Democrats question need for new senior center

With Trumbull still weighing construction of a senior/community center, town Democrats are questioning the priorities of capital projects in town, pointing out numerous other projects that they said should come before a new community center.

“First Selectman Herbst recently penned an op-ed stating that now is the ‘perfect time’ to build a brand-new senior/community center,” said Democratic Town Committee Chairman Tom Kelly. “Trumbull Democrats believe that Mr. Herbst is forming that opinion without considering all relevant facts.”

Kelly cited five objections to building a new senior and community center (full statement available here), including the state’s current financial state, school buildings in need of renovation, an unresolved sewer situation, a potential looming interest rate hike, and a lack of consensus among residents that such a center is necessary.

Kelly pointed out that the state recently eliminated $266,000 in education grants in the current fiscal year.

“We counted on both those grants when we approved our 2016-17 budget,” Kelly said. “There is a large deficit that must be addressed. … Now is not the time to proceed full speed ahead.”

Trumbull High, Frenchtown Elementary and the Trumbull Early Childhood Education Center are relatively new, but Madison, Hillcrest, Jane Ryan, Tashua, Middlebrook, Daniels Farm, and Booth Hill schools all date back to the 1950s and 1960s, and all need some degree of work, Kelly said.

“We can’t postpone this forever,” Kelly said. “We should have a long-range plan that properly prioritizes all of our town building renovation and maintenance needs.”

Trumbull continues to rely on Bridgeport to dispose of its sewage, and Trumbull residents pay the highest sewage fees of any town its size, Kelly said. Potential solutions, from building its own sewage treatment plant to partnering with another community, could potentially cost millions of dollars, he said,

Finally, Kelly said, interest rates went up in December, with more hikes forecast for 2017. Plus, town residents simply do not think a new community and senior center is a priority.

“We are no longer in the lowest interest rate environment in decades,” Kelly said.

In speaking with current users of the senior center, Kelly said, it is clear that the problem is not the building but the lack of investment in programs and staff.

“Trumbull Democrats believe that the decision as to whether we should proceed forward has not received the consensus of the people,” Kelly said. “We need a more transparent process which starts with answering these fundamental questions. Only when these questions are answered in an open and honest way can the people make an informed decision.”

Herbst said Kelly was “trying to create an issue where one doesn’t exist” and suggested that Trumbull Democrats did not reflect the town’s view.

“If he thinks it’s appropriate putting seniors in a building that was built in 1920, that just shows how out of touch he is,” Herbst said. “That building was not built to be a community center. It was built to be a school in 1920, and it couldn’t even be a school today if we wanted it to be.”

Herbst pointed out that the town is spending $12 million annually on capital improvements to the schools and that community members who attended a series of meetings between September and November had shown enthusiasm for a new community center and senior center.

“But he and others continue to hold onto negative sentiment to create an election issue in an election year,” Herbst said.

Economic Development Director Rina Bakalar said her sense from the business community is that lack of meeting space, which could be alleviated with a community center, was a concern.

“You can’t even organize a Chamber of Commerce meeting because the community room in the library is booked three months in advance,” she said. “We’re in a position to do something very special for this town. The town is in excellent fiscal health, and the capital programs are planned and robust, manageable and well-prioritized.”