Selectmen Greenlight Vote At Annual Town Meeting For A $650K Feasibility Study For New Senior Center

WILMINGTON, MA — At a meeting earlier this month, the Wilmington Board of Selectmen voted to place an article on the warrant of the 2020 Annual Town Meeting to fund a $650,000 feasibility study and schematic design for a new Senior Center.

The vote was 4-1 with Selectman Mike McCoy in opposition. McCoy supports a new senior center, but voted against the motion because he felt it didn’t go far enough. McCoy, along with some of the advocates for a new senior center who spoke with the Selectmen back in December, wanted the project’s full costs — including construction — approved at this year’s Town Meeting, scheduled for on Sunday, May 2, 2020.

Town Manager Jeff Hull and each of McCoy’s colleagues, however, felt that such an approach was not financially responsible and inconsistent with how the town typically funds building projects. Instead, they would like to see residents wait and vote on the construction costs at the 2021 Town Meeting, AFTER a feasibility study and schematic design are completed, which would identify a location and generate accurate cost estimates.

“There is value in taking a two-step approach,” explained Hull. “There’s been no site identified for a new senior center. There’s certainly been many sites talked about — the existing site, the Town Hall site, the property next to St. Dorothy’s, and the former Whitefield School site — but there hasn’t been any definitive location. The cost of constructing a new senior center is going to be based, in part, on the site. There’s any number of issues (e.g., access to water & sewer, presence of ledge) that need to be identified for the site. To go into this without knowing what your site is could spell problems in terms of the appropriation amount.”

“To just simply suggest the project will cost $8 million or $9 million without knowing its site location, its size, its number of floors, and all the building elements, could mean the  town may have to come back to a future Town Meeting for additional funding, or alternatively, reduce the scope and scale of the project if the money put forward won’t carry the day,” Hull cautioned. 

“I think [putting a warrant article to fund a feasibility study and schematic design] is the appropriate first step towards the goal of getting a new senior center,” agreed Selectmen Chair Greg Bendel. “Everyone up here is supportive of a new senior center, but I want to make sure we do so in a fiscally responsible manner. This first step is the same first step we took to get the new high school, the same first step we took to get the new Public Safety Building, and the same first step we took to get the new middle school. I think this puts us in a good position to get the correct number for the cost us this project.”

Hull recommends the $650,000 to fund the study and design come from the town’s “free cash” reserves.

Selectman Mike McCoy wanted to know where the construction costs, not just the study and design costs, for the project will eventually come from.

“The big question is how are we going to pay for all this. I know the Town Manager stated he’d rather do a debt exclusion, but we have $38 million in 2 free cash accounts. I’d feel uncomfortable going to the taxpayers for a debt exclusion… I don’t think we should take any money from the taxpayers. Let’s use the money from free cash. Let’s come up with one price tag. I think it would b more prudent to roll it all into one,” cautioned McCoy, who also claimed a two-step approach would slow the process down to where a new Center likely wouldn’t open until 2023 or 2024.

McCoy also noted that the $650,000 for a feasibility study could be wasted if voters decide they don’t want to pay for a new Senior Center through a debt exclusion (tax increase). McCoy pointed out how, in the past, the town spent money on a feasibility study for a new library that was eventually voted down.

Hull responded with two clarifications.

“I have not indicted that my desire is to go to a debt exclusion [to fund the construction of the senior center],” said Hull. “That hasn’t been said. It’s an option we may consider, but that isn’t the approach I’m proposing.”

“I respect [senior center advocate and Permanent Building Committee member] Diane Allan’s efforts to come up with a number, but it was based on many assumptions — we don’t have a location or any particulars whatsoever to the building’s size, number of rooms or the features,” added Hull. “I think it’s ill advised to tell people at Town Meeting that we’re looking for a number without having any substantive rationale for that number.”

“I believe the Senior Center should be a priority… but the reality is we need a plan,” said Selectwoman Jomarie O’Mahony. “I think someone at the last meeting said ‘just give us the money and we’ll figure it out.’ I ask you — if that was presented to us for any other municipal project, how would you respond?”

“There’s chaotic information being presented to us with numbers being thrown around and inflated with no basis for it,” continued O’Mahony. “So we’re saying we want to hire an expert to put together a plan that makes sense…. I don’t understand why we’d rely on chaotic information with no substance behind it to make such an important decision. I agree you’re time is now, but you deserve the very best thoughtful plan that we can put together for you, like we did for the high school, like we did for the middle school, and like we did for so many other [town building projects]…. Tell me why thoughtful planning isn’t warranted?”

O’Mahony successfully proposed an amendment to the motion so that the project’s OPM would give regular public updates on the feasibility study to the Board of Selectmen and Elderly Services Commission.

“I do think a new Senior Center is very much a priority,” agreed Selectman Jonathan Eaton. “I’m wary of trying to do it all [in one vote], especially since we don’t know the who, what, when and where of what this is going to be.”

Eaton doesn’t think a bifurcated vote would slow delay the process much, if at all. And Eaton agreed with O’Mahony that if the feasibility study and schematic design was unexpectedly completed well ahead of the 2021 Annual Town Meeting, the Selectmen could call a Special Town Meeting just for the purpose of voting on the construction costs.

(And, in the inverse, during Public Comments, Town Manager Jeff Hull noted that if the feasibility study and schematic design took longer than expected, the Selectmen would not simply wait until the 2022 Annual Town Meeting, but call a Special Town Meeting as soon as the study and design was completed.)

Eaton also noted that taking the time to create a feasibility study will assist Wilmington’s state delegation of securing some funding for the project. State Representative David Robertson (D-Tewksbury), who was in the audience, agreed with Eaton’s assessment. State Senator Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) did not want to tell the town want to do, but also saw merit with such an approach.

During Public Comments, Selectmen Chair Greg Bendel clarified that he holds former Selectwoman Diane Allan, who helped the advocates for a new Senior Center come up with the initial $8-$9 million cost estimate based on the town’s Facility Master Plan, in high regard.

“We can all agree that she’s given a great deal to this community over the years on many committees,” said Bendel. “Nothing said up here tonight was meant as a person attack on her. I consider her a friend and a great person.”

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