Council retooling employee housing proposal

Fri, 04/06/2018 - 9:45am
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After listening to some public input indicating that spending $1.125 million on a home for one senior town employee might be hard for taxpayers to swallow, the New Shoreham Town Council is reworking the idea. 

Several town residents spoke at a work session on Wednesday, April 4, expressing their concerns over the original proposal, and one town resident gave an impassioned speech saying the town never should have promised Town Manager Ed Roberge housing in the first place. 

Barbara MacMullan, who has served on a variety of town boards, said her concern with the proposal was using voter-approved funding of $1.125 million for housing one individual. “I would vote against it for that reason,” she said. “I would be more than happy to see the town commit a million dollars to creating, say, six rental housing units of some configuration.”

Resident Cathy Payne disagreed altogether with the idea of purchasing a house.

“The job description did not say you get a house,” she said, referencing Roberge. “We knew we had no housing when we hired the man. So that should not be part of the job. I’m very upset about this. I’m a taxpayer. I can’t afford to live here. It’s not right. You’re not going to fix the problem by giving one individual a house.” Payne eventually left the Town Council chambers, while still voicing her concerns as she went out the door.

Andy Transue, a resident builder on the island, said that perhaps housing could be built for a lower amount.

He said he ordered a prefab home in March that will be delivered in May, and hopes to occupy in September. “It cost about $250 per square foot, which is about half of what custom built is” he said. “For a million dollars on town-owned land you could construct two two-bedroom homes.” 

First Warden Ken Lacoste said he decided to shift his way of thinking about how best to utilize $1.125 million. 

“Economy of scale and location has the potential to allow for the debt service on a reasonable investment in new construction to be fully covered by fair market rent of one or more new domiciles,” he said, noting that the town may want to consider other options, and utilize “favorable borrowing options combined with our existing undeveloped property holdings.”  

Lacoste said this approach might provide “flexibility to explore and develop the best option, or a combination of solutions” based on the three options that Town Manager Ed Roberge proposed at the Council’s March 28 meeting. Those options are: buying an existing market-ready residential property; constructing a new home on existing town-owned property; or renovating an existing town-owned residential property. 

This “employee specific effort,” would focus on finding a solution “for the town’s current and potential employees,” and the “utilities and property taxes would be the renters responsibility,” said Lacoste. He said the solution could be reminiscent of refurbishing the doctor’s house ($750,000), or the apartment at BIPCo (under $100,000), and include new construction, prefab, or modular homes, and utilizing the Thomas or Faulkner properties to build one or more structures, for more than one individual.

Councilor Sven Risom noted the shift by Lacoste to be more flexible with the town’s approach to solving the problem. “It’s about having the funding to make the most intelligent decision possible,” he said, while noting that he agreed with the “suddenness” of the situation. 

Resident Socha Cohen, who serves on the New Shoreham Planning Board, said that, “Before you settle on a single property, I think the town should look at all properties. ” 

“Socha, I understand exactly what you’re saying; that’s been discussed at the table — the global approach. We’re already at whoops though,” said Councilor Chris Willi, who noted an “immediate concern” to find a housing solution for the new town manager, since the apartment he and his family leased in January terminates after 18 months. “My concern is the timeline.”

“We have an immediacy here,” said Councilor Martha Ball, noting that the Island’s rental market has become more challenging the past five years. “This is the first tier. To fix it globally, it’s not going to happen. This is only the first step. There’s a lot of conversation to be had about rehabbing certain properties.”

“I think one house, and a $72,000 annual debt service, is a tough nut to cover in rent,” said Risom. “I think three houses at around $1.5 million may be easier to cover with rent.”

In response, Lacoste said, “I don’t think the debt service would be palatable with purchasing a single property for close to a million dollars. I think that sort of gets shot down right there.” Lacoste said he thought the focus should be on the new construction of  “one, two, or three houses on town-owned existing land.” 

“The final amount expended by the town will depend on the nature of the housing solution,” said Lacoste. “We may find that only a portion of the proposed amount is needed.” 

The Town Council will discuss the matter at its special meeting on Wednesday, April 11 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.