Residents to town: Keep Portsmouth Senior Center open!

At budget hearing, they implore council to fund sprinklers; president says it’s not that simple

By Jim McGaw
Posted 6/14/21

PORTSMOUTH — The first in-person Town Council meeting in 15 months was, ostensibly, a public hearing on the provisional budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year. It soon turned into, however, a sounding-off platform for angry residents who demanded the town keep the Portsmouth Multi-Purpose Senior Center open.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Not a subscriber?


Start a Subscription

Sign up to start a subscription today! Click here to see your options.

Purchase a day pass

Purchase 24 hours of website access for $2. Click here to continue

Day pass subscribers

Are you a day pass subscriber who needs to log in? Click here to continue.


Residents to town: Keep Portsmouth Senior Center open!

At budget hearing, they implore council to fund sprinklers; president says it’s not that simple

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — The first in-person Town Council meeting in 15 months was, ostensibly, a public hearing on the provisional budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year. It soon turned into, however, a sounding-off platform for angry residents who demanded the town keep the Portsmouth Multi-Purpose Senior Center open.

The hearing was held in the Portsmouth High School auditorium Wednesday night, June 9, and was attended by about three dozen residents. The hybrid meeting was also live-streamed via Zoom, with three council members — Daniela Abbott, Linda Ujifusa and J. Mark Ryan — choosing to participate remotely from home. Council member Michael Buddemeyer was absent — he was attending senior prom with his daughter, officials said — and several School Committee members were also sitting up front along with Town Administrator Richard Rainer, Jr., Finance Director Lisa Lasky and Town Clerk Jennifer West.

Page by page, section by section, Mr. Rainer reviewed highlights of the $69.07 million budget that was provisionally approved by the Town Council on May 10. The council can make changes to the spending plan before it is formally approved on June 29.

The total budget represents a 3.7-percent increase, which includes the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant the town received to augment its firefighting force. That means the increase in expenditures, Mr. Rainer said, is actually 2.62 percent without the SAFER grant.

The proposed budget calls for a property tax rate of $15.31 per $1,000 of assessed valuation — a 1.57-percent increase over the current rate of $15.073, the administrator said.

The annual budget hearing — traditionally held at the middle school, before COVID — is normally a staid affair, with only a handful of residents speaking up and the council breezing through the spending plan in well under an hour. 

Seniors out in force

Wednesday’s was very different, however. Although a couple members of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens raised questions about the town’s pension plan, the majority of residents who turned out demanded answers on the senior center, which has been threatened with closure due to numerous fire code violations — including the lack of sprinklers. 

Although the former Anne Hutchinson School building was originally slated to be shut down after June 30, an agreement was worked out to keep the office, thrift shop, library, craft room and game room open, subject to certain conditions. The remaining portion of the building — including the larger assembly and dining rooms — will remain closed. 

The center’s supporters questioned why the council wasn’t doing more to keep the center fully open as a place of assembly while Church Community Housing (CCH) develops a longterm plan for the building, which may include affordable senior housing, for council review. It could take another three years before a new senior center is constructed, if that’s the course of action the council ends up taking.

“I may be dead by then,” said 80-year-old Irene Helmers, one of 11 residents who spoke in favor of more funding for the senior center. 

Ms. Helmers said it would be cheaper to renovate the current building, rather than construct a new one, and she urged council members to consider all residents when making any decisions about the property.

“What are you all going to do when you’re all seniors?” she asked council members, drawing applause.

Brenda Langley agreed. She just retired, and at age 64 is starting to look for more things to do. “I’m a baby boomer. There are lots of us coming up the pike, and you’re going to have to take us into consideration on what our needs are,” she said.

Fund the sprinklers

Nancy Grieb spoke for several residents when she questioned the town’s decision to not fund sprinklers at the center while CCH is developing its proposal.

“As a taxpayer, I’m appalled at the treatment of our seniors. This council has made the choice to fail our seniors again,” said Ms. Grieb, adding the senior center and the library should not be placed under the “civic support” section of the budget. “They are essential services” that should be funded totally by the town, she said.

Another resident, Elizabeth McIntyre, agreed the budget should devote a section for senior services. 

“You’re got a lot of people here on a hot night. They’re all here because they all feel like no one on the council feels like we’re important. We’re contributing a lot to this town and we’re virtually getting nothing,” she said.

Council President Kevin Aguiar said the council “can’t create a department on a whim,” but it’s an idea that could be explored further. The way things are set now, the senior center is a nonprofit organization that receives an annual stipend from the town — $84,000 is proposed for next year — and the council has no control over its services, he said.

“We don’t dictate how they spend that money,” Mr. Aguiar said.

Senior center director Cynthia Konieki said the lack of sprinklers, however, is going to severely diminish the center’s capacity. With so few people allowed in the building, she asked, “How can you do fund-raising?”

Clarence Gdowski’s voice boomed throughout the auditorium when he told council members he didn’t trust their dealings with CCH. 

“You people on the Town Council will not tell us what the hell is going on,” he said. “I’ve watched the Town Council play games with old people for votes.”

Transparency questioned

Nancy Howard also accused town leaders of not being transparent about plans for the senior center. She said discussions among members of focus groups set up to explore the senior center’s needs are being kept secret from the senior center. Those meetings are not open to the public and no minutes have been produced, Ms. Howard charged. 

“I filed a complaint with the attorney general; you’re aware of that,” she told Mr. Aguiar.

The council president replied that several senior center members, including Ms. Konieki, have been involved in those meetings. Ms. Konieki, for her part, said the sessions have been informal. 

“It’s just a group that gets together and discusses things,” she said. “You have to show up at the members’ meetings to know what’s going on.”

Mr. Aguiar, echoing comments made by Mr. Rainer, said there’s no nefarious plan by the town to “get rid of the senior center.” In fact, besides exploring a longterm proposal with CCH, the town is also evaluating what it would cost to renovate the existing building. 

“No decisions have been made. We’re not hiding anything. It’s been loud and clear … that the seniors attending that focus group want the building to stay,” he said. “There’s no secret plan to knock it down and just put up housing.”

But while it’s possible the existing center could be renovated, Mr. Aguiar said fixing up a 100-year-old building comes with its own challenges.  

“As Mr. Rainer has stated, we’re conducting an evaluation now to get some costs. We’re evaluating some options at the senior center,” he said, noting a report on what is needed at the center should be ready within two weeks. 

Local resident Tom Grieb said the fire marshal has stated the only thing preventing the senior center from staying open as a place of assembly is the lack of sprinklers. 

Mr. Aguiar disagreed. “There’s this misconception that it’s only going to take $200,000 or $300,000 to put sprinklers in that building (for it to re-open as a place of assembly),” he said. Other much-needed upgrades could total in the millions, and the town is in the process of finding out those costs, he said. 

“We’re all speaking out of turn until we hear the report.”

2021 by East Bay Newspapers

Barrington · Bristol · East Providence · Little Compton · Portsmouth · Tiverton · Warren · Westport
Meet our staff
Mike Rego

Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email mrego@eastbaymediagroup.com.