Voluntown first selectman's top issue is old meetinghouse
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Voluntown - posted Thu., Dec. 19, 2013
Robert Sirpenski came to Voluntown 35 years ago to house-sit for relatives and ended up staying. As a former director of finance for Voluntown and for Preston schools, as well as work experience with Charles River Laboratories and Lawrence and Memorial Hospital, the newly-elected first selectman said he understands all three financial situations – corporate, private sector and municipal. In all three environments, “a lot of decisions come down to how it will affect your pocketbook,” he said.
Sirpenski, a veteran of the Voluntown Board of Selectman, was elected first selectman in November. “In the end, all budgets are the same,” he said. “In a town, the shareholders are the citizens and taxpayers. I haven’t decided yet which is tougher - questions in the corporate boardroom from shareholders or questions from taxpayers.”
Voluntown’s most pressing issue for the coming year, he said, is the fate of the 1840s-era Methodist church building in the center of town, which the town acquired from a previous owner who had allowed the structure to deteriorate. A group of local citizens is attempting to rescue the church from oblivion, but Sirpenski said that the town must juggle issues of liability for the structure as it is and finding the funds for a full restoration project.
“I like history, but we have to see what it all costs and who’s going to pay for it,” he said. “Right now, it’s a balancing act.” Sirpenski said that the neighboring landowner, David Blanchette, has given the town permission to access his property where necessary to make needed repairs on the structure. There is virtually no clearance between Blanchette’s property line and the side of the structure, he said.
But before the town can proceed on any work, the town attorney must review the document for the agreement, said Sirpenski.
While the selectmen have appropriated a sum of up to $10,500 to address short-term issues of safety for the structure, he said it would make sense to determine, by town meeting or referendum, the sentiment of the townspeople on trying to save the structure. If the willingness isn’t there and the consensus is to tear it down, he said, it doesn’t make sense to spend money in shoring it up. The money in that case would be better saved for the demolition, he said.
“The people who want to save the church are very passionate, but the people who don’t want to spend a penny on it are equally passionate,” he said. He hopes to schedule a town meeting in the coming month to gauge residents’ thoughts on the matter. “Ideally I would like to have it decided before the end of January,” he said.
Looking further ahead, Sirpenski said that the town has applied for a state grant to finance a new town garage. “The infrastructure groundwork has been done” on that project, he said, which would include a properly-sized, above-ground diesel fuel tank that would allow the town to purchase diesel fuel in greater bulk for a lower price. “We’re paying too much money for fuel right now,” he said.
In the past four or five years, the town has seen only one minor tax increase, and budgets traditionally are passed at town meeting rather than a more costly referendum, he said. “I think everybody’s cognizant of spending money wisely to get the biggest bang for the buck,” he said.