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Final Letters from Both Sides Before Tuesday's Shuffle Referendum [UPDATE]

We here add a letter from some chief Shuffle opponents to Joseph Pankowski's pro-Shuffle letter (now below).

Editor's note: These are the final two letters to the editor Darien Patch will publish regarding the Shuffle before voting ends on the referendum. However, anyone is entitled to comment, and continue commenting at length.

Vote 'No': Stop-the-Shuffle allies on Why Darien Should Refrain from Shuffling

To the Editor:

The Shuffle is an overly complex and expensive solution to the straightforward need for a new senior center, and tomorrow voters will have the opportunity to veto this unnecessary project and its $6.9 million price tag by voting "NO."

We support a new senior center.  However, proponents of the Shuffle ask that we suspend disbelief and accept that the only means of providing our seniors with a new center is to spend $6.9 million to relocate both the Board of Education and the to newly renovated spaces at 35 Leroy and Town Hall, respectively.  This is simply not true.

Shuffle proponents ask us to believe that a 23,000-square-foot senior center, one that is 24 percent larger than the current center and includes a cafeteria for 170 people, is needed to meet the programmatic needs of the 45-60 seniors a day who use the senior center.  We don’t.

The shuffle proponents ask us to ignore the use of 35 Leroy for housing, despite the fact an agreement for such a use had been signed between the town and Mutual Housing, a private developer.  Instead we are to believe that an unknown not-for-profit group is going to develop the  Edgerton site for senior affordable housing, while acknowledging that there is “no money, no land, no vision” for such a project.  We can’t.

The shuffle would result in a 23,000-square-foot senior center at , space that is necessary, as Mrs. Stevenson has repeatedly stated, to meet the programmatic needs of our seniors.  However, a Shuffle supporter publicly contradicted this need, stating that the space would also be used for the Youth Commission and Darien Arts Center.  We are at a loss.

The vote is one day away and there remain too many moving parts and too many unanswered questions to move forward with this project.

Here’s what we do know:

There is a need for a new senior center, but not a 23,000-square-foot senior center.  Senior centers in neighboring communities are smaller than the Shuffle-proposed center while meeting the needs of a larger senior population.  Westport’s senior population is twice the size of Darien’s and its senior center is 12,000 square feet; New Canaan’s senior population is 2,787, and its senior center is 11,000 square feet.  It can be done right and well with less space.

There is no need to move the Board of Education, at a cost of $2.6 million, to provide our seniors with a new center.  Under the shuffle proposal, 43 percent of the $6.9 million bond issue would be spent to move 30 school administrators to the old library, at a cost of $86,000 per person.  has neither asked for nor needs new space, and its unnecessary relocation is a wasteful use of our tax dollars.

There is no need to tie up 35 Leroy, Edgerton and Town Hall sites, in effect eliminating any opportunity to develop existing town-owned properties for other uses and to meet other needs, such as for a pool, more fields or a school. Darien is almost 100 percent developed, so there is an even greater need for thoughtful, deliberative decision making with respect to how we develop and use our properties.

There is a need for affordable housing, senior and otherwise.  This is a subject that some have unfortunately used to instill fear in our town in an attempt to gain support for the shuffle. While Darien is home to three housing communities, Clock Hill, Allen O'Neill, and the Old Town Hall houses—a senior housing community on the Post Road. The law requires that we have more.  The New York Times real estate section on Sunday had yet another story about our town and its struggles with this issue.  There is a Department of Justice investigation underway, and at least one other lawsuit.  The issue isn't going away.

The town had signed an option-to-lease agreement with Mutual Housing to develop the 35 Leroy site as 21 owner-occupied units modeled after Clock Hill (residences nestled between the train station, Grove Street plaza and the Sport Shop).  That agreement was nullified by the Campbell administration. Despite protests to the contrary, the 35 Leroy property is an ideal site for a sister development to Clock Hill as it is close to town, public transportation, shopping, entertainment and restaurants.  

It is no secret that Darien has a shortage of developable land and it’s a hurdle the state understands. Developing 35 Leroy, while not getting the town into compliance with the affordable housing law, would demonstrate our effort and commitment as a community towards reaching the goal required by law.

It’s all about the mill rate.  In discussing the shuffle at on Dec. 8, Liz Mao, chairman of the Board of Finance, warned that we are facing a spike in debt service and need to (based on this new debt) look closely at operating budgets this year.  When commenting on the major drivers in the upcoming budget (debt service on the Police Station, Weed Beach and increases in Special Education) she acknowledged that one could argue the town should not do any marginal spending.  This is our point exactly.

