To some in this small town, it’s a tempest in a teapot that smacks of partisan politics. But Kevin Hayes does not see it that way.
Hayes, who was chairman of the Republican Committee in Shirley last year, wrote to the Board of Selectmen recently questioning why two lawmakers – state Senator Pamela R. Resor and state Representative James B. Eldridge, both Democrats of Acton – have been leasing Shirley’s old library for $12 a year. The legislators have had a district office in the municipal building since the beginning of 2004.
“Our legislators get $7,500 per year to have a district office. They obviously feel it’s OK to put that money in their pocket and pay 50 cents each” a month, said Hayes, who ran unsuccessfully against Eldridge in the last election. “It just seems corrupt to me.”
Insisting that he wrote his letter as a resident of Shirley who is concerned about the town’s revenue, not a member of the GOP, Hayes said the town could rent the building to several small companies for $300 to $400 each a month. He said the town could get as much as $3,000 a month for the building.
“I think it’s a good thing for the people of Shirley to have access to our elected officials, but at what price?” he said in an interview.
But town officials say the former library on Lancaster Road is more than 100 years old, is not accessible to the handicapped, is poorly insulated, and is in a part of town that is zoned residential.
“I certainly don’t think we can get $3,000 for that building, not the way it is,” said the chairman of the selectmen, Leonardo “Chip” Guercio. “It’s a very small street with no parking. What type of business can you put there?”
Guercio said the town decided to lease the building to the legislators because they pay for all the utilities and because “setting up a district office in Shirley is a benefit to the people of Shirley.”
Town Administrator Kyle Keady also noted that the old library has no air conditioning, and its windows and heating system need to be replaced. “You name it, it needs improvement.”
The old library is not the only town building that is rented at a nominal fee, Keady pointed out. The Memorial Building is leased to the American Legion for $2 a year, while the children’s Hands-On Art Museum leases the old Town Hall for $1 a month, he said. The YMCA rented the old library for $1 a month before the legislators moved in.
Robert Willington, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said he believes that Shirley officials should think about charging the legislators a higher rent to get more money back from Beacon Hill, and that the lawmakers should be willing to pay more.
“If the Democrats are serious about local aid, why not charge more than $1 per month to raise local revenue?” Willington said. “This is a perfect opportunity to bring money back into the district quickly without more legislation.”
A spokesman for the Massachusetts Democratic Party declined to comment.
Eldridge said a district office in Shirley is beneficial both to seniors who do not like to make long-distance phone calls to Boston and constituents who have private issues that they do not feel comfortable discussing in Town Hall or in a coffee shop.
“It’s probably sour grapes,” said Eldridge, who defeated Hayes last November with 66 percent of the votes. “I think it has more to do with politics than the issue itself.”
Eldridge said he receives $7,200 a year from the state for his district office (in addition to his salary), but denied he is pocketing the money. Heating the old library costs between $4,000 and $5,000 a year, he said, and while this expense is split with Resor, Eldridge said he is using the remaining funds for his office expenses.
Resor said she and Eldridge are “probably doing the town a favor by keeping it in good condition” and paying for all utilities.
“Cities and towns do that as a convenience to their community,” she said.
Resor also has a district office in an old school building in Marlborough, which the town rents to her and Representative Stephen LeDuc, Democrat of Marlborough, for $340 per month, including utilities. She said the costs of maintaining the two offices are similar “when you add up the heat.”
Local real estate broker Jackie Esielionis, who owns Keystone Properties in Shirley, said she did not think the old library could fetch $3,000 a month in rent.
She said she hasn’t been able to find tenants for two retail spaces in Shirley – about the same size or larger than the old library – that have been on the market for more than a year, at rents of $1,000 and $1,300 a month, plus utilities. Unlike the old library, both of those buildings have plentiful parking and are in great shape, she said.
“The market is not here for that kind of space,” she said.
Still, she said, she is sure the old library could be rented for more than $1 a month if the town wanted to be the landlord.
“I don’t think the town should be in the business of renting property,” she said. “It’s too difficult to be a property manager. If it needs to be rented, then sell the building and let someone else rent it.”
Hayes doesn’t see it that way.
“It seems to me that we’re in the business of renting property at a loss,” he said, noting that the town still is responsible for cutting the grass, plowing the snow, and paying the insurance on the building, which alone comes to approximately $1,000 a year.
If the old library were rented more profitably, Hayes said, the town could use the money for many things, such as schools and repairs. “There are just so many things we could use it for in this town,” he said. He emphasized that the issue is not about him being upset about losing the election.
“If I was really sour grapes, I would have gone to the press directly rather than sending one letter to the selectmen,” Hayes said. “All three selectmen are Democrats.”
The complaint was discussed during a recent selectmen’s meeting, and Guercio said the board probably will revisit the issue in the spring, or if someone expresses serious interest in renting the old library.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be interested in the dead of winter.”