|By Sarah M. Corigliano|
Assistant Managing Editor
HAMPDEN A group of Hampden residents has written an open letter to the town, expressing their desire to come together to plan for the future of town services namely, the Senior Center, Library, Recreation, Police and Highway Departments which were recently hit hardest by the FY06 budget cuts.
As Richard Jones, vice chair of the Board of Appeals, said, "We want to provide a liaison between the population and the government of town."
In addition to Jones, the group is comprised of people involved at many levels of town government, most of them volunteer positions.
"Everyone [in this group] was affected by [the recent budget cuts] or has a serious interest in what happens to our town in general," Jones explained.
The group has invited the entire town to a forum on Sept. 21 at Thornton W. Burgess School to "discuss the needs of Hampden."
In their letter to the town, the group states that, while most residents are very upset with the closing of the Library and Senior Center, and cutbacks in the Recreation, Police and Highway Departments, the success of the 'no' vote on the Proposition 2 1/2 override question this past spring must be respected.
Jones said he and other members hope the forum on the 21st will be an opportunity for every resident to share what they envision as acceptable levels of services in town, and also state how much they are willing to pay to maintain those services.
He said there may be many options for bringing back some services while not restoring them at their original level and the group hopes residents will be honest about their ideas and whether or not they are willing to pay to restore some or all of the affected programs.
"We're going to listen and collect information and bring it to the Board of Selectmen and talk about what the general population expects or wants," Jones explained. "We want to work with the people and with the Advisory Committee ... we're really a steering committee working with organizations in control of the finances in town."
Jones said he hopes the information collected at the meeting will allow the town to present a budget to its residents which will be in line with what they want to pay for in terms of town services.
"There won't be a communication gap [between the town government and residents]," Jones said. "It won't be possible if people participate. Next spring, everyone will know what we're doing."
He added that, while the group exists to work with residents to find out what they want for their town, the group is not planning to be an adversary to anyone, including government officials.
"We're here to work with the government and to represent the people," he said.
Jones said Hampden has gone through budget cuts on a "much bigger scale" than any other town in the state. He said research to compare Hampden's cuts with other communities and their solutions had no results.
"Hampden is the only community I know of that had [a 'no' vote on the] override and no reserves," he said. "There's no money anywhere."
Jones added that, until this year, he never voted in favor of an override because there was a "rainy day fund." This year, he said he supported it because there was no where else to look for the money needed by the town to maintain the same level of service from FY05.
In addition to sending the open letter to local newspapers and television stations, Jones said the group plans to bulk mail the information to all Hampden residents despite the high cost of doing so.
"The people on this committee have dedicated [their] lives to making this town a good place to live," he said. "We're very unhappy [about the closings and cutbacks] and we're determined to fix it."