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Bequest for seniors carries cost

At the Wellesley Advisory Committee's first meeting to consider articles for the fall Special Town Meeting - now less than three weeks away - controversy swirled over whether the town can and should use an $825,000 bequest, and raise additional funds, for a freestanding senior center for its aging baby-boomer population, or turn the bequest over to the Wellesley Community Center to upgrade its modest facilities for senior use.

At issue was Article 16, which asks Town Meeting voters to decide whether Wellesley should "continue to study the feasibility" of accepting the bequest for use in building a senior center.

Gail Kingsley, a former Wellesley resident and an attorney representing the estate that made the bequest, told Advisory Committee members early this month that the late Mary Esther Tolles "would be spinning in her grave if she thought the town of Wellesley might raise taxes" in order to take advantage of her bequest. Raising taxes, she said, makes it more difficult for seniors to live in Wellesley, something Tolles would never support.

Tolles died in July 2005 at the age of 94, leaving approximately $825,000 to the town on the condition it be used to establish a senior center.

"You can't build a house in Wellesley for $825,000," said Kingsley, so to use the gift for its stated purpose would require the town to find additional funds.

Wellesley, like many communities, is watching over the future needs of its growing senior population. The town set up a committee in January to examine how best to use the bequest and sent out a survey this summer to residents born in 1950 or earlier. The town received responses from 22 percent.

Most were between the ages of 60 and 65 and don't presently use the community center, at 219 Washington St., but said they would, said Selectwoman Harriet Warshaw. "So we know there's a bulk of people coming up," she said. The selectmen are charged with deciding whether to accept the bequest.

Warshaw said the study committee found that "what we have now is not adequate."

"Seniors have one room in the community center, some space for offices, and the Council on Aging can use other parts of the community center," said Warshaw. "And handicap accessibility is not so good at the center."

A freestanding senior center, she said, could offer this growing population classrooms, computer rooms, activity rooms, and offices for a nurse and such service groups as Meals on Wheels.

But the study committee, said Warshaw, is examining both options - allowing the bequest to go to the community center, or building a new senior center. The nearby towns of Weston, Brookline, and Newton, said Warshaw, have freestanding senior centers. Selectmen in Needham, a town with just slightly more residents than Wellesley, approved asking its Town Meeting to raise $8 million for a new freestanding center there.

"There is some tension," acknowledged Wellesley Advisory Committee chairwoman Margaret Metzger, involving how to use the bequest. She does not expect the study committee to have voted on the issue until Town Meeting begins Nov. 6.

Metzger noted there are other issues facing residents, with the town in the midst of plans to build or renovate its high school building.

Warshaw said that if next month's Special Town Meeting approves money to study a freestanding center, the committee could come back with a preliminary plan for annual Town Meeting in the spring.

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