WEST SPRINGFIELD — “We have a forgotten department in this town,” Linda Parent told the Town Council on March 18, “and that’s the Council on Aging. We have a very small staff there, a part-time custodian and 80-year-old women moving chairs and tables. We also have a van that’s on its last legs.”

She continued, “This year, there will be more people attaining age 65 than ever before. My age generation is growing. … We had to outsource our meal preparation, which has impacted our seniors. Some of them go to other senior centers because that’s the only hot meal they get.”

Mayor William Reichelt responded, in a statement, that Parent’s comments — and the presence of a handful of other Senior Center supporters and board members who attended the meeting to ask for a larger budget — “were surprising to me.”

“No one from the Council on Aging had reached out to me to discuss the funding (or impression of the lack thereof) of the Council on Aging’s operations,” he said. “The tone of the comments made at the Town Council’s meeting suggested that members of the Council on Aging are under the impression that the town has failed to adequately fund or has refused requests for funding capital improvements for the Council on Aging.”

On the contrary, he said that he’s heard the needs, and improvements to the Senior Center at 128 Park St., West Springfield, are already in the works.

Laurie Gearing, who was appointed Senior Center director in September 2023, told Reminder Publishing a kitchen renovation is already being planned. It was the prior director who closed the kitchen and outsourced the food service operation; Gearing said Reichelt has already earmarked funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to rehabilitate the kitchen to return it to operation.

“We’re investing in renovating the kitchen. We’re in the middle of our budget and Mayor Reichelt is working with us to bring that back,” Gearing said. “We’re looking at purchasing a different vehicle. Right now, the van that we have is still working.”

Parent said at the meeting that state Sen. John Velis (D-Westfield) managed to write a $50,000 grant for a new van into the state budget, but earlier this year the governor cut those grants in half.

“We have $25,000 towards that van we need to spend this year and we need some money for that van. It is so important to our community,” said Parent, a member of the Council on Aging. “We need a new van, which is used to bring people to the Senior Center, to bring people grocery shopping and most importantly, to get them to the doctors. Not all our seniors have families that can help them. … We need to invest in our Senior Center desperately, but the first thing we need is that van and we need your help to get it.”

Reichelt said the Senior Center hasn’t been asking him for a new van.

Each year, as part of the budget process, West Springfield’s Chief Financial Officer Sharon Wilcox requests that each department head submit an operating budget with a supporting narrative and, if applicable, a list of requests for capital expenditures — one-time expenditures in excess of $150,000. Reichelt said until the most recent budget submission from Gearing, he had not previously received any requests from the prior director for a new van or for any investments in the kitchen. He said he knew the previous director was working with the Legislature for van funding.

“This $25,000 obviously will not fund the purchase of a new van,” Reichelt said. “And funding from the town would be needed to complete the purchase; however, no request for such funding was included in the prior director’s budgets.”

Reichelt said he has talked with Senior Center staff as well as mechanics in the town’s garage. He explained that while the van is beginning to show signs of its age, it has not yet reached the end of its useful life. He is not aware of the van being out of service for long periods of time or otherwise disrupting transportation operations.

The mayor said he suggested to Gearing that the Council on Aging examine its transportation operations and determine what an appropriate fleet and staffing model would be to meet the current needs of elder residents.

Reichelt concluded, “I would suggest that if the Council on Aging has a wish list of capital improvements that are needed to support programming, it would be useful to Director Gearing, CFO Wilcox and I for you to articulate what those needs are in a prioritized list with supporting reasons so that we all can better understand what the priorities of the council are.”

Parent delivered her comments at the same meeting where town councilors were considering whether to apply for state reimbursement to build a new elementary school in town. Other speakers included fellow Council on Aging members Karen Drudi and Elisa Olivo. Drudi said the van is an important resource not only because it brings seniors without a car to medical appointments and Senior Center meals, but also because the time they spend at the Senior Center may be their only chance to socialize, which is important to mental health.

Town resident Ellen Follett said it’s time to build a new Senior Center. There’s not enough room at the current facility, she said — for example, the lunchroom has to share space with the exercise equipment. She said the mayor has asked for new police and public works facilities because they are “outdated and undersized for modern needs,” and the “same can be said for the Senior Center—same exact words.”

The current West Springfield Senior Center was built in 1980 and occupies 11,872 square feet. It is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every weekday except holidays.

Reichelt said he is happy to hear constituents’ concerns during his open office hours every Tuesday and Thursday.

Michael Ballway of Reminder Publishing contributed to this report.

Miasha Lee
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