'We are honestly bumfuzzled': Baileyton leaders, senior group spar over use of meeting space

Mar. 17—Baileyton seniors, who for more than a decade have met at the community building constructed for that purpose, are weighing their options after showing up for the first time ever to a locked facility this week.

The brick building on Baileyton's Fire Station Road was opened in 2011 as a new accommodation for the town's then-active senior group, and has been owned and operated by the town since its completion.

On March 8, though, Mayor Windell Calloway, acting in agreement with the town council and on the advice of attorneys representing the Alabama League of Municipalities, gave notice to the group that it must relinquish its use of the space.

When members of the group showed up at the center on March 16 for their weekly Thursday meeting, they found the facility locked — a change from the town's customary procedure of opening the building on Thursdays ahead of the group's 10 a.m. meeting time.

Town leaders say the restricted access is a necessary new shift to comply with state legal requirements while seniors say the move is needlessly adversarial.

"It's been building up for a while," senior group member Pat Gilbert, herself the town's former clerk until the current administration dismissed her from service in 2022, said Friday.

"A year and a half ago, they stopped funding us and said it was illegal for them to give us money, because we are a separate entity from the town. They want to use it as a community center now. In 2012, the mayor and council at that time adopted an ordinance stating that this building would be used as a senior citizens community center in perpetuity, and a deed was written up with that disclaimer on it."

The 2012 ordinance indeed states just that, along with the stipulation that use of the facility "shall be limited to a senior citizens community center." Calloway told The Times on Friday that the current council administration had since modified those terms with the adoption of recent ordinances, though those were not available for viewing ahead of press time.

"We went through in an ordinance; actually two ordinances, that changed several things," said Calloway. "We have not made it into a community center yet, but it's something we've been talking about and it's going to happen. The seniors aren't cut off from the building — they can still use it — but they will have to pay rent for it."

Calloway maintains that the town can't legally support Baileyton seniors in any organized way — either with a place to assemble or with funding — unless the group functions as an administrative unit of the town itself. Currently, the senior group isn't affiliated with Baileyton or, for that matter, with the Cullman County Commission on Aging, which at other Cullman County locations maintains both senior facilities and staffing for its participating full-time, county-owned senior centers.

"The big thing," said Calloway, "is that they're a separate entity from the town. We have been furnishing the building all these years, but otherwise have no connection with them. We had asked them to vacate a storage area behind the building, and they wanted that request in a letter — so we called the League [the Alabama League of Municipalities] and their lawyers said it was illegal for us to let them use anything in the town without paying for it, since they're not a part of the town.

Gilbert said the town's new rental terms seem obstructive, especially for a group that's long believed its use of the building has the weight of local statute on its side. Local funds were raised to help push the building's 2011 construction over the finish line with the knowledge that the facility would be used as a senior center, she said, and at its pre-COVID busiest, the group fielded as many as 70 active members — a number that's lately dropped to 20 or fewer.

"We are honestly bumfuzzled," said Gilbert. "I know there's some personal animosity that exists between certain people, but that shouldn't affect all these seniors who look forward to meeting together each week."

In addition to gathering at the facility once a week (from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. each Thursday), Baileyton seniors had long used an adjacent storage area to house Christmas decorations, as well as hospital beds and wheelchairs the group offers to community residents in need. This week's lockout, said Gilbert, means the group is hastening to find a new place to store those items.

"We just want people to know we can use all the help we can get, as far as finding a new place, because we don't want to have to shut down," she said. "We do a lot of charitable work for the community at Christmastime, not with any support from the town itself, but from Walker Brothers and other generous donors and volunteers."

Calloway said the town will not continue to house the group's property, though its members are welcome to continue meeting at the building — so long as they formalize the group's relationship to the town as an unaffiliated party by paying a rental fee.

"To keep from breaking the law, they can rent it if they want, just as anyone else can, and that would fall within the guidelines we have to abide by," he said. "We've tried to make the policy legal and fair to everybody who wants to use the building."

Benjamin Bullard can be reached by phone at 256-734-2131 ext. 234.