Despite pushback from a handful of Lower Paxton Township residents, supervisors unanimously approved proposed plans that allow the Harrisburg YMCA to run the township’s Friendship Center.
The lease agreement requires the Harrisburg YMCA to pay the township $10 per month for at least the next 30 years, with an option to continue the agreement, Chairman Lowman Henry said. That means the township is no longer paying for the building’s operations, maintenance, repairs, and capital expenses.
Under the lease agreement, the township still owes $3.5 million in previous capital debt, which Henry estimates will be paid off in three to four years.
“We know it doesn’t bring immediate relief, but over three to four years, it will reduce taxpayer expenditures for a portion of the Friendship Center to zero,” Henry said. “As opposed to the average $800,000 some dollars a year we’ve been putting into the building.”
Township supervisors have been paying down the capital debt using taxpayer money from the general fund called “debt smoothing,” Henry said.
“The center wasn’t bringing in enough revenue to pay for the annual debt service,” he said. “Theoretically, somewhere down the road, the Friendship Center was going to pay the township back, but we knew that was never going to happen. In three and a half to four years, the debt will be paid off and then we’re free of the obligation.”
Some expenses will still have to be paid toward the senior center that is part of the building, Henry added.
Another added benefit of the agreement is the township’s ability to utilize the space in the event of a natural disaster or turn it into a shelter, he said.
“We retain the option of utilizing that space in the event of an emergency,” Henry said. “If there’s a natural disaster and there’s a staging location needed, the township has in the lease an option to use the facility to deal with the emergency, be it a hurricane, tornado, whatever might happen. Part of our emergency plan included that the Friendship Center would have been the housing facility should we have police or first responders who became infected – it would be a quarantine site.”
All 20 seats, allowed under the current coronavirus guidelines, at the administrative building were filled with residents at Tuesday’s meeting.
Prior to the vote, Henry explained that the partnership is to “prevent future tax increases.” He said supervisors understood the lease agreement is “generous,” adding supervisors recognize “we are not in normal times.”
Some in the audience shook their heads in approval, others in disapproval.
Several township residents have contacted supervisors to express their dismay at having to pay for the debt service, as well as membership fees, Henry said. However, one thing most residents do agree on is that they want the community center to reopen.
The Friendship Center has been closed since March when the coronavirus began to spread throughout Pennsylvania.
Following the vote, a group of township residents said taxpayers lost in the board’s decision. They said the building’s value is $12.5 million, and that supervisors should have respected the input of real estate appraisers.
The 62,000 square-foot-building should have been leased for $9 to $10 per square foot, the residents said, emphasizing they have nothing against the YMCA.
“Lower Paxton Township taxpayers own that building, and the supervisors just gave it away for $10,” said resident Tom Thomas.
Residents who opposed the approval of the lease agreement said they might try to appeal the decision.
As for now, the Harrisburg YMCA executive committee will cast the final vote on the lease agreement on November 17. The hope is to have the Friendship YMCA reopened and in use as of December 1.