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Squabble derails senior center plan

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Tom Herde/Globe Staff

In this 2003 file photo, seniors played cards at the Walpole Council on Aging/ Senior Center in the rear of Town Hall.

A decade-long effort to build a new senior center in Walpole has been sidetracked again, this time by fighting between the Walpole Council on Aging and its volunteer Friends group, which raises money for various senior causes in the town.

The tense relationship between the two sides broke down recently, and the Friends group says it will no longer raise funds for a new facility for Walpole’s 5,000 seniors. The volunteer group said it would return the $65,000 it has raised for the cause to donors, or put the money to some other use. The move would leave the Council on Aging with just $690 in an account the panel had established for donations made directly to the town.

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By law, municipal boards such as the council cannot actively fund-raise or host events such as nonprofit Friends groups can to raise money for projects like senior centers.

“I don’t know what we’ll do now,’’ council president Joanne Damish said. “Hopefully some group will come forward to do the fund-raising, since we can’t do it.’’

The council and the Friends group have been at odds for about two years. The council has frequently complained to Walpole selectmen about lack of communication from the Friends and the group’s longtime refusal to divulge its finances.

‘You have two groups who have good intentions but can’t seem to get along.’

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“We didn’t know what they had for finances or if they had pledges,’’ Damish said.

Friends members argued they are a private, nonprofit charitable organization, not under the authority of the town-appointed council. Friends vice president Katie Abate said the council has never directly asked about the senior center fund, but has repeatedly asked how much money the group has in general.

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“We don’t carry our current balance around in our pocket,’’ Abate said. “Our mission is to try to help the elders of Walpole any way we can, and we don’t nickel and dime them when they ask for money.’’

The Friends group says its mission is to provide extra financial help to senior programs. The group’s first effort was paying for a senior newsletter. Recently, it pitched in more than $10,000 to help buy a minibus for the senior center, currently located in the cafeteria of a former school.

The Friends volunteered to raise money for a new center 10 years ago. The group surveyed seniors about their preferred location for such a facility, hosted teas, and enlisted volunteer help from lawyers, engineers, and architects. “We presented updates to selectmen on several occasions,’’ Abate said. “We’ve focused a lot of time and energy on this.’’

Many area towns have found it challenging to marshal support and money for facilities to suit the needs of growing senior populations. After years of planning, East Bridgewater and Plymouth have senior centers under construction, while Halifax continues to push for public support.

Walpole, too, has had trouble, including finding a suitable location. Many seniors preferred downtown, based on the survey, but selectmen have yet to find a spot. The few suggested locations proved unsuitable. One such site was ruled out because of a high water table. Other sites outside of downtown have been suggested but none have been agreed upon to date.

On top of siting issues, the Walpole senior center project now has the added problem of the running dispute between the council and Friends.

The Friends group caught the council by surprise on March 22, announcing its decision to stop fund-raising for a center in a letter published in the Walpole Times, a weekly newspaper. In the letter, the Friends accused the council of constant criticism and lack of support.

“Historically, the Friends and past Boards of the COA have had a very close working relationship,’’ the letter said. “Unfortunately, with the current board, this relationship has changed. . . . We have received nothing but resistance.’’

Abate said her organization has raised $65,000 and secured several pledges toward the senior center project. At the time the money was collected, donors understood “the money was dedicated to a downtown center,’’ Abate said.

The Friends, therefore, plan to return the funds to donors or get their permission to use it for other efforts benefiting the elderly. “Our mission is to supply support to the seniors, and we’ll continue to do that,’’ Abate said.

Damish said the council did not expect the Friends’ announcement, as it had been trying to mend its relationship with the volunteers with a recent invitation to a legislative breakfast.

“They said they couldn’t make it due to work commitments, but it was a very pleasant letter,’’ Damish said. “I thought maybe we were getting someplace, but then their letter appeared in the Walpole Times.’’

Selectmen chairman Eric Kraus said he is disappointed by the breakdown.

“You have two groups who have good intentions but can’t seem to get along,’’ he said. “Unfortunately, neither group seems to want to work out their differences. It’s a shame because, at the end of the day, it’s the seniors who are losing.’’

Town Administrator Michael Boynton said the town needs a new senior center and is hiring consultants to produce a facilities master plan that will include such a facility.

“Walpole seniors have done the best they can,’’ he said. “They deserve a facility to suit elder needs.’’

Christine Legere can be reached christinelegere@yahoo.com.

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