Town looks for ways to buy housing
At the upcoming Financial Town Meeting in June, residents may decide whether or not to empower town officials to dip into the surplus – known as the undesignated fund balance – and purchase real estate for affordable housing.
Councilor Mary Meagher said Monday the community has lost out recently on several chances to add to the affordable housing stock. State law requires communities to allocate 10 percent of housing for people with incomes of $45,000 or lower, she said. Currently, only 5 percent of Jamestown housing qualifies as affordable.
Meagher said Jamestown is doing well compared to other communities, but added more needs to be done.
Meagher said she discussed the situation with Town Planner Lisa Bryer. They agreed some properties that recently came on the market unexpectedly could have added to the affordable housing stock. The town, however, was unable to capitalize on the opportunity because there was no purchase money available.
At that point, Meagher asked Finance Director Tina Collins to explain how the town would normally borrow money.
Two ways, Collins replied at the Dec. 16 meeting. The voters could put money aside for affordable housing in the budget appropriation or approve a warrant article. Currently, there is a line item in the capital budget for affordable housing, but only $60,000 is available. She suggested the council could “beef that up” when they propose the new budget.
Last year, Meagher said, the councilors proposed $65,000 for the line item. Collins confirmed there was $60,000 left.
According to Collins, a piece of property was put on the market during the current fiscal year that would have been suitable for affordable housing. Although the town has the power to borrow funds in an emergency, the situation did not meet the criteria of an emergency, Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero indicated.
The town could have gone out to bond, Collins continued, but taking the money out of the undesignated fund would result in the least im- pact on taxpayers.
A warrant article to authorize such action, Meagher said, could establish a limit on the amount that could be withdrawn from the fund. The article could also set restrictions on what the council “could dip in for.” The purpose would strictly be “opportunistic for affordable housing,” Meagher said.
Council President Kristine Trocki asked if the goal would be to establish a trust for affordable housing.
“No,” Meagher replied. “It wouldn’t be a trust.”
The money, she explained, could be used to buy real estate or to improve property in a way less “onerous to taxpayers.”
Collins said another restriction might specify how much over fair market value the town could go to buy a property.
“We would have the ability to act quickly,” she said.
Another option might be to use the money to contribute $100,000 or $500,000 to a partner, such as Church Community Housing Corporation. The Newport nonprofit developer was instrumental in building the affordable houses on Swinburne Street.
Meagher turned to the council and asked if they wanted Town Administrator Kevin Paicos and Ruggiero to continue looking into the options.
Trocki said she did not want the issue put to a vote Monday night.
“I think it’s important we don’t vote on this,” she said.
Paicos said a consensus from the council would suffice.
Councilor Eugene Mihaly said he saw the value of being able to move quickly in the housing market. However, he wanted to know how taking money from the reserve would affect the town. Previously, the councilors had agreed to try to keep the reserve fund at its current level or better.
Collins said this year, the balance will show a “slight reduction” compared to the year before because the councilors used some of the reserve to pay for the “zero tax increase.” Nonetheless, she would favor dipping into the fund for affordable housing.
“If we go at this with a realistic number, I think we’ll be OK,” she said.
Paicos suggested the council should focus on whether or not the affordable housing initiative should be a priority, and not think about the specific funding mechanisms yet.
Also related to the upcoming budget talks, the councilors considered William Kelly’s presentation on the need to improve the East Ferry concrete pier. He urged the Town Council to consider building a wooden pier over the remaining concrete slab.
As it stands, the pier is dangerous, Kelly said, and pointed to the recent crowds that turned out to see Santa Claus and the hazard the existing conditions posed, especially to children playing on the rocks.
“It’s a lucky thing climbing on these rocks or standing on that dilapidated pier, they didn’t fall off the rocks or end up in the water,” he said.
Moreover, Kelly added, the pier represents a blight on an area that should be an attraction.
“Why aren’t we able to fix up this area?” he asked.
According to Kelly, the pier should qualify as a harbor project due to the proximity to a touchand go dock that could be included in the improvements. He said the town has the personnel to do the work with Town Engineer Michael Gray supervising.
Gray replied the entire area, including the parking lot and the sidewalks, needs attention. He agreed to provide the councilors with some options for the upcoming budget discussions.
“We did look this over earlier,” said Mihaly, “and I’m a little abashed to say we didn’t get very far.”
“Let’s finish the East Ferry seawall,” Gray replied, and then the council could discuss other improvements. He estimated $200,000 just to fix the pier and more to improve the road, parking lot and sidewalks.
In other business, the council decided to add five seats to the traffic board as part of a reorganization effort. Councilor Thomas Tighe, who serves as the traffic board’s chairman, presented a proposal to expand the committee to seven members. He and Meagher will continue representing the council as at-large members. Three new members will include a harbor commissioner, a member of the Chamber of Commerce and a Jamestown Shores resident. The remaining two seats will be open to any member of the community. Tighe said the meeting format would give residents the opportunity to come before the panel, which would hear the issues and make a recommendation to the council.
Paicos said the traffic board will meet again on Jan. 9.
In a related matter, Paicos assured councilors that in the future, the addition of devices like the North Road speed indicator will come before the council. Under Rhode Island law, he said, council approval is required for traffic devices, but the speed indicator fell into a gray area because it’s temporary.
“It’s something that should come before the board and the public,” said Councilor Blake Dickinson.
He asked Paicos to address the speed indicator because the issues it raises are similar to surveillance cameras. Although most people seem to like the speed indicator, before any similar devices are installed, residents should have an opportunity to express their views and ask questions, Dickinson said.
Also at the meeting, the council awarded the contract to update the town’s hazard mitigation plan to Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. of Providence for a sum not to exceed $9,500. Three consulting firms bid on the job, and the councilors accepted the recommendation from Town Planner Lisa Bryer. In a memo to the council, Bryer indicated the money would come from a grant Jamestown received from the state Emergency Management Agency.
Lastly, Steve Saracino was reappointed tree warden.