Our town is capable of a much better solution to the need for a new senior center than the shuffle.  We can make better use of 35 Leroy, a valuable asset and parcel of land that is worth much more to the community than to be used for municipal offices for 30 school administrators. 

We ask that you join the 970 people who have already voted, by signing their names to the petition that began this referendum process, in supporting Stop the Shuffle and Vote No on Dec. 13.

Sincerely,

Stop the Shuffle

Noreen Benz

Marilu Cleary

Kathy Finnegan

Bob Kernan

Evonne Klein

Randy Klein

Patty McCormick

Mary Ellen Moore

Shawn St. Jean

Shannon Silsby

Susan Vogel

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Vote 'Yes': Joseph Pankowski on Why Darien Should Shuffle

To the Editor

Jenny Streeter, Jim Cameron, Debra Hertz, Norm Guimond, Caroline Murray, David Genovese, Karen Armour, Bob Calve, Robin Woods, Bruce Orr, Debra Ritchie, Ron Heinbaugh....if you know the people on this list, you know that they’re a pretty diverse bunch.  They do have two things in common, though: they are firmly committed to making our town a better place and they all support the plan that has come to be known as the Shuffle.

I can’t speak to all of their reasons for supporting the Shuffle, but as chairman of the Commission on Aging and Vote Yes Darien, I can tell you why I’m so passionate about this cause.

I’ve been involved with the Commission on Aging for nearly 15 years.  We’ve examined numerous proposals to address our dilapidated Senior Center building, which opened as an elementary school in 1954.  These include a full renovation of the center, constructing a new center, merging the center with the DCA, and moving our senior programming to a new location, such as the old library at 35 Leroy Avenue.  For a wide variety of reasons, none of these options were acceptable or gained the necessary political momentum to move forward.

One of the members of our board, May Lechak, worked at the Senior Center and participated in programs there. Several years ago, after yet another Senior Center proposal went up in smoke, May expressed her frustration at a Commission on Aging meeting. “You know,” she said, “I’m going to die before we get a new building.”  Sadly, May was right.  On October 17, May Lechak passed away at the age of 84. 

In short, it is well-past time for our town to finally address the Senior Center issue.  The Shuffle will not only provide our seniors with a safe, welcoming Center at the Town Hall annex, but allow our children to have additional educational and recreational opportunities after 3 p.m. each weekday.  The Center will also be from the Department of Social Services, the Health Department and the Parks & Recreation Department.

Why is this important?  Just one example:  Olive Hauser, our fantastic director of Social Services, helps people apply for government benefits, assists them with their day-to-day issues, and even has a pantry to allow folks to pick up necessary items.  How great would it be for our seniors to simply walk down the hall to meet with Olive?  Not one of the other options the Commission on Aging has studied over the past 12 years includes this component.

When the Shuffle was presented to our commission, we supported it nearly unanimously. It was also approved by the Social Services Commission, the Board of Finance, the Board of Selectmen and won a landslide vote (58-28) in the RTM. In short, every town board that has actually studied this plan approves of it.  We are blessed to have some of the best and brightest people in our town volunteer on our boards.  Do you think that all of these boards would vote for this plan if it wasn’t an excellent one?

Some people are upset that we have to renovate the old library building and move there in order to make the Mather Center a reality.  A few have asserted that the BOE's operating budget will somehow be affected. Thankfully, our school superintendent, Dr. Stephen Falcone, put this issue to rest when he told the Darien Times, "I don't think there will be any costs associated with a building move that would impact anything in our budget. These are two different things. This is not a trade-off in my mind."                                         

What is the cost for retrofitting two existing buildings instead of constructing one new one? Less than $7 million. Bonded over 20 years, a taxpayer with a home valued at $1.4 million will pay only an additional $58 in taxes a year. It's cost-effective, given the fact that renovation projects are significantly less expensive on a square-foot basis than the costs associated with a new building.

Furthermore, the Shuffle is environmentally friendly, as it's far better to re-use existing structures than to tear down and rebuild.  Finally, the Shuffle’s price-tag is basically the same as the Community Center proposed by the Klein administration in 2008—and we will get so much more.

If you decide to vote "No" on Tuesday, you are asking us to go back to square one.  We will be forced to pay for more studies to evaluate options that have previously been discarded, engage in innumerable debates at town meetings, and who is to say that there won’t be another referendum on whatever option our government chooses?

