Friday, December 09, 2011

Vote on Senior Center Shuffle Referendum Next Week

Should you vote for or against the Shuffle in the December 13
referendum? Do you agree with the public officials and the “Vote Yes
Darien” Political Action Committee who say the “Shuffle” is the best way to serve our seniors, use public space and spend our taxes? Or do you believe the grassroots “Stop the Shuffle” PAC that says the Shuffle
is ill-conceived, complicated and expensive?

Either way, you, as a taxpayer and voter, should understand the points both sides are making prior to voting. To that end, I would like to share some of what I’ve
been able to learn and point you to where you can learn more for yourself.

First, circle back to December 2006, when the Senior Center Task Force
issued a report which found that the people who frequented the decaying
Senior Activities Center at Edgerton Street wanted the building to be
renovated, rather than replaced. The renovations, estimated at $5
million, would have made the center, housed in an old elementary school
built in 1954, compliant with accessibility codes and replaced windows,
bathrooms, and the HVAC system.

Nevertheless, the Selectmen voted unanimously to build a new Senior
Center at the same site rather than renovate. Their decision was based
on the belief that a new building would cost less than renovations and
would stand a better chance of lasting well into the future. Plans were
drawn up, but the final price tag came in at $6 million, rather than
the $4.5 million anticipated, and seniors and taxpayers started to
balk.

In reviewing letters to the editor of The Darien Times, it seems that
the public was asking the Selectmen to examine several alternate ideas.
Since the town had recently purchased the old library at 35 Leroy
Avenue for $4.2 million, the Senior Center board proposed moving the
Senior Center there. (When I asked some public officials why that never
happen, I was told it was because the old library didn’t work
programmatically, lacked a gym and would have needed too much
renovation, including a new roof, new HVAC and the addition of a
kitchen.)

Other ideas which were studied included combining the Senior Center and
the Darien Community Association, for a cost of $5 million. More
seniors were using the DCA than the Senior Center, and the programs
could have been easily meshed. But this concept didn’t gain traction
either.

While proposals for a new Senior Center languished, the Selectmen
pressed on with plans to turn the old library building into affordable
housing. But just as that project was coming to fruition, an election
shifted the balance of power on the Board of Selectmen from Democrats
to the Republicans. The new First Selectman, Dave Campbell, and other
newly elected Republican Selectmen, Jayme Stevenson and Jerry Nielsen,
quickly put a stop to the affordable housing plans and introduced their
own proposal for using town property, which they dubbed “The Shuffle.”

The Shuffle, which involves a three-phase move of municipal offices and
activities space, would cost the town’s taxpayers $6.98 million. The
Board of Selectmen, the Board of Finance and the RTM have all approved
it. Detailed information about the costs, architectural plans and
bonding is available at the Town of Darien website:
http://www.darienct.gov/.

The Shuffle calls for relocating the Board of Education from its
offices at the Town Hall annex to newly constructed offices inside the
old library. Because the old library has 20,000 s.f., and the Board of
Education currently uses only 15,000 s.f., they can easily fit in.
However, renovations to the old library will be have to be
comprehensive, including a new roof and HVAC, plus the building-out of
offices, meeting rooms and storage space to accommodate the school
board’s needs.

After the Board of Education has moved out of Town Hall, their former
office space, plus shop space that is currently being used by the
Department of Public Works (23,000 s.f. in all), will be gutted to make
room for the new two-story Mather Community Center. Because seniors
told the architects that they loved the natural light at their current
center, new windows will be cut into the brick walls of the annex. A
new kitchen, multi-purpose room with a stage, lounges, exercise and
health-related facilities, craft and shop rooms, and accessible
bathrooms with showers will be built. When complete, senior activities
will be shifted to the new community center, which will also provide
programming and space for other age groups, including families, after 3
pm.

The current Senior Center will then be demolished, although that cost
is not included in the Shuffle price tag. The Selectmen championing the
Shuffle say that affordable senior housing will be constructed at the
Senior Center site by a nonprofit organization at no cost to the town.

Supporters of the Shuffle say the time has come for our seniors to
finally have the new, modern senior center they deserve, an
accomplishment that has been a long time coming. They warn that
stopping the plans will just send us all back to more years of debating
the best uses of town spaces, while our seniors remain in an old,
inappropriate, dilapidated building. They also point out moving
municipal offices will be a more efficient use of town-owned property,
eliminate an 18,000 s.f. obsolete building and lower operating costs.
But most of all, the new Mather Community Center will serve all Darien
residents. You can learn more at Vote Yes Darien:
www.voteyesdarien.com.

Opponents of the Shuffle, on the other hand, maintain that the plan is
inefficient, moving offices that do not need to be moved and wasting
taxpayer dollars. They point out that the Board of Education never
requested a move from Town Hall, nor do they have any programmatic
needs for new offices which are physically separated from the rest of
town government. Opponents also believe our seniors should have their
own dedicated facility, rather than sharing a 23,000 s.f. community
center.

Members of the Stop-the-Shuffle PAC list on their site many other solutions to the need for a new Senior Center, which would be much more cost effective: http://stoptheshuffle.com/otheroptions/. (Note: This is an edit from my original post.) Among the options are: construction of a new, smaller Senior Center at the current Edgerton site. With 2,300 residents 65+ (2010 census) in Darien, a smaller
dedicated senior center would make more sense. They point out that
while Westport has almost twice as many seniors as Darien (4,200), the
Westport Senior Center is only 12,000 s.f..

Shuffle opponents also list as options using the old library as the site of the new senior center or selling the old library building and land for an estimated $3 – 4 million to generate revenue for the town
and to help cover the cost of a new Senior Center.  If the latter came to pass, they expect that
the property would be used to build condominiums, enabling Darien
seniors to remain in town when downsizing. You can learn more about
their points at Stop the Shuffle: stoptheshuffle.com/.

A referendum truly brings democracy back to its roots. It gives you a
direct say over a major municipal project and the spending of your
property tax dollars. If 3,113 people vote "No" and are the majority, the Shuffle will be overturned. If a majority votes in favor of the Shuffle, those votes will carry the day.  I hope you’ll learn as much as you can about the issues and vote on December 13, 2011.

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