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The Hummel Report

Barrington has the reputation as one of Rhode Island’s most affluent towns: a waterfront community, chock full of wealthy people who live in upscale homes.

 

And while that is true for some parts of this 15-square-mile community, there’s another side to the story. Longtime resident Gary Morse has friends living in Barrington who are struggling to make ends meet.

 

“There is the illusion that everybody in Barrington is wealthy when, in fact, one-third of the entire town could qualify for affordable housing and one-third of the houses in Barrington actually fall into the affordable guidelines,” he said.

 

Morse, who has been critical of the council’s handling of affordable housing projects over the past decade, says the issue is not wealthy people trying to keep others out; rather equity for those who live in what could be considered affordable housing, but don’t get tax breaks and other benefits given to projects like these. “Some of the people who are living in those developments are actually making more money than the people who have to do the subsidizing,” he said.

 

Using an intricate formula set by the state, Morse calculates that one-third of all of the houses in Barrington would qualify as affordable housing under the state’s definition from laws passed in the 1990s and amended in 2004. For a family of four, the affordable house price would be about $315,000 or less.

 

The law mandates that 10 percent of a community’s housing stock be affordable, but doesn’t allow for the houses Morse figured in because in order to qualify by the state’s definition, they have to be subsidized in some way by the municipality and have at least a 30-year deed restriction on resale or re-rental. That means Barrington officially has only 160 affordable units in town.

 

So while a modest, affordable house in town could be paying nearly $4,000 a year in taxes and is subject to the town’s periodic revaluation, a house in one of Barrington’s affordable housing developments, as defined by the state, has assessments that are locked in for 30 years. The only increase comes as the tax rate increases, but the assessments don’t.

 

Town Council President June Speakman was elected a decade ago as the town’s first affordable housing development, Sweet Briar, was in its infancy. Speakman says she doubts the town can achieve the state mandate of 10 percent affordable housing.

 

“I think it’s a noble goal and one that we’ve been moving toward diligently, and the state has acknowledged that, but it’s very hard in this community to get to 10 percent given that it’s built out and the property values are high. You really need a significant intervention into the market to make it happen and that’s hard to do,” she said.

 

Sweet Briar was the town’s first major development and it was controversial from the start, with many residents concerned it would strain schools and town services. Local officials fought a losing battle against it all the way to the state Supreme Court. And in 2008, 47 rental units went up for low and moderate income residents. Morse said as construction was nearly complete, the East Bay Community Development Corporation (EBCDC), which developed the project, came to the town for help.

 

“The management group for Sweet Briar, the EBCDC, came to the town council and said, ‘Look, we’ve put in this project, but we can’t make it work without property tax subsidies paid for by the local residents,’” he said.

 

So the council at the time voted to give developers a significant tax break. Speakman voted for the tax break in late 2008, based on a legal opinion that Morse says was a stretch of the law.

 

Hummel: “In reality, doesn’t that really put the council in a tough position? It’s holding the council hostage, is it not? Because what if you had turned them down on that?”

 

Speakman: “Yeah, well, I didn’t see it as being held hostage. I saw it as helping us move toward our goal of getting that project completed.”

 

What many don’t know is that after 30 years, the deed restriction goes away and the units can be sold or rented by the owners at market value after receiving decades of tax breaks. The affordable housing issue is likely to dominate much of the council’s time after the election as several projects are in various stages of planning and development, including the most recent off Sowams Road called Palmer Pointe.

Morse says the law needs to change. So we asked Speakman whether she had thought about going to the state to ask for relief.

 

“My understanding of the General Assembly’s view of this legislation is that the suburban communities need to share in the housing of people of modest incomes,” Speakman said. “That the urban areas have done their share, many at 30 or 40 percent of housing rented or owned by people of low or moderate incomes, and the suburban communities need to share in that. So the state would be less friendly, I think, toward helping more because the urban communities believe they helped enough in housing these populations.”

 

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization. If you have a story idea or want make a donation to the Hummel Report, go to www.hummelreport.com. Or email Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.com.