Meanwhile, for the foreseeable future, our senior programming will continue in a former elementary school complete with child-sized toilets.  We, as taxpayers, will also have to bear the significant costs of maintaining the Senior Center building, which is almost literally coming apart at the seams.

If you decide to vote Yes on Tuesday, you are not voting for a perfect solution—there isn’t one.  Rather, you will cast your vote for an excellent plan that has been approved by every town board that has studied the same.  You will be saying that it’s time to get the job done.

Please join the Commission on Aging in supporting the Mather Community Center by voting Yes in Tuesday’s referendum.

Joe Pankowski

Chairman, Commission on Aging

Chairman, Vote Yes Darien

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Editor's note: Here are some Web links on this topic:

SHUFFLE REFERENDUM INFORMATION:

Websites for each camp:

From the town website:

Joe Pankowski December 12, 2011 at 09:26 PM
@ Charley: we're on different sides in this debate, but I appreciate your candor. I've been trying to tell people that a "No vote" sets us back to square one (with no guarantee of a resolution to our Senior Center problem). We'll agree to disagree and see what happens tomorrow....
John Sini December 12, 2011 at 09:29 PM
I'd like to personally thank Mrs. Klein for the concept of a comprehensive multigenerational community center. Without her vision, we probably wouldn't be as far along with the approved project as we are today. In a 9/22/08 presentation to the RTM, former First Selectman Klein said the following: "The Darien Community Activity Center would strive to meet the program needs of Seniors, the arts and the community in a comprehensive facility. Best practices for new programs mix ages and activities. Senior programs must innovate to thrive." "Program requirements and needs drive facility specifications. Build a space around program requirements so needs are primary and future needs are considered." See page 17: http://www.voteyesdarien.com/More_Information_files/35%20Leroy%20Public%20Use%20Assessment%20Presentation.pdf
Charley December 12, 2011 at 09:35 PM
Tell me it ain't so Joe and vote NO. Why must Darien, all of sudden, require a community center? We have survived this long without one. Don't need one today or down the road. You want a club house then go join one but not at my expense. Yeah, I know, only 5 bucks send you my address but what you "me generation" people are about to get a lesson in, is that it's 5 bucks today, 25 tomorrow. Which is also why the vast majority Darien seniors are residents of Florida.
Joe Pankowski December 12, 2011 at 09:42 PM
@ Charley: I believe we need a wonderful Center which will serve our whole community. Remember, if you own a house worth $1.4 million, you're only going to pay an additional $58 a year. As for Darien folks moving to Florida, I plan on staying in Darien and I know a lot of my contemporaries are, too. The Mather Center will be a wonderful facility for decades to come and I look forward to enjoying it. Well, that is, if we get a Yes vote tomorrow...
Charley December 12, 2011 at 09:54 PM
I guess you're going to tell me that it will remain at 58 dollars tomorrow, LOL! I have a bridge for sale. The whole community does not need a center. Voting NO.
Joe Pankowski December 12, 2011 at 10:02 PM
@ Charley: no, I'm not going to predict the future even as far as tomorrow. But, hey, if your No vote wins, you might get your wish of having no community center down the road. I think that would be a shame for our seniors and our community as a whole.
RPM December 12, 2011 at 10:11 PM
I just looked at the tax payment structure. The payments listed are based on today's land/building assessment. Is it safe to presume that as our assessments inevitably go higher, so will our debt responsibility per-household?
Charley December 12, 2011 at 10:15 PM
It just might help you afford to remain here. The odds are you'll get your shuffle, ten years from now it will be another I told you so. I'll send you a post card from Palm Beach in the Winter.
Joe Pankowski December 12, 2011 at 10:19 PM
Charley: I'll be here and hope that there's a wonderful Community Center to help me and my friends enjoy the good life---even in winter! Palm Beach isn't for me...
Alex Tytler December 12, 2011 at 10:28 PM
You want to enjoy the good life? You need to pay for it, not me. Seniors think that everybody owes them a free ride. Seniors are dragging the country down.
John Boulton December 12, 2011 at 10:37 PM
RPM, if I got your question right, then the answer will depend on whether your real property's value changes vis a vis the Grand List (which is the total value of all assessed real property in Town). In theory, if your property's assessed value increases at the same rate that the Grand List increases, then the burden should be relatively constant.
Chapin December 12, 2011 at 10:44 PM
