Although the Montpelier Senior Activity Center (MSAC) on Barre Street did not take on flood waters in July, City Hall did, and the resulting damaged office space meant many city employees have had to shift to new locations throughout the city, including in the senior center’s classroom space. At a meeting last week, many seniors have expressed concern that MSAC’s programs are being compromised by the city staff occupying the center’s classrooms. A related concern is that a city-wide hiring freeze has prevented MSAC from hiring a new, full-time director since the resignation of its previous director earlier this summer.
More than 100 MSAC members attended the Sept. 22 presentation by City Manager Bill Fraser at the center’s large, first floor meeting/dining room. He began with news that five city finance staff members (who each formerly had their own office with a door that closes) will be moving from the senior center to a shared room in the police department. Also, two employees on the city clerk’s staff will return to their offices at City Hall.
Fraser said that legally many city services have to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While the worst-case scenario is that it could be as long as two years before City Hall can be reopened, Fraser said, “If we can get our offices out of [the MSAC classrooms] earlier, we will. That’s our goal.”
Fraser said flood damage to city facilities total $10.8 million and that maintaining city services while pursuing funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is essential. Noting that the city currently faces a $1.5-million deficit and continues to lose revenue because so many businesses are closed, Fraser emphasized “We’re all in this together. When the budget allows us to end the hiring freeze, we will fill the (MSAC) director position,” he added. It is not yet clear when the hiring freeze will end.
When a job search for a new MSAC director is opened, Diane Maccario, chair of the MSAC advisory council, will be participating on the hiring committee, she said.
In the meantime, Arnie McMullen, director of recreation services, will also oversee the senior services provided through MSAC, which has been operating at a deficit for the two most recent fiscal years ( −$105,267 for FY2022 and estimated to be a deficit of more than $80,000 for FY2023). Fraser and several seniors acknowledged that COVID-19 has been a significant factor in both the deficit and the decline in membership from a high of 1,189 in 2019 to 757 in the current year, of which 523 are Montpelier residents.
An audience member pointed out that some of the membership decline can be attributed to a change in ownership of the swimming pool facility that previously offered a substantial discount to MSAC members.
When Fraser announced that the city is assessing MSAC’s finances (and its future), several voices in the audience booed. He replied that if a consultant is hired, it will take at least a year to complete the assessment. Assistant City Manager Kelly Murphy is overseeing the project and is expected to have a report in January.
Fraser said MSAC is “not the only hurting program” that the city manages. In addition to two vacant staff positions at MSAC, the Public Works Department has four open positions that are also under the hiring freeze. Both the police and fire departments are fully staffed, he said.
While MSAC has been overseen by a full-time director since 2012, prior to that time the management structure was similar to the current interim arrangement where the director of recreation services also managed MSAC, Fraser said.
Within the assessment being conducted by Murphy, the job description of the MSAC director is being reviewed, Fraser said. Nancy Schulz questioned that much effort to update the job description, “Janna Clar provided a clear description of what is needed,” she said.
Schulz said the critical skills of the director include understanding the issues of seniors, being personally engaged, fundraising, program development and management, and working effectively with volunteers. Apparently, during the last round of hiring a director, the recommendation of the MSAC advisory council was not taken by the city.
Several seniors commented about the critical role MSAC has played in the lives of many seniors, especially during the isolation experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Loneliness is a condition many younger people don’t understand. “Many seniors live alone. You don’t get three dimensions on Zoom,” George Olsen said. “COVID is happening now,” he added.
Others feel that the quality of the food currently prepared in the Meals on Wheels program has declined. Ninety-four-year-old Maxine Leary, who noted that when the MSAC building once served as the Saint Michael’s Catholic High School, she taught former Senator Patrick Leahy. As the meeting concluded, Leary read her succinct poem, “The Old, We are Here.”
Possible Solution To Senior Center Space Crunch
Alan Goldman, a major Montpelier property owner, has offered the city free use of up to 8,000 square feet of unoccupied space and 25 parking spaces at a building he owns at 7 Court Street until City Hall re-opens, an offer that if accepted could allow temporary city offices in the Senior Center to be moved to Goldman’s building and the Center to regain full use of its building.
“We did not flood, and much of the space is usable and accessible now,” Goldman wrote in a Sept. 27 email to City Manager Bill Fraser and other city officials. “This would hopefully allow us to return our Senior Center to our seniors asap.”
Mayor Jack McCullough said the city would inspect the property and “figure out if it could work.” McCullough, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, noted that in the past Legal Aid had rented offices in the building for many years.
In his email, Goldman said he made the offer to donate the space “after hearing many seniors complain about the loss of our Senior Center.”