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PEPPERELL — After servicing 545 seniors last year and hoping to attract even more, the Council on Aging is asking for more money in its budget to hire a part-time activities director and add evening programs to its Senior Center offerings.

The resultant 16.2 percent, or $22,876, budget increase did not sit well with Finance Committee members as they sat down with Director Sharon Mercurio and council members to examine the request.

The committee has recommended that operating budgets and salaries do not increase more than 3 percent for fiscal 2007.

The 12-hour, part-time activities position was forfeited last year when the council lost a state grant for an outreach worker that they had used for the activities position, said Mercurio.

”We want to add two or three evening programs for younger seniors,” she said. “We’re now starting to get baby boomers, and we expect a 300 percent increase (in use).”

The council hopes to acquire more nonprofit evening use of the center as well, she said, and it has found the 19-hour per week custodian position is used more during the day. She said custodian Al Harris continues to donate a lot of his own time to keep things running.

Last year, the finance board and council worked out a rental schedule for the Senior Center in hopes of off-setting a budget increase of about $15,000 for fiscal year 2006.

The center has taken in $625 in rentals thus far, said Mercurio, and has a $400 May wedding on the books. The total 2005 rental revenue was $900.

”Why do you think it wasn’t more? Rentals really didn’t generate what we’re looking for,” said Finance Committee member John Croteau.

The community center asks a similar $50 per hour rental structure, said committee member Stephanie Cronin.

”And there is less supervision, and they can bring in food, etc.” said council member Kathy Harris.

Answering committee member Shaun Cummings, Mercurio said outreach worker Joan Goddard’s hours increased to 15 per week last year as she encountered a need for more home visits and time working with fuel assistance. A $6,000 state grant helps pay some of the salary, she said.

”Salaries were $37,000 in 2005, $45,000 in 2006 and you want $56,000 in 2007? That’s pretty steep,” Croteau said. “We hoped last year’s revenue would offset it, but it doesn’t look like it has.”

”Ballpark, how full are programs and what kind are they?” Cronin asked.

The money need is really for hours worked, said Mercurio.

”The 60 and 70 age group are still working and can’t use Medicare courses or financial planners,” she said.

”I’d like to start ongoing programs. I’m thinking two evenings a week, and I don’t like someone in there alone,” Mercurio said in reference to more custodial hours.

Answering Gaspar, Mercurio said the programs would be open to seniors as a priority, but to everyone else as well.

”We have ongoing repairs too,” Mercurio said. “The air vents are broken, tiles are falling down, siding is falling off.”

”You’re kidding,” Gaspar said.

”We’ve been rebuilding since our opening,” Mercurio said.

The center has acquired a new charge, she said. An additional $1,400 is needed from the town for trash pickup as part of across the board fee increases from the transfer station that followed last year’s town meeting decision to cut subsidy for the facility. Bag tag charges, which have also risen, are related to food disposal.

Estimates for a Dumpster have come in at $1,700 per week and $1,000 bi-weekly, said Mercurio.

”We’ve had animal problems,” she said. “A bear has dragged bags into the field (behind the center). We’ve also had problems with donations that come in boxes that need to be removed.”

”If we get a fixed charge we might as well go with the town’s plan,” Croteau said. “There’s a lot of bears on that hill (Nissitissit Hill).”

Finance Committee member Burke Bero asked what percentage of donations are usable. Mercurio said she can’t use anything that has been opened.

Referring to committee Chairman Chris DeSimone’s statement at last year’s town meeting when he indicated that finances might be rosier this year, Croteau said, “The chairman didn’t mean things are rosy. He said rosier. In the last five years teachers have been cut and are not back, and the Police and Fire departments are toeing the line.”

”Schools have cut studies and there aren’t the core selection other schools have. Our kids are getting short changed, meaning you’re going to college without the background other kids have,” Gaspar said.

After the council members left, Croteau said he could not support their proposed budget.

”What happened to volunteerism?” he asked. “It’s a civic duty. Aren’t we all volunteers?”

The request sounds like an attempt to build rather than fund a defined need, agreed Gaspar and Bero.

”Are we holding departments at 3 percent with the transfer station increase?” Cummings asked.

The transfer station’s subsidy was cut in half to $30,000 and the town is spending $9,800 per year for trash pickup, said town accountant Theresa Walsh. The transfer station has taken in $142,000 during the past year and spent $139,000.

Regarding trash pickup, she said, “So we’re saving $20,000 by spending $10,000.”

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