A multigenerational public campus bustling with activities for all ages may be years from completion, but voters at Town Meeting this week cemented that vision of the future and authorized that the work begin.
“We have a long way to go before construction,” Town Manager George H. (Bud) Dunham said, speaking about the new senior center voters overwhelmingly approved this week. “My rough guess is construction will begin in 2021.”
Remodeling the Sandwich Public Library—the other proposed architectural project that emerged victorious from the Town Meeting—will take place sooner, Mr. Dunham said.
“We hope to be able to start work by next summer,” Mr. Dunham said. “My really rough estimate is about a year’s worth of work.”
There are many procedural steps the town must take before either project begins, the town manager said. Project managers must be hired for both buildings, and contracts and bids must be obtained.
Nevertheless, Mr. Dunham said, he is overjoyed that the townspeople said ‘yes’ to the selectmen’s proposals for both projects.
“I’m just very thankful for the overwhelming support from the board of selectmen—and the public—to move these projects forward and get them funded,” Mr. Dunham said. “It’s not just the final vote I’m thankful for, it’s all the years and decades of work and support to get us there.”
Although the 913 registered voters who filed into the Sandwich High School auditorium on Monday night, October 28 did not constitute a record crowd for a Special Town Meeting, it was “up there,” Town Clerk Taylor D. White said.
“So many people showed up five to 10 minutes before 7 PM, the start of the meeting was delayed until 7:30,” Mr. White said. “The line went from the auditorium lobby, out to the sidewalk and all the way back to the parking lot.”
Mr. White said the average turnout for special town meetings is about 400 people.
This year, townspeople had been urged to participate by the board of selectmen, the council on aging, the library board of trustees, the media, and their neighbors.
“I never come to these things, but there was an awful lot of pressure,” said Roger Burleigh, a South Sandwich resident who ducked out of the Town Meeting shortly after the ‘yes’ vote for the senior center.
“I just couldn’t sit there for another minute,” Mr. Burleigh said with a sheepish grin.
Town Moderator Garry N. Blank and David J. Sampson, chairman of the selectmen, had publicly urged the people in the crowd—who filled every seat in the auditorium and stood along the walls—not to leave right after the vote.
The selectmen had been concerned the many senior citizens who attended the meeting would leave right after a vote on the building plan—bundled together in Article 1 of the town warrant. If the crowd thinned out, there was a danger that even if the article passed, it could be rescinded later in the meeting via a request for reconsideration.
It never came to that. There was, however, a procedural wrinkle early in the meeting when Mark Snyder, chairman of the finance committee, asked that Article 1 be split into two questions.
The article combined both projects— the library’s renovation and the construction of the Center For Active Living—and asked for the taxpayers to approve $16.5 million for the senior center and $3.5 million for the library.
Mr. Snyder, who said he was making the motion on behalf of finance board members and social media participants who objected to the two-project bundle, wanted the audience to vote separately on the two buildings.
Mr. Snyder’s motion stirred a torrent of objections.
“I rise against the separation,” said Sandwich resident and State Representative Randy Hunt, summing up the feeling in the room. “If you’re here in favor or against both projects, there’s no reason to separate [the proposal] into two articles.”
Shortly thereafter someone called the question and the audience issued a roaring ‘nay’ to the suggestion that the article be split.
Before the voting began, Mr. Dunham, representatives from the library and senior center projects, and the board of selectmen gave presentations about the facilities, accompanied by architectural drawings projected on giant screens.
Mr. Dunham explained how the town would like to fund the project without raising taxes.
In brief, the town will float a bond for the costs—borrowing about $16.5 million for a new senior center and about $3.5 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.
“Last spring we promised to bring this back to Town Meeting,” Mr. Dunham said. “Although there will be no debt exclusion, we still need a two-thirds majority vote because we have to borrow funds.”
He was referring to an emotionally charged May Town Meeting at which a citizens petition asked that the Santander Bank building on Route 6A be purchased and repurposed as a senior center. The selectmen had designs on that building for municipal offices, and successfully garnered a town vote for that purpose.
The selectmen promised at the time, however, that they would bring the senior center proposal back to a special town meeting for voter consideration. Mr. Dunham later added the library proposal and the selectmen agreed that bundling the two would allow the town to obtain a better borrowing rate.
Despite negativity about the projects’ cost from many members of the finance committee, the Capital Improvement Planning Committee and the Republican town committee, the selectmen’s gamble paid off.
After more discussion on the matter, Selectman Robert J. George expressed the selectmen’s prevailing sentiment.
“We sit before you, but we stand behind you,” Mr. George said. “Let’s stand together as a community, vote on question one, and get it done.”
Just before 9 PM, Mr. George got his wish.
Mr. Blank called for a voice vote and the word ‘aye’ boomed from every quarter of the room.
A few voices said ‘nay,’ but the result was unmistakable.
“It carries unanimously,” Mr. Blank said.
The audience burst into applause.
Mr. Sampson attempted shortly thereafter to ask that the motion be reconsidered. He explained that he wanted to raise the matter quickly—and get it resolved—before people filed out of the room.
Mr. Blank, however, refused.
“Not enough time has passed,” to bring up reconsideration, Mr. Blank said.
The matter never resurfaced.
Mr. Dunham, who, along with his financial team, worked for months on the financing package for the library and senior center, was visibly relieved by the end of the meeting, which went on until about 11 PM.
Mr. Dunham smiled and said that Sandwich has now met almost all the long-term capital goals that have been envisioned for many years.
“I’m convinced whomever is in our chairs decades from now will be very happy that we got these long-term needs met,” he said.