County-engineered purchase of VNA building meets resistance

Dukes County officials want Island towns to buy a home for the Center for Living.

Dukes County is leading an effort to win support for a municipal purchase of the now-empty former offices of the VNA for use as a home for the Center for Living. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Dukes County officials are crafting a deal under which the six Island towns would support with tax dollars a purchase of the former Vineyard Nursing Association (VNA) building in Tisbury off State Road at a price of up to $1.6 million, to provide a permanent home for the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living.

While the Center for Living, which serves the Island’s elderly population, is universally lauded for the quality and efficiency of its services, the proposal has run into opposition in three towns. Finance committees in Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and West Tisbury, citing costs and questions about the adequacy and location of the VNA building, have voted not to recommend the plan to voters at annual town meetings this spring.

Edgartown’s financial advisory committee voted to recommend the proposal. Chilmark and Aquinnah have not yet finalized town meeting warrants.

The building would be financed by a bond issued by Dukes County. Any agreement must be approved by town meeting voters in all six Island towns. As with any borrowing request, a two-thirds vote is required.

Under the current proposal, each town would pay a proportionate amount of the cost based on its property valuation and population.

Dukes County, which collects approximately $500,000 in total assessments from the seven towns including Gosnold that make up Dukes County, would not contribute to the purchase. The six Island towns would be solely responsible for the purchase price, interest on the loan over a term up to 30 years, and future maintenance.

County manager Martina Thornton is negotiating the proposed purchase, and expects to have an agreement with a firm price for the property, and for needed renovations, by Wednesday, March 25.

The building is owned by the Edgartown National Bank, which took the property in lieu of foreclosure at a listed sale price of $1,155,000, after the VNA ceased operations in March of 2014. The town of Tisbury lists the assessed value of the property at $956,400.

“I have appraisals, I have the price the bank did offer. Now we are negotiating,” Ms. Thornton said. “I believe we are working with the bank to provide a reasonable and fair price. They are really working with the county.”

Ms. Thornton declined to reveal the price an independent appraiser set for the building, citing an exemption in the Massachusetts Public Records act which allows appraisals to be kept confidential until a final deal is complete.

“I will reveal all the information once we have a deal,” Ms. Thornton said. “My top price that I am willing to pay for the building is $1.6 million.”

Growing need

The Center for Living serves frail and elderly Island residents, including those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, in a supportive day program, and provides other social services. The Center currently uses borrowed space at the Edgartown and Tisbury Council on Aging Buildings, which limits the services and the number of people it can serve. For the past seven years, the nonprofit organization, which is funded by the six Island towns, has searched unsuccessfully for a new home large enough to serve all the people who need services, including those currently on a waiting list.

“It’s the fiscally responsible way to do this,” Center for Living executive director Leslie Clapp said. “It’s only going to get more expensive. Towns can’t do it on their own.”

Ms. Clapp said the organization has exhausted all other possibilities for a new home. Over the past seven years, the organization has explored locations including the YMCA, Woodside Village, the Community Services complex, the church-owned building across from Oak Bluffs town hall, a storefront at the Triangle business district in Edgartown, the old Edgartown School, the Nathan Mayhew Seminars building in Vineyard Haven, several parcels of vacant land on the market, and construction of a new building near the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. Ms. Clapp said all proved inadequate or unavailable for various reasons.

She said the VNA building would suit the organization’s needs well, with room for expansion. U.S. census figures show the number of people on Martha’s Vineyard over the age of 60 has more than doubled since 2000, and is expected to grow in the years to come.

“We are where the people with Alzheimer’s are going to get services,” Ms. Clapp said. “The need is huge and growing exponentially. That’s why a separate building is needed, why it needs to be set up for our program, and why it’s going to cost a bit more than people want it to. The Councils on Aging can’t provide services to people with Alzheimer’s or to the aged, and very aged.”

Spending considerations

Finance committee members in Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and West Tisbury were skeptical of the plan, and declined to endorse it in their recommendations to voters.

“There were a number of uncertainties in the proposal,” said Steve Auerbach, chairman of the Oak Bluffs finance committee, which voted 7-1 against the purchase of the building. “Uncertainties as to the actual price, uncertainties about how appropriate the location was, uncertainties about the size of the building, at least for the current need. It’s my feeling there needed to be further negotiation and further concession on the part of the bank, if we’re going to consider it.”

The Tisbury finance committee voted 5 to 0, with two abstentions, against the proposal. The finance committee arranged a tour of the building, accompanied by other town officials, before voting.

“We felt that the building was not up to standards for immediate use,” said chairman Larry Gomez. “It was just a lot of money to spend for that building. We owe it to the town to use that money elsewhere, since we’ve had a lot of our departments curtail their budgets over the past seven or eight years. We’re not against the Center for Living at all, it’s just that we don’t think we can afford that building.”

The West Tisbury finance committee voted 3 to 2 not to recommend the purchase to town meeting voters. Chairman Katherine Triantafillou said the town is seeking a Proposition 2.5 override this year to fund its operating budget, and funds are scarce.

“We don’t have a sense of an overall strategic plan,” Ms. Triantafillou said. “Given where we were with the budget, some members felt we shouldn’t encumber ourselves with more debt. Some members were concerned that there was not a fully-thought-out strategic vision of the building. It was buy the building and then figure out what we’re going to do with it.”

Edgartown Selectman Art Smadbeck, who also serves on the County Advisory Board which oversees county spending, supports the plan to buy the VNA building.

“We have looked at every possibility on Martha’s Vineyard, and have put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) hoping that maybe somebody had a building that might meet the specifications and step forward,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “It has been an exhaustive and long-term search.”

The only response to the RFP came from the Edgartown National Bank, for the former VNA building. He said the purchase would be a good deal for taxpayers.

“If we tried to build a building just for the Center for Living, which at a minimum they would need between 3,500 and 5,000 square feet, it would cost more than $1.6 million before land costs, just for the building,” he said. “Could we duplicate that building for the price we’re negotiating? No, we couldn’t. It’s a win-win situation.”