The Hummel Spotlight: Sophia Academy

The Hummel Report

Editor’s note: The Hummel Report has launched a monthly feature called The Hummel Spotlight, focusing on people and organizations making a difference in the community.

PROVIDENCE – It is a finely tuned operation between periods in Melissa Moniz’s classroom, as her 6th- graders head out the door and the 5th-graders settle in. Moniz, a math teacher, knows each girl in school by name. That’s because she’s taught all of the 60 students who are enrolled here.

The school is Sophia Academy on Branch Avenue. It is a private, non-denominational institution geared toward a very specific group: 5th- through 8th-grade girls from low-income homes, most with single parents.

And nearly all are from Providence, including Moniz, whose father came here from the Dominican Republic. She went to Mount Pleasant High School, then on to Brown University, where she was a pre-med major.

But after her freshman year, Moniz found she loved teaching more than medicine and came to Sophia nearly a decade ago, making her the veteran of the faculty. She sees herself in many of the girls. “I’m a young woman of color; I can relate to a lot of things that they experience in their day-to-day lives, whether it’s food or different sayings that we say in our culture.”

 

Gigi DiBello became Sophia’s head of school five years ago, after working at the Highlander Charter School in Providence and before that, heading the women’s center at Brown.

“Here, I think the kids feel understood, they feel respected,” DiBello said. “We don’t yell and they feel heard. So it’s less of an adversarial situation and it’s more of, ‘We’re in this together, because you’re a girl and you’re going to grow to be a woman, and I’m a woman and we have to kind of watch each other’s backs.’”

Sophia Academy was founded 12 years ago by Mary Reilly, a Sister of Mercy from South Providence who spent six years in Central America and saw abject poverty. She had a dream of reaching girls, beginning in the 5th grade, and trying to break the cycle of poverty.

 

The expectations are high here: the girls have excelled on standardized tests and most go on to prominent high schools.

 

As a private school, Sophia relies on donations and grants to cover its $900,000 annual budget. And while each family is expected to contribute something toward tuition, it’s on a sliding scale and covers only a fraction of the total budget. That gave Gigi DiBello some pause when she came here in 2007.

DiBello: “If the mission is good and the founder is solid and there’s the inspiration piece there, it makes sense. That stuff will take care of itself if you put together a solid team. But the money part was daunting. This is an independent school and most independent schools are built on a model where tuition is what feeds the school, so it’s a pretty sound business model even during a difficult economic crisis.”

Hummel: “And at the Bay Views, the Hendrickens, the Exeters, the St. Andrew’s, usually there’s a pipeline of money.”

DiBello: “Correct.”

 

Hummel: “And that’s the antithesis here.”

DiBello: “And that’s exactly right. Our model kind of turns that upside down so our tuition makes up 3 percent of our total budget.”

And, DiBello says, Sophia faces a set of challenges different from many other independent schools. The academy is taking a big step as it plans to move from its current location – renting this building from St. Edward’s Church on Branch Avenue – to a new location in South Providence, where most of its students live.

 

Sophia is buying the old ALP building on Elmwood Avenue and expecting to move in within the next two years. The Board of Directors has raised nearly half of the $1.5 million goal.

“We’ll be in that building within two years and we’ll own that building. It sends a really strong message to our donors, to our families, to our teachers that we’re here, we’re here to stay, we’re here to have a foothold in the community,” DiBello said.

Moniz said she can’t imagine teaching anywhere else. “I absolutely love being with the students and learning about them. I always say to the girls, ‘This is a two-way street. So I’m going to give you something, you’re going to give me something back in return. We’re going to go back-and-forth.’ I teach everyone. The 8th graders I have now I have had since 5th grade. I get to see their growth; I get to see how they develop as young women and also as students. And it’s just a beautiful thing to be able to witness.”

 If you know of a person or organization that deserves the spotlight, send an email to spotlight@hummelreport.com.

 




The Hummel Report: Affordable Housing in Barrington Defined

Barrington has the reputation as one of Rhode Island’s most affluent towns: a waterfront community, chock full of wealthy people who live in upscale homes.

