By Alexis Bacharach Enterprise editor
It doesn’t matter where it’s built or who pays for it. So long as seniors in the Mill Creek area have a place all their own to gather and enjoy one another, Max Rigelman will be satisfied.
But he questions the sincerity behind city leaders’ claims these past two years that a senior center will soon be erected in Mill Creek.
Rigelman serves on the board of directors for the Mill Creek Senior Center Foundation, a local nonprofit group that formed in 2006 to raise money for a new senior center. The group presented a plan to the City Council in May and September to accomplish that goal, asking the city to pony up $2 million to help fund construction of the proposed 11,000-square-foot facility.
In the foundation plan, the senior center would sit atop a property owned and leased by the Mill Creek Community Association (MCCA) for $10 a year. But objections have been raised that the community association residents will reap benefits should the city approve the plan, essentially dropping a $2 million improvement in the lap of the MCCA.
The issue has monopolized City Council meetings and fueled an intense debate between local seniors and elected officials who want to look at other options before settling on the foundation plan.
Council members have pledged their support to seniors and promised to help the local program in the short-term manage the rising cost of renting office and classroom space from Snohomish County and some private organizations in the Mill Creek area. A committee will therefore be established to consider other alternatives — the formation of a special taxing district, for example, to fund construction and operation of a senior center.
“It seems like these alternative options just keep popping up as a means of shifting focus,” Rigelman said. “This thing’s been going on for more than two years, so I have a hard time accepting that council members aren’t up to speed yet. I feel like they just want us to go away. Maybe that’s a terrible thing to say, but I do feel it in my heart.”
Among the most vocal critics of the foundation proposal is Mayor Terry Ryan, who says taxpayers are being called upon to wholly fund a project that the city will have little or no control over.
“Of the folks using the senior program now, only 40 percent actually live in Mill Creek,” Ryan said. “It seems unfair that the city is then being asked to pay for the entire building.”
Ryan has several times questioned the foundation’s fundraising efforts, pointing out that in two years the group has failed to secure any grants or donations.
But foundation leaders say they can’t go to the community or state lawmakers for money until they have a commitment of support from the City Council.
“I know of half-a-dozen people in the community right now that I could call on for donations,” Rigelman said. “Think of how embarrassing it would be for us at the foundation to collect donations from the public and find out later that the city won’t support this thing. That’s why we need just a commitment — they don’t have to give us $2 million and they can put whatever stipulations they want on their contribution.”
In addition to construction related expenses — approximately $2.3 million — the foundation has to raise $500,000 for a reserve account. The foundation plans to rent space in the building for parties and other events to cover maintenance and operating expenses. Proceeds from auctions and other fundraisers would also go toward facility upkeep, according to the foundation’s proposal.
City leaders still worry about their liability should revenue from party rentals and fundraising activities fall short of the foundation’s predictions — $55,000 in the first year to $135,000 in the fifth year.
While the city wouldn’t be on the hook legally, “how would it look if somewhere down the road the seniors came to us for help with the building and we said no?” Ryan asked. “What happens if the foundation, for whatever reason, can’t cover the building’s operating expenses?”
Foundation leaders insist their financial plan, which assumes a 4 percent hike in inflation and interest over 20 years, is solid.
“We’ve planned for everything short of a devastating earthquake in our 60-page proposal,” Rigelman said. “A proposal that council members admitted they haven’t even read.”
While the city moves ahead with a planned $7 million expansion of its sports park, critics say that taxpaying seniors aren’t getting the same level of service as local children.
“The city’s priority continues to be the sports park and that’s good, I guess,” Rigelman said. “I suggested that the library site, should we get a new library at the east end of town, would be a great location for a senior center and they said, ‘No, we’re putting the new police station there.’ I suggested the space being vacated by the police then, and they said ‘No, we’re putting parks and rec there.’
“Forgive me, but it doesn’t feel like they’re very committed to building a senior center.”