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New fee irks seniors

PEPPERELL — The Council on Aging is in a tough spot.

Like the other departments in town, its budget was cut. Last year, the council received $173,000. This year, the funding was reduced to $164,000.

An override vote that would have added $11,500 to the COA operating budget failed to pass at the September election. The override had already failed once, at the June election.

The COA runs the Senior Center, used by seniors from Pepperell and other towns.

“We don’t want the place to close,” said COA member Dianne Kazanjian.

The board decided to implement a $2 per day fee for nonresident visitors to use the center, starting Oct. 1. More than 21 percent of visitors are from other towns.

Senior Center users found out about the fee from a letter the board sent to nonresident users dated Sept. 23. Copies of the letter were also left at the center.

“I know it’s a hard pill to swallow,” said board member Cathy Forrest.

The decision has made a strong, emotional impact on seniors who use the center, said Beth Selinger, the outreach coordinator. “They want to be part of the solution,” she said. “They understand the need for the senior center to stay vital. There’s a deficit.”

“I think it’s unfair. I think it’s terrible. I think it’s outrageous,” said Kathy Harris, of Pepperell. “This $2 thing is a punishment because we didn’t pass an override.”

“They sprung it on us too fast,” said Dot Harnish. The Hollis woman has volunteered at the center for 11 years.

The women playing cards before lunch agreed that it would be fair to charge out-of-town visitors something additional, since the center is funded by Pepperell. They just did not like the idea of a daily fee.

Harnish and Marge Spence, who moved to Newburyport after living in Pepperell for 35 years, are both willing to pay an annual fee.

If a couple visited the Senior Center three times a week, the fees would add up to $600 a year, Harris said. “They’re treating us kind of like kindergartners.”

The women said several seniors turned in their membership cards and vowed never to return to the center after they learned about the fee.

One group of 25 card players will move to Townsend’s center on Monday. That means less income for the Pepperell center, because they will not be around to buy lunch, Harris said.

On Oct. 1, the first day of the new fee, there were fewer people than normal for the lunch prepared by Senior Center staff, she said.

The COA did not change the fee structure for activities and lunch. As before, residents pay $2 per activity and $2.50 for lunch; nonresidents pay $3 per activity and $3.50 for lunch.

Kazanjian and Forrest visited with seniors before lunch Oct. 1 to informally discuss the daily fee and get ideas on other ways to raise revenue.

“We’ll go back to the council,” Kazanjian said, after they have heard from people.

An annual fee was one of the ideas they received. Some seniors suggested raffles and other fundraising activities, said Susan McCarthy, the interim director.

“I’m very upset with this whole deal,” said Phil Durno, a former president of the Friends of Seniors. “There are much better ways of doing this.”

He suggested not filling an empty staff position. Before becoming the interim director, McCarthy was the assistant director/activities director and that position has not been filled.

The other departments in town have lost staff members because of budget cuts, Durno said.

“We have an amazing staff,” he said. “We can get by for half a year.”

The center has seen other cuts. Earlier this year, the COA cut the operating hours at the center. Friday is now only a half-day.

The council still needs to make up for the budget cuts, but the $2 daily fee for nonresidents might not be a long-term proposition.

“It may end up being something different,” Forrest said.

Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.

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