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Override crosses hurdle; safety jobs added.

Byline: Betsy Haley-Cormier

WESTMINSTER - Voters approved a $729,309 override for the school district Tuesday night, added two positions for the Police and Fire departments and gave their OK to the town's $16.3 million operating budget.

Just 282, or 5.5 percent, of the town's 5,144 registered voters turned out for the annual town meeting at the Westminster Elementary School.

The vote in favor of the override for the Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School District was pretty overwhelming, said Town Clerk Denise L. MacAloney yesterday.

But the override still has other hurdles to clear.

A different amount will appear as an override on the warrant for Saturday's town meeting in Ashburnham, and both Ashburnham and Westminster must put the override to a ballot vote, which has been scheduled for June 12 in Westminster.

The School Department has said the override is needed for fixed costs, such as transportation, insurance, special education and state mandates.

Public safety was utmost in the minds of voters as they approved, by a majority vote, the addition of a full-time firefighter at a net cost of $3,106 per year and a full-time police officer at a cost of $42,921.

They first heard from Fire Chief Brenton W. MacAloney, who attributed the need for an additional person to a critical shortage of on-call firefighters.

The new firefighter's job will cost only $3,106 as a result of the chief's idea to ask current full-time firefighters to consider reducing their weekly hours from 48 to 42 hours. The salary savings and ambulance receipts would help pay for the new position.

Advisory Board member Keith Harding spoke out against the article, saying that while he appreciated the approach Chief Macaloney took to keep the costs low, he figured the town would be paying more money for fewer hours.

Selectman Thomas O'Toole also spoke against the article, saying the town should wait and absorb the costs of the firefighter that was approved just last fall before adding another person.

It was then that members of the Fire Department spoke out, asking voters to approve the extra person and explaining why.

"When you dial 911," Bruce Blessington said, "you want people to respond in the right numbers, with the right equipment and you want them to show up on time. The full-time firefighters are giving up their salaries to provide that service to the town."

Voters also heard from Linda Barrows, who called the Fire Department last week about her 18-month-old son, who was unresponsive.

"I was very happy to see four full-time firefighters and one police officer arrive within minutes," she said.

Voters didn't need to hear any more. They quickly approved the additional position and the additional police officer.

In the absence of Police Chief Sam Albert, Michael MacDonald told voters the addition of just one officer would fully staff two officers per shift 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He said the safety of the town's officers as well as the public was at stake with any less service.

"One guy handling a call is an awfully tough thing to do," he said.

Mary Jo Hill of the Telegram & Gazette staff contributed to this report.

NAME: PROPOSITION 2-1/2 OVERRIDE; WESTMINSTER FIRE DEPARTMENT; WESTMINSTER POLICE DEPARTMENT
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 3, 2007
Words:543
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