A show of hands at the annual Financial Town Meeting granted the town the authorization to spend up to $1.5 million to fund the construction of two dwellings for town employees, a move that supporters hope will be the first step towards solving the island’s rental housing shortage.
The $1.5 million bond passed by a vote of 92 to 39 after an hour-long discussion at the FTM on Monday, May 7. The plan calls for two dwellings: one for the town manager, and a separate dormitory-style building for six town employees.
The other notable items granted authorization were the $1.995 million West Beach stabilization project; the $550,000 Community Anchor Institution broadband network; $125,000 for hiring a consultant to explore an island-wide broadband network, as well as the $14.5 million operating and capital budget for the town.
The $14.5 million municipal budget was first voted on department by department. It was during the discussion on the Administration budget — which covers Town Hall expenses — resident Edie Blane questioned if Facilities Manager Sam Bird does repairs to town buildings. Bird’s position and salary is in that department. Town Manager Ed Roberge told Blane that Bird does make repairs.
As for approval of the town employee housing project, First Warden Ken Lacoste told The Block Island Times that he was “very pleased” with the outcome. “I think we’re on the cusp of a generation of supplying and promoting more housing.” The Town Council showed unanimous support for the housing bond by raising their hands, and agreed that it was a “good starting point” to begin addressing island rental housing needs.
The housing bond passed after more than a dozen people stepped to the microphone to voice their opinions. Resident Steve Robison proposed amending the warrant item to stipulate that $470,000 be authorized solely for construction of a single-family dwelling for a senior town employee, while removing the Thomas House renovation from the project altogether. After some discussion on the amendment, Robison stood at the microphone and, to laughter from the audience, said he was unsure himself about his proposal.
After Blane’s request for a paper ballot on the bond item failed to garner the requisite one-fifth votes, members of the public weighed in. Sue Gibbons said that she had concerns “about the success of dormitory-style living,” while suggesting that “small apartments” be built instead.
Resident David Lewis asked Town Finance Director Amy Land if taxpayers should expect the rental fees to pay for the debt service if the rooms are rented by seasonal town employees. In response, Land said that it hasn’t yet been fully determined. “Some level of (town) subsidy may be necessary.”
Resident Pete Tweedy said, “I don’t think the town knows what it needs,” and called the project “premature.” Pat Tengwall echoed previous sentiments, noting his opposition to a dormitory-type building, while being in favor of demolishing the Thomas House and replacing it with a single-family dwelling.
Resident Pat Doyle said a better strategy for the Thomas Property needs to be decided before committing taxpayer dollars to the project. “There doesn’t seem to be a strategy with the six bedrooms proposed, whether they’re single rooms, or single apartments, as to who will live there. Do we have a master plan, or a spreadsheet, as to how many librarians; how many people work for the school, or at the Medical Center, etc.?”
Library Director Kristin Baumann was critical of the project, and its sole focus on providing housing for personnel from the Medical Center, Police Department, and the Block Island School. “We don’t have housing for two of our employees at the library. It’s never been offered to me.”
Former Town Council member Doug Michel said he was in favor of the project, but said he thinks “it needs a little work. We all know what the Block Island shuffle is. It’s tough,” he said.
Resident Jim Hinthorn, speaking in favor of the project, said, “I think this is a start in the right direction. I think it makes a whole lot of sense. We have to start somewhere.”
Councilor Sven Risom, who spearheaded the project, told The Times that the lengthy public discussion at the FTM was invaluable to the Town Council. “We’ve never discussed housing this much. All of the discussion was in the direction of trying to solve housing, and that’s what we need to do. We as a community are starting to make decisions around housing, and we’re talking about housing, and that’s a good thing.”
Roberge said he “took three pages of notes” during the public discussion. “It was great feedback,” he said, noting that he attended FTMs in his previous community of Bow, New Hampshire. “This is democracy at its best. This is the public process we want. The comments that we heard — what are the needs, how many houses, and apartments do we need, etc. will be valuable to the town moving forward.”
“This was a more interesting meeting than last year,” Councilor Martha Ball said to Roberge while he was speaking with The Times. “This was good,” she said, noting that, “It’s always good to have public input. I wish we could have more broad conversations like this. It’s hard to get people to meetings.”
As for the housing project, Ball suggested that people read the warrant item, “The warrant item doesn’t say a six bedroom house. This provides flexibility to get something going.” (The warrant bond item does not stipulate the number of rooms to be created on the Thomas Property.) Ball said the project is “a good starting point.”
Second Warden André Boudreau said he was “surprised” that the housing bond item passed. “All I heard was that it wasn’t going to pass. I’m ecstatic that it passed. But we have more work to do, which includes engaging the community.”
Councilor Chris Willi said, “I was impressed with the turnout and the discussion regarding the housing bond. The voters’ support of the initiative is great since it’s an important and much needed step forward. Our town manager, and this Town Council, are committed to finding solutions to the housing issues. This represents one part of the larger plan, and I look forward to seeing it develop with our community participating in the discussion.”
Lacoste said the Town Council would be sensitive to the public’s concerns about the project moving forward. “We want to do something that’s going to be useful and helpful. Half of the project will be to construct the house (for a senior town employee) in the back, and what we do with the Thomas House itself leaves us a lot of leeway, which is important. So we’ll do what we can to make it work.”
The three-hour long FTM meeting was called to order by Moderator Fred Leeder at about 7:35 p.m. after Heather Russo, Chair of the Board of Canvassers, noted that 183 people were in attendance.