On the horns of a (housing) dilemma

Fri, 10/20/2017 - 9:15am
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With the current travails of Edward Roberge, the Town Council appointed Town Manager, whose negotiations are on hold until he finds housing on Block Island, the Town of New Shoreham is facing what Town Councilor Chris Willi says is a “critical issue” that should be addressed by providing a “housing stipend.” (Roberge told The Block Island Times on Wednesday that he feels he’s getting closer to finding housing.)

“Securing any credentialed employee, or employees in general, for any position in the private or public sector requires housing,” said Willi. “It’s obviously much harder here, so it is critical to retain someone. Case in point; look at the (Block Island) Medical Center and Dr. (Mark) Clark — no different.”

The Town Council appointed Roberge by unanimous vote as its new Town Manager on Sept. 25. The problem is Roberge has been unable to conclude negotiations with the town and move into office at Town Hall because he has not secured housing; a dilemma that the town and many of its hires have been burdened with in the past.

Roberge, who will be relocating from Bow, New Hampshire, travelled to the island on Oct. 12 to look for housing. Willi said Councilor André Boudreau has been assisting Roberge with his search. “André has been shepherding this part along and I believe it’s very close to being resolved.”

“Obviously Mr. Roberge cannot commit to a contract without housing — call it part of a salary or assistance,” said Willi. “Any Town Manager would consider housing costs before agreeing to a salary.” Willi said “availability” and “cost” are the main issues impacting Roberge’s housing search.

Willi said the town shouldn’t necessarily be in this position, and the wounds may be self-inflicted. “The reality is the entire Town Council voted (during an April 6, 2016 meeting) to have the Large Capital Asset Strategy group look at an approach for employee housing, and did not endorse Mr. Warfel’s suggestion,” which included offering a housing stipend. Chris Warfel served as Councilor on the previous Town Council.

The minutes from that meeting reflect Willi’s assertions, and note that First Warden Ken Lacoste believed at the time that “the existing compensation and benefit line are adequate to cover salary and housing.” 

Second Warden Norris Pike, who also served on the previous Town Council and voted no on a housing stipend, said he feels that providing a stipend would open Pandora’s Box. “I was opposed to the housing stipend,” he said. “If we were to propose a housing stipend for every town employee we would have to take it to the Financial Town Meeting. Providing a housing stipend doesn’t make a lot of sense. The money could be negotiated into the Town Manager’s contract instead of providing a stipend.” 

When asked her response to Willi’s comments, Councilor Martha Ball said, “Thank you for providing me the opportunity, but I will not dignify a totally inappropriate Facebook post with a response. We are in negotiations, it is beyond irresponsible to play that out in the press. Bringing those negotiations to a positive conclusion is my priority right now.”

Willi said that it’s water under the bridge. “We need to consider our town budget and compare mainland costs to island costs, taking into consideration availability as a factor and determine the (housing) stipend. I couldn’t possibly suggest a number until I see the numbers.” 

“The compensation and benefit line would obviously give consideration to housing costs. We needed to go the extra step, in my opinion, and actually have the housing options available before we advertise or hire someone,” said Willi.  “This could have been done through the bid process in advance. Mr. Warfel’s suggestion was a good one.” 

Willi noted that the town has “programs in place that need enforcement. Then we can assess moving forward” on this housing issue. “Seasonal housing is as big an issue as year round housing. We have done an excellent job with affordable home projects like the one I live in, but more is clearly needed.”

Pike said the town needs to come up with a way to provide “year-round apartments, first for teachers, then police officers, and town employees, if needed.” The housing the town provides “should be secure and affordable. I think we have the land and the ability to do something like that. The rent would offset the cost.”

Update from Roberge

Roberge told The Times that he and his wife had a “short, but productive visit” on Block Island on Thursday, Oct. 12. “While options are limited, we do feel we are getting closer to some possibilities that could work,” said Roberge, who noted that he took the 9 a.m. ferry to the island and departed at 3 p.m. “We’re still working out the length of term of the rental with the property owners.”

“We looked at three properties, as well as quick ride-bys on several possibilities,” said Roberge. “First Warden Lacoste and Councilor Boudreau joined us in visiting the properties. Councilor Ball met us at the ferry to say hello and welcome my wife to the island. That was very nice.”

Pike said there appears to be “some possibilities” for housing for the new Town Manager. “I think Ken and André have located a couple of houses, so it’s not a crisis.”

As for the boat ride during what were adverse conditions last Thursday, Roberge said, “The boat ride was a little bumpy, but we made it out and back just fine. It ended up being a beautiful day. We love to be out on the water.”