A Hummel Report Investigation
One of Rhode Island’s most affluent towns inherits millions of dollars designated specifically for the community’s ``poor and unfortunate.’’ But how to define that term has been the source of much debate. Is the money being used the way its benefactor wanted? That’s what some want to know after the town council for years authorized expenditures from the fund largely under the public’s radar.
For decades, Barrington has been considered one of Rhode Island’s most affluent communities. But Wilton Spencer knew not everyone in town was wealthy. In 1933 Spencer drafted a will that one day would leave millions of dollars and a mission: to help quote ``poor and unfortunate people in Barrington.’’
And in 2005 the town received $2.7 million from the Spencer Trust - money that flew largely under the public’s radar until last year. Now there are questions about whether the money is being used the way Wilton Spencer directed in his will.
Cregan: ``And here we are nine years and three months later, there’s still no application, there’s no procedure there’s no process if someone from town needs money from the Spencer fund for an emergency reason.’’
Barrington native John Cregan has served on several town committees. The Spencer Fund caught his attention last year when Cregan discovered the majority of money generated from the trust had been used on so-called affordable housing projects - developments subsidized by the government. That included more than a quarter of a million dollars to help the town buy this property on George Street and an interest-free loan the council gave to the developers of this affordable housing complex just off County Road.
Cregan: ``The last will and testament of Mr. Spencer specifically says what the money can be used for: it’s not for land acquisitions.’’
Morse: ``Is it legal to be handing out to corporations money out of a trust that is local to the community in Barrington?’’
Gary Morse, a longtime critic of the affordable housing model - along with Cregan, say the council - sitting as trustees for the Spencer money - for years operated without bylaws and little oversight of the fund, which has grown to nearly $3.7 million. And that town Council President June Speakman from the beginning had affordable housing in mind for the Spencer Trust.
Cregan: ``I think someone in town, whether you live in affordable housing complex, or Rumstick Point, you have a tough time, you hit a rough patch, you need help for medical, prescriptions, food, utilities, you can’t pay your rent, you can’t pay your mortgage, some emergency comes up with the property or family you should be able to get help from the Spencer fund - that’s what it’s there for.’’
While records show the town has more recently used some of the Spencer funds for emergency home repairs and heating system conversations, the funds were earmarked early on for land acquisition and legal and engineering costs that led up to the purchase on George Street. After a huge public outcry, the council earlier this month backed off its plan to use that property for affordable housing and now must reimburse the Trust.
Speakman: ``The government certainly has an obligation to provide people with housing if they cannot provide it for themselves. Absolutely.’’
June Speakman has been a driving force behind several affordable housing projects in town, adding that she believes Spencer Trust money is a perfectly appropriate use of the funds - a view that not everyone on the council shares.