Council rejects another Prop 2 1/2 motion

WESTFIELD – The City Council last night rejected a Proposition 2 1/2 override motion pertaining to financing a bond for construction of a new Senior Center.
The 3-9 vote defeated the motion to place a Proposition 2 1/2 referendum question on the November ballot is the second such motion rejected by the City Council in as many meetings.
The council defeated a motion, at the June 27 special meeting, to place a Proposition 2 1/2 override to lift the city’s tax base by $2.5 million for the Westfield Public Schools.
Both motions were opposed by the departments which would have benefited by the passage of the override.
School officials and support groups requested the council to reject that override motion at the June 27 meeting and members of the Council on Aging requested last night that the council reject that question. Proponents of both departments said the referendum question was divisive and that it would cause “inter-generational” conflict.
The motion was sponsored by five council members, but two of the sponsors joined the majority to defeat the proposal in response to pleas from senior citizens opposed to the referendum ballot question.
At-large Councilor Agma Sweeney asked to be withdrawn as a sponsor of the motion after hearing from senior citizens and officials, who packed the council chambers, speaking in opposition to the motion during public participation.
“We owe it to the seniors to stick to the word of the city to bond this project,” Sweeney said. “The city has committed to move forward on this with a bond.”
At-large Councilor John J. Beltrandi III said he reversed his position based on input for constituents.
“I got a lot of calls,” he said. “This (Senior Center project) has been going on too long, we need to get something done. There is a lot of frustration on the seniors’ part.”
“We’re not making an investment for seniors,” Beltrandi said. “We make investments in schools, parks, kids, but not in our senior citizens, it’s always the 11th priority.”
Tina Gorman, executive director of the senior citizen center, said the Senior Center project was initiated in 1997 by a petition from senior citizens and that a committee projected the cost of construction at between $6 and $7 million. That funding has been included in the city’s long-range bonding plan for the past four years.
Gorman said there is urgency to move the project forward because the lease for the current Main Street facility expires in 2013 and that the present facility is inadequate because of the lack of parking and space for programs.
“Resorting to a 2 1/2 override creates inter-generational conflict,” Gorman said.
Jack Leary, a former member of the City Council, School Committee, and Conservation Commission and currently a member of the Council on Aging, said that, since the petition for a new center was submitted, the senior population has increased from 6,000 to 8,000 residents.
“The center serves seniors in many ways that you don’t know about,” he said. Those services include providing food and meals, transportation to medical appointments, medical screenings, tax preparation assistance, he said.
However, the lack of space at the current site limits the ability to provide other services, such as exercise and health maintenance programs.
Leary said that three mayors have supported the bond for construction and included that projection in long-range bond plans.
“Now, why all of a sudden is there a change to that approach?” he questioned. “Why throw up this roadblock? Because that’s what it is. It will delay this project.
“You can kill the Senior Center in the Russian Roulette move,” Leary said. “This is kind of a strange way to attack a major issue.”
Thomas W. Humphrey, president of the Friends of the Senior Center Board of Directors, which is raising funds to purchase furniture and other amenities not financed by the construction cost, said 100 people and businesses have committed to making contributions, commitments that could be effected by a referendum question and an increase in the tax base if the question was approved.
“Nobody called to get our opinion,” he said.
At-large Councilor David A. Flaherty, a sponsor of the motion, said the referendum question is not an indication of lack of support by council members for the center construction project.
“If it passes or does not pass does not mean that the city can’t finance it another way,” Flaherty said. “It’s a way to raise revenue to do other things.”
Ward 4 Councilor Mary O’Connell said that council members are “120 percent behind” construction of a new center.
“My name is on this motion out of frustration.  We want to kick start the senior center.  What we’re doing is not working, but if you don’t want this it gives us pause,” O’Connell said.
Ward 5 Councilor Richard E. Onofrey Jr., said he received more calls on this issue than any since being elected to the council.
“Everyone was against it,” Onofrey said. “This is designed to pit senior citizens against other citizens. I don’t think a 2 1/2 override is that way to do this.  I will vote against it.”
At-large Councilor Brian Sullivan said the council has three liaison members with the Council on Aging. Those members include Sullivan, At-large Councilor James R. Adams and Ward 2 Councilor James E. Brown Jr.
“Not one of us knew this would be on the agenda,” Sullivan said. “A proposition 2 1/2 (referendum) will put a complete stop to this (building project), not kick start it. It’s just wrong.”
Adams said that he spent six years as a councilor working to bring the project to fruition. He left the council for two years, during which time he served as chairman of the Council on Aging board.  He continued that effort, selecting a project manager, during his tenure on the board. The COA recently hired two architectural firms to work in collaboration on the project.
“We’ve done a lot of work.  We got it going,” Adams said. “This (referendum question) is a kick alright. Not even a phone call to anybody, the mayor, Tina (Gorman), any of the liaison members. This just gets thrown at us. This is crazy.”
Brown, who also serves as the chairman of the Legislative & Ordinance Committee, would have had to make a recommendation on the motion to the full City Council, which would have had to approve the question by Aug. 1, the deadline for submitting Proposition 2 1/2 referendum questions to the Secretary of State for review and approval. Brown was more direct in his opposition.
“Enough has been said, this doesn’t have to go further,” Brown said.
Voting in support of the motion were Flaherty, Ward 1 Councilor Christopher Keefe and O’Connell.
Although most of the discussion pertained to an override, Keefe said that the motion was not for an override, but rather a debt exclusion which allows a temporary lift in the tax base that is subtracted when the debt/bond is retired.

For video of the city council meeting, click here.

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