CHATHAM — In a bid to circumvent a 164-year-old law that was rooted in religious bigotry, selectmen are going to unusual lengths to support the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post. That includes calling a special town meeting for May 14, the second night of the town’s annual town meeting.
The Brown-James Buck VFW Post applied for $200,000 in historic preservation funds from the Community Preservation Act to support a renovation project, but was denied because the building was not found to be historic. While it serves veterans who are members, the VFW is also an important venue for community gatherings and fundraisers, including most recently the post-swim barbecue held by the April Fools.
When CPA funds were unavailable, a petition article was placed on the annual town meeting warrant asking voters to spend $200,000 in property taxes to support the project, but town counsel warned of a legal roadblock. Attorney Patrick Costello said the appropriation would run afoul of the Anti-aid Amendment to the state constitution, which essentially prohibits the use of public funds for private institutions. Still, selectmen expressed support for the appropriation, and offered to find a different way to make it work.
After a half-hour closed-door session Monday, selectmen voted to call the special town meeting for May 14 at 6:30 p.m. to consider a single article. In very broad language, the article authorizes the town to acquire an interest in the VFW property in order to allow an appropriation of funds to improve or repair the building.
“The language is intentionally broad to provide the parties wide latitude in negotiating the terms of acquisition and continued use of the property by the current owner,” Finance Director Alix Heilala wrote in a memo to the board last week. “The draft language suggests a lease back should the town acquire all or a portion of the property,” she wrote.
“We could buy the whole property and lease it back to them,” Selectmen Chairman Dean Nicastro said. “You could conceive of a long-term lease” of around 50 years, with an option to renew, he said. Alternately, the town might buy just an interest in the property, or possibly purchase the rights to first refusal if the property is sold. The VFW occupies two parcels of land which the town sold to them for $75 each in the 1950s, and the transaction might involve one or both of those lots.
Negotiations are not yet underway, Nicastro said, but there is a need to act quickly.
“It’s important for them to have the issue resolved by the summer, because they have heating issues,” he said.
Adopted by voters in 1855, the Anti-Aid Amendment to the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights was a project of the nationalist Know Nothing Party, which was seeking a way to prevent public funds from being spent on largely Catholic institutions like hospitals and schools. At the time, there was a virulent anti-immigrant sentiment in sectors of the population, and Roman Catholics were seen as anti-democratic because they were loyal to Rome. The Know Nothings started originally as a secret society, and followers were said to reply “I know nothing” when questioned by outsiders.
While there have been several attempts to repeal the Anti-Aid Amendment, it remains on the books, Nicastro said. An attorney, Nicastro has described the amendment as “a nasty, bigoted piece of law that was put into effect during a bad period in this country.”
On Tuesday, without detailed discussion, selectmen unanimously voted to call the special town meeting, to place and endorse the $200,000 VFW article on the warrant, and then to close the warrant. If passed by voters, the appropriation would add less than three cents to the property tax rate and has been incorporated into the fiscal 2020 proforma budget.
For around 60 years, the Brown-James-Buck VFW post has been a refuge for local veterans as well as an important community resource, providing affordable space for weddings, funerals and community dinners. Faced with declining membership, the post relies on revenues from hall rentals to keep the building in operation, and will use part of the $200,000 to expand the function spaces, allowing more wedding and special event bookings. Because it is an affordable alternative to more expensive resorts and restaurants, the VFW's conference space is seen as an important resource for locals.
Part of the appropriation will also be used to make repairs on the building, which has suffered from a leaky roof and climate control problems, and needs new exterior siding and an elevator.