Reopen Planning of Wellesley Senior Center sign now

Town Hall
525 Washington Street
Wellesley, MA 02482

Ladies and Gentlemen:

We write to urge that the Board of Selectmen reexamine the proposal to build a senior center on the American Legion site. If this project goes forward, construction and land for parking would cost the Town more than $6,000,000. There is widespread agreement on the need for an enhanced facility in which programs for Wellesleys seniors can be offered. However, the plans for the senior center were initially developed two years ago, when the U.S. economy and Wellesleys finances were in far better condition than they are now. In the intervening period, Wellesleys residents have seen the value of their investments and homes plummet, and many have lost jobs. The Town is facing escalating requirements for capital expenditures as well as climbing costs for employee health care and retirement benefits, while state aid will remain under pressure for the foreseeable future. These circumstances create an urgent need to revive the idea of building a senior center at the Wellesley Community Center. Under the proposal developed by representatives of the Town and the WCC in 2007, full services for the Towns seniors could be provided in a spacious, convenient setting at the WCC, without cost to the Town.

The Wellesley Community Centers mission includes serving the Towns senior citizens, and the WCC currently houses the Council on Aging and provides facilities for the COAs programs. The WCC is a financially sound and well-respected institution, with a record of success in serving the Towns seniors. Throughout the past several years, and most recently at an Advisory Committee meeting on March 17, the WCCs leadership has made it abundantly clear that the WCC is ready, willing and able to continue to provide space meeting the ongoing needs of the Council on Aging. The WCC worked extensively with the Selectmens Senior Study Committee to develop the 2007 plan for a fully renovated and expanded building with a total of 7,800 square feet available for COA use, 2,200 more than currently available. This project would have been completed at no cost to the Town, relying on funds from the Tolles Foundation. The enlarged facility was designed to be fully capable of accommodating the programs of the Council on Aging, and addressed all the needs identified by the Senior Study Committee in 2007.

After discussions with the WCC were terminated in 2008, the Senior Study Committee developed a set of requirements comprising 12,440 square feet that has served as the basis for the proposed stand-alone senior center. There is, however, no sound rationale for such a large facility. The WCC has calculated that the Council on Aging uses only about 30\% of the space currently available at the WCC. Participation by Wellesleys seniors in COA programs would, therefore, have to more than triple in order to exhaust the space now available at the WCC. The Study Committee is positing the need for a facility more than double the size of the current WCC space based on the assumption that opening a dedicated facility for senior support will dramatically increase usage and participation. There is, however, no real evidence of a vast unmet need for senior facilities in Wellesley. On the contrary, a 2007 survey of Wellesleys seniors, conducted by the Senior Study Committee itself, resulted in favorability ratings of over 90\% for the availability and accessibility of space for seniors programs at the WCC as it is currently configured. The plan to improve and expand the WCC represents a wholesale upgrade to a facility that the COAs clientele already views positively. And, the proposed enlargement of the WCC would, by any standard, accommodate a dramatic increase in the patronage of COA programs.

With this background, two conclusions are inescapable: the Community Center could meet any demonstrated need for space required to offer the Council on Agings programs; and, the WCC could do so at no cost to the Towns taxpayers. Nevertheless, the Town has continued to press forward to construct a new building, the cost of which is preliminarily estimated to exceed $5,000,000, with an additional $1,270,000 being sought to purchase land for parking. The principal reason given by the Senior Study Committee for choosing this path is that the WCC was unable to provide adequate assurances regarding the availability of the renovated spaces. The Committee objected to complying with the WCCs standard policies for reserving space, because of the need for confirmed and accessible space for COA activities. This is not an issue that should stand in the way of an agreement to allow the WCC to continue to meet the needs of our senior citizens. The WCC already offers the COA priority use of the current building, and the WCC board has repeatedly offered to make available to the COA whatever space is necessary for seniors programs. Space availability at the WCC for COA activities has not been a practical problem in the past, and, in an expanded facility, there should be no reasonable expectation that the COA would need to operate under unacceptable space constraints. If the concern is that a future WCC board could change the policy regarding COA use of space, there must surely be a way for the Selectmen and the WCC to work together in good faith to establish a long-term arrangement that would provide reasonable assurances in that regard.

At the Advisory Committee meeting on March 17, a representative of the WCC asked that Advisory moderate a discussion among the WCC, the COA and the Selectman in order to resolve the impasse. Subsequent public comments by one member of the Board of Selectmen suggested that such a role for Advisory would be inappropriate, but that the Selectman would be happy to talk with the Community Center. If that is the case, those discussions should begin now.

We know that the Selectmen are acutely conscious of the difficult budgetary decisions facing the Town and the financial pressures that have accumulated for Wellesleys taxpayers over the past several years. A long list of expensive capital projects awaits approval, including new buildings for the Department of Public Works and the Municipal Light Plant, and modular classrooms for the Middle School. Furthermore, funding obligations for employee retirement and health care benefits are projected to rise sharply, and the costs of the new High School are not yet fully reflected in the Towns budget. The Commonwealth is dealing with its own budget crisis, and the level of state aid is in continuing jeopardy. The Town consequently faces years of fiscal austerity. While the senior center ostensibly aims at serving the Towns seniors, the burden of paying for its construction and operation will fall especially hard on the many seniors living on fixed incomes.

This dire picture, of course, is not the one that faced the Town in 2008, when the senior center was conceived. In the current environment, with so many critical priorities competing for funding, it seems particularly ill-advised for the Town to undertake a project costing more than $6 million, which will entail increased maintenance, staffing and programmatic expenses in the future, without a compelling need to do so. No such need exists for the senior center: space for seniors services can be made available at the Community Center, and there is no necessity to provide them elsewhere. In fact, utilizing the Wellesley Community Center as our senior center will actually enable an expansion of senior services at no capital cost to the Town. The WCC proposal thus offers an eminently sensible way of taking advantage of an existing and valuable local resource.

The Town should reopen discussions with the leadership of the WCC to enable residents to benefit from this remarkable opportunity. We ask that the Board of Selectmen take the lead in this process without delay.

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Brittany ZunigaBy:
International PolicyIn:
Petition target:
The Board of Selectmen

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