The Chilmark select board welcomed West Tisbury select board members at their meeting Tuesday, to discuss the future of the Howes House in West Tisbury.
Howes House, home to the Up-Island Council on Aging, is located in West Tisbury, but it also serves Chilmark and Aquinnah seniors. All three towns contribute to the costs for services and programming.
Officials from all three towns have discussed renovation plans since 2021, after acknowledging the buildings’ need for significant improvements. The project is planned to be split equally among West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah, mirroring the funding formula of the Tri-Town Ambulance service project.
But West Tisbury has since taken the reins, hiring an architect and working on renovation designs, later prompting Chilmark board members to express dissatisfaction with the lack of communication over what is expected to cost at least $10 million.
They stressed needing to be more involved in the planning, and wanted to know more about how many Chilmark residents actually use the services at Howes House.
At their joint meeting on Tuesday, West Tisbury select board chair Cynthia Mitchell offered up some of those statistics.
In 2021, there were a total of 2,131 “eligible users”— residents aged 60 and up — of Howes House services, she said.
Out of the 598 eligible in Chilmark, 305 used the Council on Aging services, which, at a usage rate of 51 percent, surpasses that of West Tisbury and Aquinnah.
Chilmark has “the highest rate of the three towns,” Mitchell said, despite it having a smaller population.
She then asked Chilmark board members their feelings about whether the program has been beneficial to their constituents, and inquired as to whether they’d want to continue the up-Island partnership.
“I would say that I personally find value in the program — without a doubt,” Chilmark select board member Bill Rossi said, advocating for the continuance of the collaboration.
He said the question is what level of participation Chilmark will be involved in the planning and construction process, especially since the estimated cost of the project is now higher than initially anticipated. It’s the financial aspect of it, he said. “That’s what we were grappling with.”
But “there’s certainly no one devaluing the program itself,” he said.
Chilmark select board member Jim Malkin agreed, and said the usefulness of Howes House is no longer being questioned.
“For me the question comes down to what is it you’re going to build, and how much will it cost?” he said.
Once that’s determined, Malkin said it would behoove Chilmark board members to delve further into how much they should contribute to the project.
Select board member Warren Doty echoed his fellow board members, calling for more outreach to the Chilmark community.
The partnership among the up-Island towns regarding Howes House should continue, he said. “It’s a good tri town cooperative arrangement. . . We don’t want our own Council on Aging, we want the up-Island Council on Aging.”
Susan Murphy, who serves as the Chilmark representative for the Howes House building committee, emphasized that more than funding, the physical renovation of the project presents the most difficulties.
“Unfortunately, this poor building has been altered and added on so many times, it’s in a tough spot,” she said.
But, “I think it’s a worthwhile project,” she said. “How towns treat their ‘elders’ is an indication of a healthy society.”