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Abington, Whitman

Towns to look at sharing senior services

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / September 27, 2009

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Abington has a spacious new senior center but just lost its Council on Aging director to the town of Plymouth. Nearby Whitman has a veteran senior services director but doesn’t have an adequate center to serve local elderly.

Each of these two communities appears to have something the other needs, so officials in both have begun thinking about a regional arrangement.

The idea was first floated by two of Abington’s selectmen, and their colleagues in Whitman have now authorized Town Manager Frank Lynam to meet with his counterpart in Abington to see whether merging senior services is worth looking into. The meeting has not yet taken place, Lynam said.

While regionalization is currently a hot topic in Massachusetts, and one that will be the focus of the state’s newly established Regionalization Advisory Commission, a regional arrangement for senior services is not all that common.

David P. Stevens, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging, said such an arrangement, although a little tricky, has been known to work. It is most often seen in Western Massachusetts, where tiny communities combine many major services.

“All the towns pay into it, just like you would a regional school system,’’ Stevens said. “The big issue is transportation. If the senior center is located in one town, how far is that from the other towns, and how do you transport the seniors?’’

The second-biggest challenge is reaching a consensus on the funding formula. “When towns are entering into a regional agreement, they have to spell out all the details on issues like funding, who has the final say, and what means will be used to resolve disagreements,’’ Stevens said.

One of the most successful regional arrangements for senior services involves a consortium established by Colrain, Ashfield, Buckland, and Shelburne, where town populations aren’t much more than 2,000. One center is used by all four communities, and senior services are overseen by a single director. That model is the same one that has been suggested for Whitman and Abington.

Abington opened its 12,000-square-foot senior center in the former Flame of Fire Covenant church on Summer Street a little over a year ago, under Council on Aging director Marybeth Lawton.

Lawton had no plans for making a job switch until recently, when Plymouth’s acting town manager contacted her about heading up that town’s senior services. Lawton agreed, and wrapped up her stint in Abington on Friday.

While Abington selectmen have said the recently instituted hiring freeze would not affect replacing the Council on Aging director, using Whitman’s director would save the town that salary.

In July, a $1.5 million override for this year’s operational budgets was soundly defeated in Abington. The town remains $1 million in deficit for this year, a shortfall voters will have to deal with at Town Meeting next month.

Meanwhile, Whitman Town Meeting voters a few weeks ago rejected a $1.5 million override request to buy a former church in downtown and convert it to a senior center. A previous $5 million plan to renovate the former National Guard armory for seniors was abandoned as impractical. So the town’s 2,000 seniors continue to use their 20-year-old center with no plans for an upgrade.

Whitman’s Council on Aging director and Abington’s former director, however, don’t see eye to eye when it comes to regionalizing senior services.

Whitman’s Patricia McCarthy said it’s worth close study. “I think we need to be creative in how we deliver services to the elderly,’’ she said. “I don’t know if this would be the right thing or the wrong thing, but I think it would be negligent not to look at it.’’

However, Abington’s former director said regionalization would be a terrible idea. “There are some things that can’t be regionalized, and that includes police, fire, and councils on aging,’’ Lawton said. “That’s why towns have their own councils on aging unless they are tiny, so you can advocate for your own seniors.’’

Patricia Mikes, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the discussion between Whitman and Abington is a sign of the times. “Communities are looking for ways to relieve the stress on their budgets, and one way to do that is regionalization,’’ Mikes said. Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.