Plans for raising $20 million for a new senior center and a renovated library created a lot of buzz this week—pro and con—in political circles and on social media.
Members of the finance committee on Tuesday night, September 3 peppered Town Manager George H. (Bud) Dunham with questions about how the money will be raised and suggestions about how to present the proposals to the voters at a Special Town Meeting next month.
Mr. Dunham, armed with charts and budget tables, explained that the town will float a bond for the costs—borrowing about $16 million for the senior center—tentatively named the Center For Active Living—and about $3 million for interior renovations to the existing Sandwich Public Library.
The loan would not be repaid by raising taxes, but rather from alternative sources that include annual payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) funds from the power plant; tax revenue from short-term rentals; and proceeds from the sale of town buildings.
The voters have already approved the sale of the former Henry T. Wing School, the Town Hall Annex on Main Street, and the town office building at 16 Jan Sebastian Drive. If the warrant for the Special Town Meeting is approved, the town will also ask voters to approve the sale of the Forestdale Fire Station on Route 130, Mr. Dunham said.
Mark I. Snyder, chairman of the finance committee and the editor of a Sandwich-focused Facebook page, said people online are curious about the sale of town buildings.
“People are saying they’d like to see the [old] buildings sold before money is spent for new buildings,” Mr. Snyder said.
Similar issues were raised this week by members of the Sandwich Commission on Disability. The commissioners decided to hold off voting to endorse the senior center and library because they had questions about the disposition of existing buildings.
“It seems like other buildings could be used [for a senior center],” said Chairman Mary S. Grabowski. “I don’t know. There’s not enough information at this point.”
Ms. Grabowski said she has been following the conversation about the senior center and the library on social media and with family members, but has come across more questions than answers.
David J. Sampson, the chairman of the board of selectmen and social media aficionado, said after the finance committee meeting that there is much misinformation on social media about the town’s proposals.
The town cannot sell municipal buildings until they are vacated, Mr. Sampson said. Currently the former Wing School is used for school district administrative offices, and the Jan Sebastian and town hall annex buildings are used for town offices.
Ultimately, the school administrators will move to the human services building on Quaker Meetinghouse Road, but not until the Council On Aging moves out of that building and, if the voters approve it, into a new senior center. That move is at least three years down the road, town officials have estimated.
“People in certain [online] discussion groups are still saying that the town would raise taxes to build the senior center and that is just not true,” Mr. Sampson said. “I think there are keyboard warriors out there who just want to make their point and are not interested in listening.”
Finance committee members Gwendolyn H. Dyson and Robert J. Guerin suggested the town ask the voters whether they would prefer to pay for the senior center and library through a debt exclusion or through the alternative sources outlined by Mr. Dunham.
A debt exclusion—which would be repaid through a temporary property tax increases—would require a two-thirds majority vote at Town Meeting and a ballot vote, Mr. Dunham replied. The use of the power plant money, rooms tax funds and money from the sale of town buildings, would also require a two-thirds majority vote at Town Meeting, but would not require a separate ballot vote.
“I think the building sounds fabulous,” Ms. Dyson said of the senior center. “Will the entire town get to use it?”
Mr. Dunham replied in the affirmative.
The proposed senior center—which was unveiled to the public for the first time at the selectmen’s meeting last week—would offer a little something for everyone, Mr. Dunham said.
The 26,000 square foot facility would include two floors with an expansive lobby, an indoor/outdoor cafe, a reading room, and a multipurpose room on the first floor.
The second floor would have activity rooms, games, fitness rooms and classrooms.
The facility would also house an 8,000 square foot gym with an indoor walking track encircling the gym on the second floor. The gym would be open to the community, although that access would be limited to evenings and possibly weekends, Patricia Collins, chairman of the Sandwich Council on Aging, has said.
The complex would be sited in the southwest corner of the proposed public safety campus at the intersection of Quaker Meetinghouse and Cotuit roads.
“If ever there was a time to think about doing this, now is the time,” Mr. Dunham said, explaining that the two new anticipated sources of revenue have not yet been tapped for other municipal needs.
Mr. Dunham added, however, that there is some risk involved in this kind of funding.
“If the selectmen and voters decide to fund the combined project within our Proposition 2½ tax levy limits, these costs need to be fully met each fiscal year until the project debt is fully paid—despite any negative impact these payments may have on operating budgets or other financial decisions,” he said. “This fact cannot be minimized or forgotten. There is no going back asking for a debt exclusion at a later date once this decision is made.”
At the Town Meeting in May, voters eventually said “yes” to the related question of whether the town should buy the former bank building at 100 Route 6A for $3.9 million to consolidate town offices under one roof.
The matter was hotly debated during the lengthy Town Meeting. The measure narrowly passed, allowing the town to buy the Santander building for a new town hall.
Many votes were cast in favor of a competing citizens petition that would have directed the town to buy the Santander building and repurpose it as a senior center.
During that meeting, the selectmen promised the voters—especially the seniors—that they would find a way to build a new senior center.
Mr. Dunham said later that it would make sense to combine the financing for the library with a project proposed by the library to update the Main Street building to accommodate new technology and attract younger patrons.
Mr. Dunham and his financial team have spent months meeting with the architects for the senior center and the library—and crunching numbers—to make the plans a reality without raising taxes.
Mr. Sampson said this week that if the two projects are approved and completed, the town will have met all its major long-range capital improvement goals.
“Sandwich is a very special place and this will make it better,” he said. “I hope people will come to the Special Town Meeting and vote.”