Mr. Pankowski, We are Voting No, a Republican and a Democrat. We take issue with several points in your letter. If one believes the BOE operating budget will not be impacted you have to believe the mill rate in the Town WILL increase mid single digits every year for the forseeable future. To assume the grand list grows is a stretch in this economic climate so in effect you are asking people to pay more every year to maintain the status quo. I can assure you the Town will reach a tipping point like many other municipalities. Second, when we reach a tipping point and residents are reluctant to support increases in the mill rate, programs will comer under pressure. Does that mean cutting athletic programs? Increasing class size? Cutting music and the arts? To assume the well never runs dry is a bad assumption. Which path will Darien follow in the future? Perpetual tax rates squeezing the very same seniors we are trying to help or previously unthinkable budget cuts? Second, the cup of coffee statement is not relevant. Any capital project looks attractive when the costs are amortized over 20 years and a large captive tax base. We object to the $7 million price tag to build a "community" center to replace a senior center and shuffle employees from building to building. My guess is if the RTM and BOS put forth a plan for a smaller senior center at the Edgerton site leaving the Town with option value at 35 Leroy, you would have a better chance of success.
Joe Pankowski December 12, 2011 at 10:50 PM
Chapin: let's put it this way, I'll listen to Dr. Stephen Falcone when it comes to the BOE budget instead of some person on the internet who refuses to use his or her real name. As for the "cup of coffee" analogy, you may very well need that cup. It's not in my letter (which establishes the fact that you didn't read my letter all that closely). Rather than bicker, we'll agree to disagree and see what happens tomorrow.
Charley December 12, 2011 at 10:54 PM
So we'll have a senior center and a community center just for you and your remaining friends while the rest of the Darien seniors are down South and not slipping on ice and breaking hips during the Darien Winters. There are multiple reasons why retirees are not CT residents.
Charley December 12, 2011 at 10:57 PM
Voting No.
Joe Pankowski December 12, 2011 at 11:00 PM
@ Charley: the concept of "community" doesn't mean much to you, does it? Some people stay in Darien because they choose to, others don't have your resources to head to Palm Beach. Tomorrow's vote is an opportunity to say that we value everyone in our community, including our seniors who remain in town.
kathy December 12, 2011 at 11:19 PM
Mr. Pankowski says " Tomorrow's vote is an opportunity to say that we value everyone in our community, including our seniors who remain in town." Funny I thought tomorrow's vote says we approve or reject the funding of a $6.97 million bond issue, 43% of which builds new municipal offices for 30 school administrators and staff.
Joe Pankowski December 12, 2011 at 11:26 PM
Ms. Finnegan: as noted in my letter, the retrofit of the old library building for the BOE is necessary to provide us with the space for the Mather Community Center. In addition to the BOE's old space, we'll be able to use 7,000 square feet of locker room space to have a right-sized Community Center. And both of these buildings can be renovated for roughly the same cost as the Community Center proposed by the Klein administration in 2008. For the record, none of the other options suggested by Shuffle opponents provide our seniors (and our community as a whole) with the benefits which could be had from the Mather Center. Thus, I stand by my statement.
Chapin December 12, 2011 at 11:26 PM
Mr. Pankowski, We have no doubt the Dr. Falcone is a qualified Superintendent and educator. However, when it comes to matters of finance and the future, we would not put stock in any of his pronouncements. How many members of the BOS, BOF and the RTM actually have read the BOE operating proposed budgets and the Town's proposed 5 year budget and the underlying assumptions. As for the cup of coffee reference, I was referencing your prior often stated comments on the Patch in support of the Shuffle. Of course we can agree to disagree, that is the point of the referendum.
Joe Pankowski December 13, 2011 at 01:00 AM
@ Chapin: you are referring to the fact that the Shuffle would cost the average taxpayer less than $1.38 a week, while a cup of coffee at the Post Road Dunkin Donuts costs $1.59. Yes, that's right.
Swami December 13, 2011 at 01:51 AM
You mean the millions of seniors who spent the best years of their lives fighting in wars so that you can sit at your computer and bitch about them?
Joyce Ishimata December 13, 2011 at 01:56 AM
Mr pankowski May I applaud you on your level of patience. I was opposed to the shuffle. Now I am undecided, but most likely will still vote no. I think you all are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Thats no fault of yours. 35 Leroy needs a purpose and the current administration is trying their best to avoid affordable housing there. Thats fine. I am not sure its worth spending millions to avoid. However, i would like to commend you in how you respond to people like Charley, who are on here only to cause trouble and bait you. Your time and efforts should be appreciated in ways other than what Charley chose to deride you with. The whole pro shuffle crowd I am impressed with. The stoptheshuffle crowd is disrespectful and full of tricks and accusations of bullying . I dont think it is fair, and at the end of the day, if my No vote counts to a victory, I would still beleive that your side fought a more fair fight.
