Town employee housing bond sparks debate

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 10:15am

Town Manager Ed Roberge has recommended that a $1.125 million bond to acquire an existing market-ready residential property for a senior town employee be included in a warrant at the next Financial Town Meeting in May. Roberge made the recommendation at the Town Council’s budget session on Wednesday. The housing would be accommodations for a town executive, but also fill the immediate needs of Roberge and his family.

Second Warden André Boudreau explained that the apartment Roberge leased in January expires after 18 months, and he will then need to secure year-round housing after that. The Town Council disclosed at the meeting that it made a verbal agreement with Roberge to assist him with his housing needs, and that purchasing, building, or finding a residential property was part of his contract negotiations. There is a $24,000 line item in next year’s municipal budget to cover some of the Town Manager’s housing costs.

Roberge proposed three different residential property acquisition options at the meeting, which include the purchasing of an existing market-ready property for $1.125 million; constructing a new home on an existing town property for about $500,000 to $700,000; or renovating an existing town-owned residential property for approximately $250,000 to $500,000. The timeframe for option one would be about two to four months, versus a much longer time-period, about 12 to 16 months, due to permitting and logistics, for options two and three.

Councilor Sven Risom, who was not a member of the Council during Roberge’s negotiation process, said, “I have some consternation.” Risom said it makes him “nervous” to commit to such a “huge investment” without a reciprocal agreement of tenure. He suggested that there be a minimum time agreement, and some sort of “quid pro quo.”

“Well, to a certain degree those discussions were had,” said First Warden Ken Lacoste. “That was part of the discussion.”

“Discussions were had, but I’m talking contractual,” said Risom. “If they’re done; they’re done. That’s great. But I don’t believe they are. But I may be wrong.”

Risom said the town should explore option two, and not use the term modular units, rather than renovate an older building as proposed in option three. “They should be called pre-fab homes,” he said, noting that pre-fab homes are “the most energy efficient buildings you can have. We should really be looking at pre-fab home costs in an appropriate way.”

“So I guess I have a real problem with going with option number one without fully evaluating all of the properties,” said Risom. “We need to have a public dialogue about this, or we’re going to hit a brick wall. Personally, I think the $1.125 million is a strange number.”

Roberge explained to Risom that he calculated the bond price based on a standard $1 million property, by adding the ancillary costs, such as taxes, etc.

Lacoste noted that the Town Council could be presented with the same challenge it faced with the $700,000 doctor’s house project, which was completed in 2016 before being rejected as a $925,000 project in 2014. “We weren’t going to take the Thomas property and turn that into the doctor’s residence,” said Lacoste. “Because we were told by the search committee that the doctor, a professional, would be looking for a certain standard of habitation. And that may have some sort of bearing on this situation as well.”

“We are seeking to hire, or at least maintain, a high level professional to fill a high level role with the town,” added Lacoste. “So we want to make sure the facility that we end up procuring, and/or using for this purpose, matches the role that it’s intended to do.”

Councilor Martha Ball said she supports option number one, and that Council members spoke with “individuals and realtors,” who said that the rental market had changed within the past two years. “It was much more difficult to find someone willing to rent for a year, or 18 months,” said Ball, who thought that option one was “the more prudent course. We know what we’re getting.”

“Option number one, purchasing something that exists, solves an immediate problem within the next twelve months,” said Councilor Chris Willi. “I don’t think that options two or three can happen in the next 12 months.”

Resident Kristin Baumann, who is the Director of the Island Free Library, said, “What would be helpful for me, would be to know what the cost would be to me as a resident of High Street. That comes from me serving a 17-year term as a town employee who has a Masters in Public Administration, and Masters in Library Science, and makes exactly half of what the Town Manager makes. I struggle constantly to pay my bills. And so it’s very hard for me to reconcile this.”

“Thank you,” said Lacoste.

Resident, and former First Warden Kim Gaffett asked the Town Council if the objective was to secure the financing so that when a property become available the town could purchase it, to which Lacoste responded, “Yes.” Gaffett noted that the public will have lots of questions about the topic, so it will be important to educate the community prior to the FTM.

Boudreau said the item would be placed on the Town Council’s agenda for the April 4 public budget hearing.

Finance Director Amy Land noted that adoption of the warrant is scheduled for April 18 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall. The FTM is May 7 at 7 p.m. at the school.

In other news, Roberge informed the Town Council that the fiscal year 2019 operating and capital budget had changed, increasing $28,107, for a total budget amount of $14,499,075, which is a 3.3 percent increase over the FY 2018 budget. Roberge noted that the additional, proposed funding results in an increase of 1.6 percent over the FY 2018 tax levy. A 1.31 percent tax levy increase was originally proposed for FY 2019.