A 200-year-old former tavern has served as Halifax’s first and only senior center for the last 25 years. And to the dismay of town officials and seniors, that’s the way it will stay for the time being.
While towns like Hanover, East Bridgewater, and Plymouth have abandoned similar outdated accommodations in recent years, constructing facilities that better meet the needs of the growing, graying population, Halifax voters have taken a different stance.
Special Town Meeting voters, on Dec. 5, rejected a proposed $234,000 transfer from the town’s savings account to pay an architect to produce construction drawings. The next step would have been a spring vote on a $2 million tax increase to build a 6,600-square-foot senior center next to the current site at Pope’s Tavern.
About 350 voters attended the Special Town Meeting, and most were vocal in their opposition to the transfer from the so-called stabilization fund. They refused even to allow the engineer hired by the town to present his preliminary plans for the project. Opponents said they just couldn’t afford the $70-per-year tax increase that a $2 million center would cause.
“About 150 people came to listen,’’ said Ken Vinton, a Council on Aging member. “The others came to vote ‘no’ and go home.’’ The transfer was defeated via a secret ballot vote, with 155 in favor and 202 opposed.
The Council on Aging, Municipal Building Committee, and selectmen, stunned by the vote, will meet in January to discuss next steps.
John Campbell, Municipal Building Committee chairman, said that in light of the vote, “a new senior center is definitely out for maybe four or five years.’’
Some kind of short-term solution may have to suffice, said Campbell, adding: “I don’t think anybody knows what we’re going to do, but we’ve got to do something, even if it’s just to rehab some rooms in Pope’s Tavern.’’
Barbara Brenton, Council on Aging director, said Pope’s Tavern’s inadequacies are numerous. The building is chopped into a series of tiny rooms. The blood pressure clinic is conducted in the dining room, with a small screen affording privacy, and the podiatrist treats patients in a bathroom.
The building’s occupancy limit is 37, while the town’s seniors number over 2,000.
“The largest space we have is 270 square feet,’’ Brenton said, noting large activities are impossible to schedule. Craft groups, such as quilting and painting, must meet on the center’s second floor, accessible only via a steep staircase. Participants who can no longer make the climb have to drop out of the class.
“Technically, the upstairs shouldn’t even be used, and the building isn’t structurally sound enough for an elevator,’’ Brenton said.
Upstairs ceilings are riddled with stress fractures, and one room has been closed off due to falling plaster. “Luckily, nobody was in there at the time,’’ Brenton said.
Buckets stand ready to catch water when it rains. A large blue tarp protects the floor.
Although Pope’s Tavern has a handicapped ramp, the entry door can’t accommodate larger wheelchairs. “When Senator Tom Kennedy comes to visit, we have to take the door off the hinges to fit in his wheelchair,’’ Brenton said.
Other towns have recognized the need to accommodate the increasing senior population.
Hanover opened its doors on a new center over a year ago. East Bridgewater and Plymouth are building new senior centers.
Nancy Hill, East Bridgewater Council on Aging director, said the Center at Sachem Rock will be a community center, not just a senior center. Voters passed debt exclusions for a new junior-senior high school and the community center last February.
“I believe the school project did help us, but in the end it was a conscious decision by the residents of the community, both at Town Meeting and at the ballot box, to support both projects to the benefit of all members of the community,’’ Hill said.
In Halifax, Peg Fitzgerald was among three Finance Committee members to support the senior center project. Since four members opposed it, the panel recommended against the money transfer.
Fitzgerald wants the current proposal trimmed and brought back to Town Meeting in May. By the time the borrowing for the center comes to be reflected in the property tax rate, a couple of other longtime loans will be paid off, she said.
“It’s time to do this, and we can afford it,’’ she said.
Chairman Peter Beals was among the Finance Committee majority that opposed the senior center proposal.
“In light of the economy and the town’s financial state, we thought it was too ambitious to begin right now,’’ he said. “And I guess our feeling on this reflected the opinion of the people.’’
Beals wants more modest alternatives considered. He suggested the possibility of moving other departments out of Town Hall and into Pope’s Tavern and shifting senior services to space in the Town Hall.
Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.