The Old School Enrichment Council’s purchase of the building became official late Tuesday evening. Noting that, two weeks earlier, selectboard members had advised OSEC to return to request funding when they were in possession of the building, OSEC members Diane Chapman and Meg Streeter told board members “Well, we own the building now.” Streeter told board members the $60,000 in funding was earmarked for repairs to the asphalt roof over the brick portion of the former school building.
At previous meetings, some selectboard members appeared reticent to allocate town funding to the community center project. At the board’s last regular meeting, selectboard chair Tom Fitzgerald said he was concerned about several major projects the town would face in the near future, and also concerned that the community center could become a burden on taxpayers, even though OSEC members said their goal was to make the center as self-sustaining as possible.
At Tuesday evening’s meeting Fitzgerald said representatives of the selectboard and representatives of OSEC met and came to an agreement for use of the unencumbered 1% funding. “That’s why they’ve amended their request to $60,000,” Fitzgerald said.
Former board member Susan Haughwout said she was opposed to the expenditure, although not opposed to the community center. “In absolutely no way am I against a community center,” she said, “I’m against paying for it with property tax money or 1% local option tax money.”
Haughwout said taxpayers are already subsidizing the building through school taxes, used to pay the school’s lease of the gymnasium and WSSU’s rent. “In addition, I fully expect OSEC to request tax exempt status at a Town Meeting, They’re a 501(c)(3), and they’re entitled to it.”
Haughwout noted that, although the community center received a lot of support from community members after Tropical Storm Irene, projects such as moving the fire and police departments and municipal offices out of the flood zone were also at the top of the list. “I don’t think a dollar should be spent on the community center before we take care of the fire department,” she said. Haughwout also said those projects were more in line with the selectboard’s statutory responsibilities.
Wilmington resident Steve Butler thanked OSEC for their work and wished them success, but he said taxpayers should have no role in supporting the center. “Except for the removal of the oil tanks, we have to do that to sell it. And I’d like to see someone buy it.”
“We did!” quipped Streeter.
“I think the ideas are great, but the town’s taxpayers cannot pay for this,” Butler continued. “It would be very unfair to every taxpayer in town to see this money spent on a community center when the town fire department, police department, and town offices sit in a flood plain. If you’re going to spend money, those have to be prioritized before that (old school) building has taxpayer money put into it.”
Butler suggested that the money could not be spent without holding a townwide vote on the matter. “The whole town has to approve it by ballot before you can spend any tax money.”
Selectboard member John Gannon disagreed. “It’s well within our authority to do so,” he said. “And with regard to selling the building, the Wilmington School Board attempted to do that, and put out an RFP seeking a private developer. There were no successful bids. And you only have to look as far as Bennington to see what happened when a private developer took over their school building – it sat empty for over a decade.”
Gannon said the school building must be turned into an asset for the town. “I think OSEC can do it. It’s a heavy lift, but I hope they can be successful.”
Wilmington resident Nicki Steel said that, although she doesn’t oppose the use of 1% tax fund money for beautification and the signs for businesses, “I would love to have some money spent on something that will impact my daily life. There are so many possibilities, but even if we weren’t looking at those things, we need an emergency center. You suggest Twin Valley Elementary School, but during Irene one of only three deaths in the state occurred right in front of the elementary school.”
Board members unanimously approved the expenditure.