CHATHAM — Not surprisingly, selectmen this week officially threw their support behind the plan for a new senior center at 1610 Main St.
The board recommended that town meeting pass the $8.28 million article, despite the fiscal uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The issues with the council on aging are not going to go away after we get through this period of emergency,” Selectman Peter Cocolis said. “As a matter of fact, they would probably be worse.”
It’s possible that when the project is ready for construction, bond rates will be low “and there are hungry contractors out there,” Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said.
Last week, selectmen heard a detailed proposal for the two-story, 10,965-square-foot senior center. The estimated $8,279,777 price tag is higher than the $6.6 million projected for a senior center on Middle Road in 2019, but the extra expense is largely because of the delay, not the change in location. Officials say if the Middle Road project were built today, it would also cost just over $8 million.
“Our seniors are half of our society,” Cocolis said. “It’s just time for a COA.”
Voters at the annual town meeting will consider not only the 1610 Main St. project, but a competing proposal to have a senior center built on a parcel of land off Stepping Stones Road raised by initiative petition. The future of that proposal is unclear. One of the petitioners, Fred Crimins, said he personally believes the senior center proposals should be shelved for the time being.
“The COA presently has a roof over its head. It’s not a must-have in the short term,” he said, speaking to the board by telephone. “I think we should be talking about a no-frills budget here, limiting the number of capital items in the warrant.” Crimins suggested postponing the annual town meeting and canceling the COA study.
“My heart is not in the COA feasibility study nor is it in any complicated issue facing the town while the virus wreaks havoc,” Crimins wrote in an email to the board. “Please focus all of the resources of town government and citizens on the less fortunate, the ill, and those facing financial ruin in our service-driven community.”
But having received the requisite number of signatures, the Stepping Stones Road article will appear on the annual town meeting warrant. The article was written in such a way as to also require funding through a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion vote as the annual town election, but town counsel Patrick Costello said it is the board of selectmen that controls the annual town election ballot, not petitioners. For that reason, they are not required to include the Stepping Stones Road ballot question, he said.
“That’s solely the prerogative of the board of selectmen,” Costello said.
Selectman Dean Nicastro said he opposes including the ballot question because he believes the land in question should remain under the control of the Monomoy Regional School District. Even if a feasibility study showed that the Stepping Stones Road site could support a senior center, Nicastro said he would not support doing so. The regional school committee has rejected giving up the land, which is part of the Monomoy Middle School campus.
The most recent special town meeting approved $75,000 for that feasibility study, and it should be allowed to go forward, Cocolis said. If the town doesn’t follow through with that study, selectmen will be accused of pushing through their preferred option, he said.
Selectman Cory Metters said the working group should be ready to report on the Stepping Stones Road site after two or three more meetings. He favors allowing the work to finish, “and have the information out there.”
No members of the board offered a motion to include the Stepping Stones debt exclusion question on the ballot, so it will not appear there. Should voters at the annual town meeting reject the 1610 Main St. proposal and approve the Stepping Stones Road petition instead, there would still be time for selectmen to call a special election to consider the Proposition 2½ debt exclusion.