Joe Pankowski December 13, 2011 at 02:00 AM
Ms. Ishimata: Thanks for your very kind note. Win or lose, I believe we've fought the good fight and I look forward to a nice, long sleep tomorrow night. I hope that you and yours have a wonderful holiday season.
kathy December 13, 2011 at 02:23 AM
Joyce, I am confident that the smart and creative minds in our community can find a purpose for 35 Leroy that is worthy of the $4.2 million that we spent to purchase the property. Be it housing, the senior center, or some other use. I am also sure that the need for a new gathering place for our senior citizens can be met without involving the $2.6 million move of school administrators into the old library building. We would be renovating 22,000 square feet at 35 Leroy, which is more than the BOE needs and leaving 6,000 square feet vacant. I suspect this is not the purpose anyone had in mind when the property was initially acquired. I just cannot imagine using our old library building and land, so close to downtown, as municipal office space, with such high renovation costs. If you decide to vote NO your support will not be in vain. The town will move forward to meet the need to replace the decaying senior center, without having to tie up 35 Leroy, Town Hall and Edgerton St in the effort.
Joe Pankowski December 13, 2011 at 02:35 AM
Ms. Finnegan: we have significant disagreements, of course, but I am pleased that both sides of the Shuffle debate have been able to offer our differing viewpoints without undue negativity during this referendum campaign. One of us will be very happy and one of us quite sad at this time tomorrow night. Either way, we will move forward and do the best we can with our town's decision. And won't it be great to truly enjoy the rest of December? Best regards.
John Sini December 13, 2011 at 02:37 AM
Kathy does a very good job of explaining that the opponents really have no viable alternative to solve the multiple facilities issues that this town faces.
Joyce Ishimata December 13, 2011 at 03:15 AM
kathy, that is , in my opinion, a much more level headed response. Calling the other side bullying (when they are not) or insinuating that they are of the belief that the referendum is not allowed (never said it) or that Republicans dont support it (they certainly dont oppose it) is not an honest way to argue. An alternative plan would have been more fair to argue why the shuffle is bad, and your plan is good. But I agree that the purchase of 35 leroy was never intended to be for administrative people. The pro shuffle crowd termed the property there as a crown jewel, yet crown jewels should neither be used for admininstration or for affordable housing. i hope if the no vote carries that the stoptheshuffle people will pledge to be as vigilent in finding a solution as they were in trying to stop a lot of people's solution. this is why I am now undecided. I get the feeling that the stoptheshuffle people may simply be focused on affordable housing , and not that concerned with servicing a segment of our community that deserves better and a demographic that , as baby boomers come closer to retirement age, should be invited to stay in Darien.
James Palen December 13, 2011 at 05:39 AM
Chapin, Hi there. I am on the RTM and it's Finance and Budget Committee and can assure you that I read through the proposed budgets and analysis regarding the proposed Shuffle when making my decision. In addition, I am quite confident that the other members of this committee did so as well. The committee voted 10 in favor, 2 opposed.
Chapin December 13, 2011 at 12:53 PM
Mr. Sini, Pankowski and Mr. Palen, We wish you good luck today however it appears we are already heading down a scenario (the fiscal pressure) we mentioned yesterday. Please see the link below from the "State of the Town" meeting last night. We assume you attended the meeting but would like to share some quotes from Ms. Mao. "Under a "worst-case scenario" five-year town budget "forecast" in which estimates of revenue are minimized and spending wish lists from each department are granted, Darien would need to raise taxes 6.5 percent for the 2012-13 fiscal year." "Mao cautioned that the projected tax hikes are unlikely to be as severe as the forecast—town officials will look for spending decreases, and worst-case revenue predictions often are worse than the actual revenues." The total town budget would rise from $115 million to $123 million, a 6.9 percent increase. Of the 8 million increase, $4.3 million comes from the education budget: * $1.2 million comes from increased personnel costs, both as a result of more projected hiring and the proposed teachers union contract, which raises salaries at a lower rate than in the previous contract. * $0.95 million comes from less revenue coming in, like state aid. * $1.5 million comes from expenditures on fixed costs. * $0.6 million comes from an increase in operations costs. http://darien.patch.com/articles/state-of-the-town-b68e9caa
Joe Pankowski December 13, 2011 at 12:58 PM
@ Chapin: the Mather Center is roughly the same cost as the Center proposed by the Klein administration. It's time to VOTE YES DARIEN.

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