By John Swinconeck, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – A Shrewsbury committee charged with monitoring the town's fiscal health for the last five years is warning both town government and residents that it faces a stark choice: increase expenditures or look for decreased services from public safety, schools, and other departments.
Members of the 2013 Fiscal Study Committee addressed issues detailed in its final report with the board of selectmen at the board's Dec. 10 meeting. For four months, the committee met with all town departments in order to better understand Shrewsbury's fiscal situation.
According to the committee's report:? “The committee found that there are no viable or realistic alternatives to reduce the expenditures of the town government. The committee found that the departments have achieved every level of efficiency that is feasible, from streamlining operations, contracting out services and regionalization. Costs that can be controlled have been reduced or the rate of growth moderated. Any further reductions would cause severe degradation of services.”
Committee member Heather Kasperzak warned selectmen that, in the case of the Police Department, such degradation could be a matter of life or death.
“When you’re pushed to the limit for so long, it's difficult to provide this kind of professional service,” Kasperzak said.
The Police Department must often “juggle” its staff to provide enough shift coverage, and personnel are often taken out of school and traffic details in order to fill patrol shifts, resulting in a more “reactive” force that loses effectiveness as a deterrent, said Kasperzak. There is also an economic cost, because the town has lost $62,000 in revenue for traffic citations and $10,000 in parking violations.
It's a “bleak picture,” according to committee member Gary Alperson.
“Every department has had its resources stretched as far as we saw was feasible,” Alperson said, adding that Shrewsbury has made a “significantly lower investment” in its departments compared to other towns.
According to the committee's report: “Shrewsbury has always been fiscally conservative relative to surrounding towns. However, in recent years, the gap between Shrewsbury's taxes and those of neighboring towns has increased significantly.”
Shrewsbury is second only to Millbury in the 14-town Assabet Valley Collaborative in having the lowest taxes.
“It seems our trade-off is between accepting significant cuts to one or more services we value, or increasing the tax rate through an override,” Alperson said.
Meanwhile, departments are dealing with the strain of little to no increases in funding.
Jason Palitsch, who represented the school district on the committee, said schools are straining under “higher than appropriate classroom sizes” in schools and the high costs of special education. “The expense of demands on the school department has increased exponentially,” he said.
“The town is extremely well-managed – to some extent, it's managed too well,” said committee member Peter Collins. “We’re an 18-hour snowstorm away from cracking in the delivery of some of our services.”
Committee member Bernie Forletta said Shrewsbury is “stretched to its limits” and needs to decide “where to go and whether to support its values.”
“We believe the town is very well run, and we’d like to keep it that way,” Forletta said.
The 32-member committee, consisting of Town Meeting members, at-large members, and some members of selectmen and the finance and school committees, was formed in July. It was charged with investigating and reporting on all issues pertaining to Shrewsbury's fiscal health for the past five years.
Maurice M. DePalo, the selectman who co-chaired the committee, said that Shrewsbury's fiscal condition had “gotten a lot tighter” since the previous Fiscal Study Committee report in 2007, and the town has since seen a slight degradation in services. Without an increase in taxes, those services may face additional cuts.
“There's no place else to go,” DePalo said.
Read the complete report, released last month, here: http://www.shrewsbury-ma.gov/egov/docs/1385560116_950775.pdf