An article asking the town to borrow $4.3 million to build an addition to Hildreth House failed at Spring Town Meeting last Saturday. It also failed at the polls. The borrowing would have funded construction of a 6,271-square-foot building next to Hildreth House to provide additional space for Council on Aging (COA) dining, programs, and events. The Town Meeting discussion lasted only 20 minutes; three residents spoke for the article, including COA co-chair Beth Williams and Lucy Wallace, Select Board member and liaison to the COA. Five residents spoke against the article.
COA Director Debbie Thompson advocates for the Hildreth House addition. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)
COA Director Debbie Thompson explained why the project was particularly important now that social distancing is required, since even less space will be available at Hildreth House for lunches and programs. She added that there were not a lot of older residents at Town Meeting because of fear of COVID-19 and the heat, and she acknowledged that this was not a good time to ask the town for money. But she asked voters to keep the 1,700 over-60 residents in town in mind when voting.
Williams spoke to the need for the addition based on the number of people who use COA services, and expressed frustration that when the new elementary school was about to be voted on two years ago, proponents of that project assured the COA that if older residents supported the new school they would not have to worry about the upcoming Hildreth House addition vote because “we’ll take care of you.” SusanMary Redinger, the School Committee’s representative to the Capital Planning and Investment Committee, had a few weeks earlier pulled her vote of support for the project, citing school budget concerns.
Jim Farrell of Ohlin Lane wondered why there was no presentation with more information about the project, as there normally is when large building projects are up for vote at Town Meeting. “I don’t really know what I’m buying,” he said. “It feels like people would feel more confident about it if they knew what they were getting.”
Not a Skunk Works
Thompson responded that presentations were done in the fall at various venues, but the pandemic prevented the Council on Aging from making a presentation at Town Meeting. Hildreth House Phase 2 Subcommittee Chair Guy Oliva also responded, saying that the plans have been publicized at public meetings and in the newspaper for the past two years. “This isn’t a secret project like the Skunk Works at Lockheed,” he quipped.
Williams told the Press that the COA had planned to distribute handouts at Town Meeting and have a pop-up tent with drawings and information, but all were vetoed by town administration. She said they were also told that, in order to keep the meeting moving quickly, the Hildreth House Phase 2 Subcommittee could not come to the front and make a presentation, as would normally happen for a building project. She added that the committee had presentations planned at Town Hall, Hildreth House, and the General Store for the months leading up to Town Meeting, but the pandemic brought all that to a halt.
Farrell also asked if, given the knowledge of COVID-19, “Is this the building you would build now?” Thompson said, “Most likely we’d need something bigger.” Three other residents expressed concern about whether the proposed building would fit the needs of the town now and going forward.
Still River Road resident Fred Hinchliffe said the town will likely be looking at proposals for a new fire station and a new Department of Public Works building in the next few years, and though he is “well past 60,” he values those buildings more than an addition to the senior center. “If you want to do something for seniors, stop the insane rise of tax bills,” he said.
The vote, 111 in favor to 74 opposed, failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority. Question 2, the request to fund the project on the town ballot, also failed. Although all of the questions asking the town for money failed, this one failed by the widest margin, 425 in favor to 704 opposed.
After the election results were known, Williams told the Press, “I’m extremely disappointed. I find it’s a sad commentary on the values of the town towards its senior population. Promises [of support] were made when the funding for the new school was under consideration but definitely not kept.”
Wednesday morning, Thompson sent a statement to the Press, which read, “I am so disheartened by the vote on the Phase 2 addition and the fact that we will not be able to properly serve our seniors.” The statement also disputed comments made on the social media site Nextdoor about the number of older citizens served by the Council on Aging: “I am also sad that some people believe incorrect numbers of those using the services at the COA instead of just asking for the proper numbers reported to the Executive Office of Elder Affairs.” Thompson thanked the Phase 2 subcommittee members for their hard work, and added, “The dedicated staff at the COA will continue to do the best we can with what we have left.”