Massachusetts City Feels Sting From Budget Crisis
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Thousands of cities across the country have some tough choices to make ahead of a July 1st budget deadline. Yesterday, we heard about the effects of the downturn in Summit, New Jersey. And today, we go to the small city of Gardner, Massachusetts. The recession hit Gardner especially hard and the mayor of this former manufacturing center says he's already cut local government services to the core.
David Boeri of member station WBUR reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAINS)
DAVID BOERI: Gardner still calls itself the Chair City, but the last big factory that made chairs is gone. Freight trains roll through the former chair-making capitol of the world that once turned out four million chairs a year. What's left is the nickname and a recession-triggered budget crisis that's grown like weeds along the tracks.
(SOUNDBITE OF ECHOING FOOTSTEPS)
BOERI: Take a walk with Mayor Mark Hawke through city hall in the Chair City, and you'll find that most of the chairs here are empty.
BLOCK: Engineer's office. We used to have an engineer, assistant engineer, a surveyor, a AutoCAD person and then the clerk. Cut the staff in half in here.
BOERI: Hawke introduces department heads without any hands to help them. Others have only part-time clerks. The halls are eerily quiet.
A bunch of leftover Scott Brown for Senate signs tucked into the mayor's office reveals his affinity with the new Republican senator's philosophy of lean government. But while he embraces the concept, Mayor Hawke notes you can only streamline and consolidate so much.
BLOCK: Municipal grounds, parks, playgrounds, cemeteries, forestry, flood control, insect and pest control, golf course and greenwood pool: One clerk.
BOERI: And don't count on finding the department head in his office. Michael Gonyeo was too busy mowing grass, digging holes at the cemetery or cutting trees.
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BLOCK: We have a list on my desk right now, it's probably about six years old, where people have called and we have not gotten to them.
BOERI: For tree work.
BLOCK: For tree work. Yeah.
BOERI: Six years.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BOERI: If you live in Gardner and there's a death in your family, Mike Gonyeo and the grounds crew will make sure the hole at the cemetery gets dug in time. But you can probably forget about the smaller stuff.
BLOCK: And I hate when they yell at you and swear at you and slam the phone.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
BOERI: As the steam hisses from his family's dry cleaning machines, Tim Horrigan vents that the roads here are atrocious, his child's school is getting squeezed, and...
BLOCK: People are frustrated because they can't get the services maybe that they need, or the answers that they want or are looking for.
BOERI: What becomes apparent in Gardner is how the core functions of municipal government are shrinking to the four corners of police, fire, schools and streets, which are themselves stressed. Schools are laying-off 10 percent of the staff.
And Mayor Mark Hawke says he's run out of targets.
BLOCK: There's really nobody left in city hall to cut. You can only right size government so much, which I'm a big fan of, until it becomes the right size. And then you're just, like I said, amputating.
Watch your step.
BOERI: At city hall, where Friday is now a half day, Mayor Hawke opens the locked door of a once beautiful high-ceiling auditorium. Its floors are warped, a leaking roof has flaked the paint, and there's been no heating or cooling.
BLOCK: Well, we can't afford to fix it. We can't afford to tear it down.
BOERI: And now Gardner can't afford a full staff either. The so-called Chair City continues to empty still more chairs.
For NPR News, I'm David Boeri.
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