And while that is true for some parts of this 15-square-mile community, there’s another side to the story. Longtime resident Gary Morse has friends living in Barrington who are struggling to make ends meet.

“There is the illusion that everybody in Barrington is wealthy when, in fact, one-third of the entire town could qualify for affordable housing and one-third of the houses in Barrington actually fall into the affordable guidelines,” he said.

Morse, who has been critical of the council’s handling of affordable housing projects over the past decade, says the issue is not wealthy people trying to keep others out; rather equity for those who live in what could be considered affordable housing, but don’t get tax breaks and other benefits given to projects like these. “Some of the people who are living in those developments are actually making more money than the people who have to do the subsidizing,” he said.

Using an intricate formula set by the state, Morse calculates that one-third of all of the houses in Barrington would qualify as affordable housing under the state’s definition from laws passed in the 1990s and amended in 2004. For a family of four, the affordable house price would be about $315,000 or less.

The law mandates that 10 percent of a community’s housing stock be affordable, but doesn’t allow for the houses Morse figured in because in order to qualify by the state’s definition, they have to be subsidized in some way by the municipality and have at least a 30-year deed restriction on resale or re-rental. That means Barrington officially has only 160 affordable units in town.

So while a modest, affordable house in town could be paying nearly $4,000 a year in taxes and is subject to the town’s periodic revaluation, a house in one of Barrington’s affordable housing developments, as defined by the state, has assessments that are locked in for 30 years. The only increase comes as the tax rate increases, but the assessments don’t.

Town Council President June Speakman was elected a decade ago as the town’s first affordable housing development, Sweet Briar, was in its infancy. Speakman says she doubts the town can achieve the state mandate of 10 percent affordable housing.

 

“I think it’s a noble goal and one that we’ve been moving toward diligently, and the state has acknowledged that, but it’s very hard in this community to get to 10 percent given that it’s built out and the property values are high. You really need a significant intervention into the market to make it happen and that’s hard to do,” she said.

Sweet Briar was the town’s first major development and it was controversial from the start, with many residents concerned it would strain schools and town services. Local officials fought a losing battle against it all the way to the state Supreme Court. And in 2008, 47 rental units went up for low and moderate income residents. Morse said as construction was nearly complete, the East Bay Community Development Corporation (EBCDC), which developed the project, came to the town for help.

“The management group for Sweet Briar, the EBCDC, came to the town council and said, ‘Look, we’ve put in this project, but we can’t make it work without property tax subsidies paid for by the local residents,’” he said.

So the council at the time voted to give developers a significant tax break. Speakman voted for the tax break in late 2008, based on a legal opinion that Morse says was a stretch of the law.

 Hummel: “In reality, doesn’t that really put the council in a tough position? It’s holding the council hostage, is it not? Because what if you had turned them down on that?”

Speakman: “Yeah, well, I didn’t see it as being held hostage. I saw it as helping us move toward our goal of getting that project completed.”

What many don’t know is that after 30 years, the deed restriction goes away and the units can be sold or rented by the owners at market value after receiving decades of tax breaks. The affordable housing issue is likely to dominate much of the council’s time after the election as several projects are in various stages of planning and development, including the most recent off Sowams Road called Palmer Pointe.

Morse says the law needs to change. So we asked Speakman whether she had thought about going to the state to ask for relief.

“My understanding of the General Assembly’s view of this legislation is that the suburban communities need to share in the housing of people of modest incomes,” Speakman said. “That the urban areas have done their share, many at 30 or 40 percent of housing rented or owned by people of low or moderate incomes, and the suburban communities need to share in that. So the state would be less friendly, I think, toward helping more because the urban communities believe they helped enough in housing these populations.”

 The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization. If you have a story idea or want make a donation to the Hummel Report, go to www.hummelreport.com. Or email Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.com.

 




Celebrities Crowd Guest List for RI Comic Con

If you think you hear characters from Futurama around Providence next month, you’re not hallucinating. If at some point, you think you’ve seen the crew of the original Battlestar Galactica cross the street DownCity, you still won’t be hallucinating. And if you see Chewbacca walking through the Providence Place Mall … well, you get the idea.

