On Split Vote Select Board Approves Oversight Committee For Prescott School
by Connie Sartini
The Groton Select Board received a letter from the Friends of Prescott requesting formation of a Project Development Committee to work on implementing the Prescott School building plan that was approved by the Select Board on March 25. The letter states that “such a committee could work to see problems with implementation of the Business Plan before they happen and work to solve them in a mutually agreed upon manner. It also would provide a conduit of communication and expertise between the Friends and its landlord, enhancing the profitability of the building for all parties.”
In the letter Friends of Prescott also recommend that an alarm system be added to the list of critical repairs, so that, along with the sprinkler system, the building again could meet code for E (educational) use.
Friends of Prescott Vice President Bill Katter told the Select Board that he became involved with the organization as he was impressed with a non-profit organization that wanted to save the Prescott School building while providing a community center and he felt this was an “elegant solution.” It is a public service and a public asset “without the burden on the taxpayer, using available Community Preservation Committee (CPC) Funds and state funds.” He went on to say that the rental space at the school should defray all the costs. “We are here tonight to ask the Board to establish a Development Committee that would be helpful for the Friends of Prescott, the town and the taxpayers. It will increase communication within the town ensuring the sharing of the vision.” He added, “The Friends could also use an infusion of new ideas.”
Select Board Chairman Barry Pease noted that the alarm system is scheduled to be installed at the school using CPC funds that are taxpayer monies.
Katter responded that “the FOP Community Center pays for its own, not the building. We have four tenants and are hoping to get the Book of Peace as a tenant.” He added that no one wants to operate outside the law, and the question is how to get the building self-sustaining.
He stressed that renovations carry a big price tag and “it is difficult to do with rental income. We need the CPC.”
Select Board member Alison Manugian commented that “the town does not have a good track record on old buildings.” This always requires management, she said, adding that if there was no other big capital expenditure in the future then there would be no problem. “I don’t see this as an asset for the town. Using CPC funds or capital monies is not something that I support.”
Katter commented, “I am not sure that any town has great success with this. Support it as a public good and not a private entity.”
Board member John Giger said that he did not support the creation of this committee. “You are a private non-profit organization and we would have to do this for other private organizations.” He said he wanted the vision shared with voters and to be sure that they agree. He added that the Board was told last week that the state return to the town was 11.5 percent for the CPC.
He continued, “We need the community to understand the mix of town and private and to fully understand the risk and the potential. This starts to give the appearance of a public/private entity until voters agree to this.” He added “I am hoping that someone is looking at the weight of the Book of Peace if it’s on the second floor.”
Member Becky Pine said that there were other similar non-profit organizations – The Friends of the Trees, the Grange, Hazel Grove Park, Nashua River Watershed. “Do you think that these are public/private of sorts?” She said the Friends “needed to know what is allowed and what has to be done. I think it is wise to appoint a committee.”
Chairman Pease pointed out that the Friends of Trees raise their funds through contributions and that the trees are planted on the public right-of-way. He added, “Hazel Grove Park is no cost to the town and there is no revenue. There are no taxpayers’ dollars involved. I fail to see how any of these comes close to what we are talking about.”
Selectman Josh Degen stressed that he “fully supported the concepts of the Friends of Prescott adult education and community concept. We approved a business plan, not a building plan.” He suggested that the Prescott Business Oversight Committee could work to support the lease. He told the Friends, “If we go with your request for public/private to favor a select non-profit, it’s not necessarily fair. This could be an article at Town Meeting.” He reiterated comments he made earlier, “I don’t like being a landlord. We voted at Town Meeting not to sell; we did not vote to make it a community center.”
Degen volunteered to work with Town Manager Mark Haddad, Finance Committee member Bud Robertson and the town treasurer on this issue. Manugian said that she, Robertson and Haddad have already been doing this. She advised, “Whoever operates a business has to stand on their own. You need to get on with the work you think you want to do.”
FOP President Mary Athey Jennings pointed out that the Friends have a lease on a $2.2M building. “People say we are being subsidized. Insurance, public parking and major capital improvements are the town’s responsibility. We work hard to keep up our part and that is inside the building.”
Marlena Gilbert, speaking as a resident, said there should be a vote on this by the taxpayers. Pease agreed, noting that the issue of the marijuana in Groton was done by a ballot vote. He added that the Library and the Twomey Center already provide programs for the community.
Gilbert noted that the Twomey Center was self-sufficient, and noted that the School Committee did not give the GD At Play any funds for their proposed track at the High School.
Pease stressed that a “lot of non-profits in town would like to be part of a public/private partnership.” Look at the lease he said, pointing out that the building is costing far more money than might ever be recovered. “We signed the lease and I want to give the lease time.” He added, “I appreciate the passion and support for the lease but I am not willing to vote for a Development Committee.”
Selectman Degen moved that the “Town Manager put together a charge for a committee that keeps minutes of these meetings for taxpayers and to keep accountability for spending tax dollars on that building.”
On a split vote – three in favor – Pease, Degen and Pine, and opposed – Manugian and Giger, the Town Manager will now prepare a charge for the Prescott Oversight Committee and have it on the agenda for the April 22 meeting.