of serving the community.

”What we’ve tried to do is keep some basic foundation even with limited funds, so that when things do turn around, to keep enough in place to rebuild,” said Medeiros.

Wareham schools also have been squeezed. School Superintendent Kimberly Shaver-Hood said last year’s budget cuts eliminated 30-odd positions. And more cuts may be coming.

“It’s a very lean budget as it is, and the only place left now is personnel,” said Shaver-Hood.

But she said that won’t include teaching staff.

“We’re going to look at other places just because we think the teacher is so critical to the education of the student that we’re doing everything possible to maintain that integrity,” said Shaver-Hood.

A few floors below Shaver-Hood’s School Department office, Wareham’s Council on Aging space is mostly vacant. We wanted to speak with the COA Director about the impacts of the budget cuts, but Wareham Town Administrator Derek Sullivan would not allow her to be interviewed. Sullivan also would not agree to an interview himself about town finances. What we do know is that all COA senior activities have been eliminated, with the exception of an adult day care program, which is privately funded.

Despite the grim fiscal realities affecting the schools, library, and COA, Selectman Alan Slavin says he’s still optimistic. A recent report from an outside auditor had some positive things to say.

“The report that we got from the auditor shows that we fixed a lot of what they call ‘material weaknesses,’” said Slavin.

These include improved accounting procedures and better coordination between town departments. In addition, the town recently signed on with a new health insurance provider.

“The switch-over takes about two years in total, but there’ll be substantial savings for the town,” Slavin said.

In the meantime, School Superintendent Kimberly Shaver-Hood said the school system is making do as best it can with the budget constraints.

“I still have students who need a quality education, who deserve a quality education, and it’s our job to deliver one,” she said. “Because they’re going to be going out into the world and dealing with the 21st century.”

High School Junior Joe Nash echoes the Superintendent.

“Having a limited budget is almost a benefit because it teaches you how to be flexible in life,” Nash said, “and that’s a really good trait to have because life’s always throwing random stuff at you that you’re gonna have to handle.”

Now, the question is whether the town of Wareham can find the flexibility it needs to turn the tide on its financial problems.