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EDITORIAL: Why We Should Postpone Decision on Senior Center

High on the list of most retired citizens’ greatest concerns is keeping property taxes in check so they can afford to stay in town and keep living in their homes. Ironically, the Town Meeting Senior Center Review Committee’s proposal to build a seven-plus million dollar senior center on Farmer’s Row, while rejecting Prescott as a site for a senior center, could significantly raise the tax burden on the very people this senior center is – supposedly - being constructed to help.

To fully grasp the cost implications of building a senior center - whether on Farmer’s Row or in West Groton - is to know that any such Senior Center’s building costs are ‘joined at the hip’ with the town’s ownership and commitment to renovate Prescott School.

We can’t afford to build a senior center and also largely duplicate its function by renovating Prescott School. That’s just not reasonable. To think so is the victory of day dreaming over political and practical reality.

The uncomfortable truth is that Prescott School has no solid purpose for the long-term. If the building cannot be used for a senior center, it will probably be used as an ill-defined ‘community center’. Town Meeting has already given tacit approval for moving forward with renovating Prescott. So, the town is getting ready to build a new senior center while also preparing to renovate Prescott School at about the same cost for a similar purpose. Does this make sense?

So, instead of spending just $7 million, the taxpayers are on track to spend more than double that amount – at least $14 million for two buildings. In addition to these construction costs, there will be ongoing maintenance expenditures for two buildings instead of one.

The primary charge given the Town Meeting Senior Center Review Committee was to do a ‘deep dive’ on the feasibility of using Prescott as a senior center. Unfortunately, committee members Gary Green and Greg Sheldon both publicly acknowledged that the analysis and vetting of Prescott was ‘short circuited’ [Gary Green’s words] because of time constraints. Given Town Meeting’s clear charge to the committee, and the importance of a full and fair evaluation of Prescott due to its heavy impact on town finances, this is a disappointing and potentially very costly decision.

Off-the-record comments lead us to believe that, in addition to technical challenges, the Prescott site was abandoned for political reasons – certain members of the committee being adamantly opposed to using Prescott for a senior center, no matter what. Consequently, the effort to evaluate Prescott was aborted without the comprehensive, creative effort and problem-solving initiative needed to see Prescott as a viable location.

The lack of a big-picture financial perspective has distorted the evaluation process. There needs to be time for an approach to a senior center with a full accounting of the financial pressures on seniors and town finances.

Therefore, we recommend postponing the decision to build a senior center. During a period of calm reassessment, safety and health-related issues at the current senior center should be addressed so that the building can be safely and securely used by seniors.

Then, a full evaluation of Prescott parking, an access road, and related concerns should be undertaken without artificial deadlines. We should complete a full evaluation committee member Greg Sheldon describes in his letter on this page and member Gary Green has mentioned. There should be no rush to judgment. There is too much money riding on this decision. Let’s take the time, let’s do it right.

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