Voters may have a say on senior center expansion

The long-planned expansion of the Bainbridge Island senior center was in the city capital budget, and then it was out of it. Now it’s back in.

Sort of.

The final approval of the budget is months away, but the City Council on Wednesday agreed to let voters have the final word on whether the $9 million expansion will move forward.

“This has been in the city pipeline for years and probably thousands of people have put in a lot of effort and work to develop this project,” said Councilwoman Debbie Vancil. “It was a priority for the city. It’s time to put it back in its rightful place.”

Vancil earned the council’s support for a motion that would revive an earlier proposal earmarking $70,000 for the expansion’s design.

Her idea of putting a $3 million voter-approved bond on the ballot in 2010 also gained the council’s support.

“The senior center is a vital part of our community,” said Council Chairman Bill Knobloch. “It’s one of our main ingredients.”

The bond would likely combine with $3 million in expected state and federal grants and $3 million in expected private donations to meet the center’s expansion costs.

Serving about 1,100 members over the age of 55, the senior center’s 5,000 square foot facility on the north edge of Waterfront Park needs an additional 12,500 square feet to meet the growing demand for senior support services and activities, members say.

The center is administered by the Bainbridge park district, which offers dozens of health, education and hobby classes geared for seniors. The building includes a nonprofit thrift store and the Commons, a community gathering place.

Members have lately intensified their presence at city and park meetings.

“I’m deeply dissatisfied with how the process has gone and your treatment of seniors,” said senior center president Tom Kilbane during a recent park board meeting. “All I hear is a bunch of excuses.”

Reeling from a $2.5 million revenue shortfall, the city has recently lopped several popular community projects from the capital budget. While items such as a new police and court facility have remained, the senior center’s expansion was cut because it is not a city service, according to city public works director Randy Witt.

“The senior center is the victim of other projects,” Knobloch said, mentioning the planned $12 million Winslow Way utilities upgrade. “Basically, if other big bully projects get in front of the line, others will go down.”

While supportive of a voter-approved bond for senior center, Councilman Barry Peters cautioned that islanders have higher priorities for bond funding.

Citing a recent a city survey, Peters said “the number one favored project for a bond was non-motorized improvements,” such as bicycle lanes and trails.

Peters hopes to gain council and voter support for a $6 million non-motorized transportation bond.

“Sadly, (residents) didn’t put the senior center expansion anywhere near the top of the list,” he said, noting that 69 percent of respondents favored non-motorized improvements, while only 34 percent supported the center’s expansion.

Kilbane thinks the senior center bond will have a better chance of passing than a park district-led ballot item aimed at increasing funding for open space acquisition.

“I think (senior center bond) will pass,” he said. “I think not much else will.”