SHIRLEY -- War Memorial Building Trustees came to selectmen Monday night to ask for help paying heating oil bills this winter, picking up on a question left unasked at a previous meeting.

Thanks to advance publicity, most everyone at the earlier selectmen's meeting knew the intended purpose of the visit, which was billed as a bid for the town's help in paying the War Memorial Building's heating costs this year.

A roomful of American Legion Post #183 members showed up to support it.

But instead of the anticipated plea for fuel assistance, longtime Legionnaire and former town official Norman Albert sketched the building's history and Trustee Theresa Richards spoke briefly but didn't ask for anything. She did say they'd be back, though.

Albert managed get the gist of his message across, however, noting the historic importance of the War Memorial Building as a monument to veterans and its value as a community asset that should be maintained.

The Legion occupies space in the town-owned building and for many years has shouldered its utility costs. Post Commander Charles Church has said that for the last couple years, with the price of oil climbing, it's been a struggle.

Albert said the Legion had to forgo some of the programs it has traditionally funded to pay the building's bills. Participation in Boys State, for example, which sent a local high school senior to Washington for a week of educational "mock government" activities.

Albert also explained why his planned presentation was postponed.

"Before we met with the selectmen on Jan. 28, we received a phone call from the Middlesex County Legion, requesting that we meet with them" first, he said. "That is why we only read the history of the War Memorial Building" prepared by fellow veteran Marcel Gionet.

When Albert showed the county legion his presentation, they approved it, he said. They understand now, but did not before, that the call for help hinges on the unique relationship between the Trustees and the town of Shirley, Albert said.

Albert suggested a solution, drawing on his experience.

Before serving as a selectman for 12 years, Albert spent seven years on the Finance Committee, six as chairman. Noting a "very cordial" relationship between the two boards then, he posited that the Finance Committee might be the go-to option now.

The Town Meeting-appropriated reserve fund that the Finance Committee controls is for emergencies, legitimate overruns and unpaid bills, and in his view, the profile fits. "I feel this emergency falls within this category," Albert said, and he hopes the Finance Committee agrees.

The Trustees' request is for $5,000 to cover heating costs for the War Memorial Building through the end of the fiscal year. But Richards said that's an estimate based on past bills and the total might not be that much. They're asking the town to pay the fuel bill directly to the provider, "up to" $5,000 she said.

But Swain said there might be a legal block, even if town officials support the idea.

Citing an opinion Town Accountant Bobbi Jo Colburn sought from the Department of Revenue at his request, Swain said information she obtained from DOR attorney Dan Murphy would go to town counsel for "confirmation," including state law that spells out how municipalities may and may not expend public money.

Legal road block

In a Feb. 22 memo, Colburn expressed concerns about "appropriating monies for this purpose" and said Attorney Murphy at DOR Legal shared her concerns.

Murphy cited the Anti-Aid Amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution as a reason the town should not pay "the Legion's heating fuel" bill for fiscal 2013, as requested, Colburn said. He also suggested having town counsel review the request and make a "determination," she said.

The amendment lays out prohibitions against "certain expenditures," the first of which rules out a city or town giving money or property to any individual or organization to aid a private enterprise. Simply put, public money can't be used for a private purpose. 

Later contacted to clarify points in her memo, Colburn explained that was the reason she questioned this funding request. "I'm not against veterans, I'm protecting taxpayers," she said. "That's my job."

The Anti-Aid Amendment prohibits grants, appropriations, or loans from the state or any of its cities and towns, no matter how worthy the cause, including hospitals, schools or religious or charitable undertakings.

In a nutshell, if the municipality doesn't own the institution, it can't fund it.

But the town owns the War Memorial Building, and it is the Trustees, not the Legion, requesting funds to pay the building's heating bill.

Colburn said in her view, the distinction makes no difference. The bottom line is that town funds are being requested to heat a building used primarily by a private entity.

Incidental information

The Legion leased the War Memorial Building from the town for a nominal fee of $1. Now, town records indicate the Legion is a tenant at will and pays no fee.

Shirley American Legion Post #183 is the building's only occupant, having an office, meeting space and social gathering place for its members in the basement, where the Legion operates a small, self-sustaining bar. The Legion's full liquor license is in good standing and was issued for a private club, according to Kathi Rocco, administrative assistant to the Board of Selectmen.

The building can be used for public events, as stipulated in the original lease, which gives the Town of Shirley first dibs, but with other public meeting spaces in town, that hasn't happened in recent memory. The Legion and its Auxiliary, however, host events there on occasion, such as an annual Halloween party for kids and collations after events the organization sponsors, including parades and ceremonies on patriotic national holidays.

Storied past

Besides the history Albert previously outlined for the selectmen, a thread of nostalgia runs through the old building that was highlighted in a series of Nashoba Publishing newspaper stories several years ago. One was about the local USO.

During World War II, basement space in the War Memorial Building was outfitted as a cozy drop-in center for military men and women, most of whom were stationed at Fort Devens. According to veterans and former USO members interviewed, soldiers came there to write letters, read, or chat with "USO girls," wartime volunteers who helped create a home away from home environment.

USO facilities like Shirley's were a source of light in dark times.

A former USO girl who lived near the railroad tracks in Shirley Village recalled troop trains passing by at night in total darkness during the war years, without lights or warning whistles, sparking somber thoughts of the men onboard, headed for battles overseas.

Dances were held in the Legion Hall, with live bands. Vintage photos showed swing bands in tuxes on stage as smiling young ladies in frothy dresses swirled around the dance floor with young men in uniform.

These days, the Legion sometimes rents out the hall to help cover operating costs, but it's clear that rentals don't come close to paying even the fuel bill. It's a big, drafty old building, expanded from its original size when the government took it over during World War II.

Today, it is mostly uninsulated and likely not energy efficient. An energy audit was recently done on the building, but the results are not available yet.

This isn't the first time the funding issue has come up. In August, Colburn in another memo flagged a proposed warrant article that called for town funding to help cover War Memorial Building expenses. Calling it "a request from the Legion," she did not feel it was a "lawful expense" as presented, she said at that time.

She has the same concern about the recent request. In both instances, she cited the Anti-Aid Amendment. Attorney Murphy concurs, she said.

Monday night, Swain underscored that point, citing the Legion's "limited and select membership," as a possible legal hurdle to the Trustees' funding request. The selectmen will take the issue up again after town counsel weighs in, he said.

"Do they know it's a town building?" Albert asked.

Swain said yes.

"I agree we need to know it's legal, but we do support the Legion," Selectman Kendra Dumont added.

The selectmen promised to notify the Trustees when they have a legal read in hand.

Richards, for her part, seemed surprised by the turn things had taken, but she, too, agreed it was an important issue to clear up. "We'll also review this ... to better understand your response when it comes," she said.