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Senior Center Funding Approved

Special Town Meeting members voted Nov. 7 to pay for the $8.5 million building project within the town's levy limit—without an override.

After more than a decade of efforts to bring a new senior center to Needham, the project got its final green light just before midnight on Monday, Nov. 7, as special Town Meeting members voted to approve the $8.5 million funding plan.

The plan calls for a total of $8,575,000—$500,000 of which was approved at the May Town Meeting for design purposes—to be paid for by borrowing within the town’s operating budget and without asking voters to approve an override.

Three major factors enabled the town to fund the project : the Massachusetts School Building Authority agreeing to pay for a portion of the roof; the ability to use Chapter 90 (state highway) money to relocate the town’s salt shed; and a temporary reduction in funding for the town’s capital roads program.

In addition, about $425,000 in furnishings, equipment and “enhancements,” were cut from the project to keep it within the limit. Officials said Monday that some of those items could be returned through a fundraising campaign led by the Friends of the Needham Elderly.

In his opening statement, Selectman Jerry Wasserman said the plan “was perhaps the only financing plan that will work” and that it would not take money away from other vital areas in the town budget such as school, police and fire departments.

“This project needs to be done now, because the current conditions [of the ] are shameful. Our seniors deserve better,” Wasserman said. “[…] There is time for debate and there is time for action. We are now at a time for action.”

George Kent, chairman of the Permanent Public Building Committee, provided some information about the proposed building, which will be located at the corner of Hillside Avenue and West Street, just west of the MBTA commuter rail tracks. The 20,000-square-foot building will feature a 3,000-sq.-ft. multipurpose area on the ground floor with seating for 250 (150 for sit-down dinners), as well as several program spaces, a fitness room, art room, library, office spaces, meeting rooms and open-air “green roof deck” on the second level where seniors can spend time outdoors.

The $8.5 million price tag includes $7,155,000 for design and construction, $890,000 for engineering and $530,000 for contingency, Kent said.

Also speaking in favor of the project was Council on Aging Board chairwoman Susanne Hughes, who noted that efforts had been underway for more than 12 years. She highlighted the many services and activities offered at the center and noted that the current location, in the basement of the Stephen Palmer building, had been deemed “woefully inadequate” by visiting members of the senior center accreditation committee.

Hughes also noted that Needham’s senior population was “closing in on 25 percent” of the town’s overall population.

Selectman Jim Healy said he believed the financing plan to be “prudent” and “reasonable” and that it would not compromise the town’s ability to pay for other capital projects, both planned and unplanned.

Healy said others had encouraged him to speak “from the heart,” so he told the story of two Needham residents.

One, an 80-year-old retired teacher who taught Healy and had no extended family in the area, had been attending the Senior Center regularly when others began noticing that she was forgetting names, misplacing items and had lost interest in her hobbies, Healy said. With help from her friends and staff at the Senior Center, the woman—now diagnosed with Alzheimer’s—is finding a place in a local assisted living facility.

He also spoke of a 96-year-old resident “who has outlived all her siblings and friends” and continues to participate in activities at the Senior Center—“where she is the one who encourages her younger pals to join in.”

Healy concluded with the adage that a community is judged on how it takes care of its people both at the beginning and toward the end of their lives.

“Needham has always done an incredible job with respect to the former. I ask you now to join us in finally taking care of the latter,” he said.

Last to speak was Finance Committee member John Connelly, who provided an overview of the funding plan and the committee’s final analysis that the project could be funded entirely within the town’s tax levy without an override and without it adversely affecting other areas of the budget.

The measure passed on a two-thirds voice vote. No one spoke against the article.

After the meeting, Council on Aging Executive Director Jamie Gutner said she was “delighted” by the vote.

“I think the town should be proud, because it’s not easy making these decisions,” she said.

As for what happens next, Gutner said the Friends of the Needham Elderly would likely begin their soon.

“It’s been a long time. It’s been much more than the 12 years. It’s been 20 years. So there are people I think just couldn’t quite believe it tonight,” she said.

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