For the Poor and Unfortunate
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.
Speakman: ``Because housing is a fundamental human need and without housing you can’t do much else as a family. So in my view providing funding for housing, whoever provides it, is absolutely essential if you’re going to take care of poor and unfortunate people. Housing is the first need that needs to be met.’’
Morse counters that affordable housing doesn’t necessarily mean those who are living there are poor - or unfortunate.
Morse: ``A person right now can be making almost $88,000 a year, have money in the bank, stocks and be qualified for affordable housing under the town ordinance. In the meantime you’ve got the Spencer will that says it is to serve only people who reside in town, as the will says poor and unfortunate, people residing in Barrington. So it’s a leap to try and say the poor and unfortunate are people who are earning $88,000 a year.’’
Cregan wonders why the council didn’t publicize the fund - and its designated use - when the money arrived in 2005. Even Tap-In, the longtime social service agency next door to Town Hall, didn’t know about the Spencer Trust until 2012 and only recently received funding.
Cregan: ``We had a recession for seven years after that - announce it to the world. They should be happy, it’s like being Santa Claus residents would be tickled pink, you’d help residents and save money. And what happened? The exact opposite.’’
Speakman: ``We did not make an announcement here’s some money, everybody come get it. We did not set up procedures or an application process. It was rather informal.’’
Hummel: ``In retrospect, is that something you think should have done?’’
Speakman: ``Probably so, yeah, probably so.’’
Critics say the council has been vague about who can qualify for the funds and how to apply for them. There is no online form, or hotline number. Right now all requests are going through Town Planner Phil Hervey, who is using the template of a federal assistance form as an application.
The Hummel Report has learned Hervey denied a request last year from a woman whose well ran dry and needed a $2,500 emergency hookup to the Bristol County Water Authority - even though the fund had hundreds of the thousands of dollars available. She met income requirements.
The woman tells The Hummel Report Hervey said there were quote ``many more people with needs greater than yours.’’ Hervey’s boss, Town Manager Peter DeAngelis, says the administration of the funds is still a work in progress.
Hummel: ``So what do you think about that request?
Speakman: ``Seems legitimate to me….This is the first I’ve heard where someone is reporting that someone has been turned down and turned down in that manner. So I have never heard in the entire history of the conversation about the trust I have not heard anyone say I asked and was told no.’’
Speakman said the woman should contact the council directly with an appeal.
But should the council even be overseeing the money? Speakman says yes, but at this month’s council meeting, a veteran trust attorney suggested management of the fund was beyond the expertise of Town Solicitor Michael Ursillo, who drafted bylaws in 2012 and specifically included the words `affordable housing’ as an acceptable use for the money after the council had been operating without bylaws for seven years.
Cregan: ``The town’s got to hire a trust attorney and guide them on this and let them know, you can’t change the last will and testament of someone who is leaving you money. You can’t change the intent, it was very clear.’’
Hummel: ``Is Ursillo over his head when it comes to trust matters.’’
Speakman: ``Municipal lawyers have multi-disciplinary expertise, he does all kinds of law about all kinds of aspects of municipal government. Administration of the trust is not complicated there aren’t that many transactions and from what I understand the bylaws are consistent with what trust bylaws are supposed to look like, so in my view Ursillo has done a fine job setting up the trust and guiding us as we administer it. Other people are free to disagree with that, or to present evidence to the contrary.’’
But that has not satisfied Cregan, who three months ago filed a complaint with the attorney general’s, critical of the town’s handling of the trust.
Cregan: ``I got a letter back on April 21st, to me it was almost a form letter - it was more of a cover up, let’s sweep this under the rug. They said they had a meeting with the town solicitor and they’re satisfied, they understand the last nine years the town didn’t meet their obligation but going forward they’re going to keep in contact with us and everything’s going to be okay. Not happy at all with the response, they don’t want to get involved with it but they have to understand this is not going to go away.’’
Cregan says the trust should be transferred to and administered by The Rhode Island Foundation.
In the meantime Councilwoman Ann Strong is working with Speakman to draft a more streamlined application.
And as for the council president’s critics?
Speakman: ``It’s an attempt at keeping the government good an honest and transparent and accountable. But I am convinced that if affordable housing were not the issue with regard to the spending of these monies, the trust itself would not be an issue.’’
In Barrington, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.