Friends of Portsmouth Senior Center’s proposal called ‘fatally flawed’

Town should not entertain MOU with advocacy group, town attorney says

By Jim McGaw
Posted 4/4/21

PORTSMOUTH — The Town of Portsmouth should not consider a proposed memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Friends of the Portsmouth Senior Center regarding the future of the former …

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Friends of Portsmouth Senior Center’s proposal called ‘fatally flawed’

Town should not entertain MOU with advocacy group, town attorney says

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — The Town of Portsmouth should not consider a proposed memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Friends of the Portsmouth Senior Center regarding the future of the former Anne Hutchinson building, says Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin.

In a March 26 letter from Mr. Gavin to Mary Ellen Martin, director of the newly formed group that’s proposing to make repairs to resolve the building’s fire code violations so it can remain open, the solicitor said the concept behind the group’s proposed MOU with the town “is fundamentally and fatally flawed" from both legal and practical standpoints.

“For a number of reasons, it would not be appropriate for the town to relinquish its authority and control over a town-owned building, and essentially turn the building over to your organization to perform a public works construction project,” Mr. Gavin stated in his letter. “Accordingly, I have advised the town not to entertain a proposed MOU with Friends for this project, under any terms.”

Contacted Tuesday, Ms. Martin said the Friends were still reviewing Mr. Gavin’s letter and “figuring out our next step.” 

Meanwhile, the town is moving ahead with its partnership with Church Community Housing (CCH) on the development and use of the senior center and Coggeshall School properties for a mix of affordable housing and a senior center. (See story, left column.)

An MOU with CCH was passed unanimously by the council on Feb. 8. The agreement was needed to allow CCH to pursue funding for engineering and architectural studies to develop a master plan at the town-owned properties. Any definitive plans would need to come back to the council for a final decision, and public comment would be sought. If a longterm deal were struck, CCH would lease the property from the town for $1 a year — similar to the agreement the town now has with the senior center, which is not part of local government but receives annual civic support approved by the council.

Due to costly fire code violations, the senior center was originally expected to shut down June 30. However, the town has been in discussions with the state fire marshal’s office on a plan to keep some rooms (office, thrift shop, library, craft and game rooms) conditionally open, while the dining room and large activities room will remain closed.

In his letter, Mr. Gavin said the town has engaged an architectural and engineering firm to perform a detailed review, inspection and study of the building’s existing conditions, and to issue a report documenting and providing a cost estimate for all needed repairs, replacements and improvements. 

“We expect to receive this report towards the end of May,” Mr. Gavin said. “The town will take this further information into account in determining an appropriate course of action moving forward. Furthermore, the town intends to take corrective actions to allow the senior center to remain partially open, in accordance with the recent determination by the state fire marshal. The building will no longer be open for use and occupation as a place of assembly.”

CCH Executive Director Christian Belden estimated it could take anywhere from three to five years before a new senior center is ready, which is why the Friends wants to fix up the existing building.

Friends’ proposal tabled

The March 26 letter to Ms. Martin came four days after she was expected to present the Friends’ proposed MOU to the council on behalf of the senior center. Before she was able to speak, however, Council President Kevin Aguiar told her the council was not prepared to have that conversation. 

“We are still evaluating the MOU,” Mr. Aguiar said. “At this point we’re not ready to make any decisions or discussions as a council. We’re still not there yet; we’re still reviewing it.”

The council voted unanimously to table the matter until a later meeting.

Ms. Martin said the decision not to have a discussion on the proposed MOU caught the Friends off guard. “We were sort of surprised, as you can imagine, because we were asked to present an MOU,” she said.

Under the Friends’ proposed MOU, the town would grant the organization permission to “make repairs, restoration, and/or improvements” to the senior center building so that it complies with all necessary safety and fire codes so that it may obtain an occupancy permit for a place of assembly.

Furthermore, under the MOU the Friends “may communicate and work directly with all contractors, subcontractors, individuals and the like regarding discussions, negotiations and performance” of any of the necessary work. The MOU also states both parties agree to cooperate with regards to those matters.

A sticking point is the terms of the lease between the town and the senior center. According Ms. Martin, the lease says “if the town can’t do the repairs, the senior center can — and that’s where we stepped in.” 

Mr. Gavin, however, argued that applies only if the town defaults on its lease with the senior center, and that is not the case. “The town categorically rejects any suggestion to the contrary,” Mr. Gavin stated in his letter to Ms. Martin.

Struggling with technology

The Friends organization is speaking out on behalf of the senior center, Ms. Martin said, because many seniors struggle when attempting to participate in town meetings due to the pandemic. Some don’t even have the technology to join a Zoom meeting, she said.

“They’re finding it very difficult,” she said.

With Mr. Gavin’s letter in hand, the Friends don’t expect to be on the agenda for the next Town Council meeting. “We need to figure out our next course of action,” Ms. Martin said.

In the meantime, the group will continue doing whatever it can to support the senior center, including fund-raisers. Ms. Martin said she’s grateful to Rep. Susan Donovan, who is pursuing grant money to enable senior center members to do some outdoor activities, such as line-dancing. 

“The end goal is they’d like to stay at the Anne Hutchinson School and be incorporated into Church Community Housing’s plan,” she said. “Nobody’s against affordable housing — just not at the expense of the senior center.”

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.