Rhode Island ComicCon is coming to Providence.Rhode Island’s first comic book and media convention is scheduled for November 3 and 4 at the Rhode Island Convention Center.

Legendary voice actor Billy West will be among the event’s many recognizable guests. West launched his career in the early 1980s performing daily comedic routines on Boston’s WBCN. He left the radio station and became a writer and cast member on The Howard Stern Show during the early to mid-1990s, where he gained nationwide fame with his impersonations of Larry Fine and late Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott. West created the characters of Ren & Stimpy, and most recently, Fry and Dr. Zoidberg on Futurama.

The two-day RI ComicCon will debut with a myriad of guests from comics, movies, animation, wrestling and television. It will host the first New EnglandBattlestarGalactica Reunion with Dirk Benedict (Starbuck), Richard Hatch (Apollo), Noah Hathaway (Boxey), Herb Jefferson Jr. (Boomer), Anne Lockhart (Sheba), Felix Silla (Lucifer) and LauretteSpang (Cassiopea).

“I’m feeling very excited for the event,” says producer Steven Perry, “The area really needed a show like this. I’ve been producing similar events for four years forAltered Reality Entertainment, and I’ve been a collector for over 30 years. We really wanted to take on a much bigger show.”

From the Star Trek franchise, John DeLancie(Q) and Gary Graham (Soval) will be appearing as well. Other fan favorites scheduled to appear include Nicholas Brendon (Xander from Buffy), Peter Mayhew (the legendary Chewbacca – see separate interview in this paper), Lee Meriwether (Catwoman), Mark Goddard (Maj. Don West from Lost in Space), Gil Gerard (Buck Rogers) and Larry Thomas,the “No Soup for You” guy from Seinfeld. Dozens of others are slated to appear, along with over 100 comic book artists.

“It’s really exciting to do one on this scale,” says Perry, “with so many artists, and over 50 celebrities.”

The weekend will also include a Magic the Gathering tournament on Saturday and a Pokemon tournament on Sunday. Saturday also features a special viewing of “CODE NAME:  BLAST OFF”, the story behind the legend of GI Joe with Tristan Rudat and Ron Rudat, the original artist for the cartoon, who’s also responsible for creating COBRA, GI Joe’s nemesis. Sunday’s events include a game of CLUE with the original cast of the VCR/board game and a Costume Contest for kids and adults.

 

Rhode Island Comic Con is also participating in the SUPERCON 2K Video Game Competition. The competition will continue throughout the entire weekend.A portion of the convention’s proceeds, and donations from a special auction, will benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Rhode Island Comic Con is being produced and organized by Altered Reality Entertainment. In the past three years, the entertainment company has produced events including the Southcoast Toy and Comic Show and the Southcoast Paranormal and Psychic Faire. Current sponsors of RI Comic Con include Dave & Busters,Boston Area Toy Collectors Club,Gamer Soda, Papa Gino’s and GameStop-Providence. Tickets to RI Comic Con are currently on sale through Ticketmaster. For more information on Rhode Island Comic Con, visit www.ricomiccon.com or on Facebook.

Meanwhile, keep your eyes open for Jawas in the crosswalks.




On Call

Providence City Council members’ cell phones cost taxpayers big bucks

For more than a decade, it was a perk that had largely flown under the public radar: Use of a city-issued cell phone for every member of the Providence City Council, if they wanted one. That, on top of an average $19,000 yearly medical benefits and a pension (in some cases two) if they wanted in on it. All for a part-time job.
The cell phones, which have morphed into Smart Phones with full internet and email access, cost taxpayers an average $100 per month per line as part of a family plan for the dozen city council members who have opted to take them, plus six city council office staffers. The total bill in April was $21,600. A dozen of the 15 council members have a city phone. The other three — including Council President Michael Solomon — use their own, at their own expense.
They became an issue this past winter when the council’s newest member, Carmen Castillo, turned a few heads in the city council office when she racked up close to $1,500 in extra charges in just four months. Castillo won a special election last fall to fill the seat of the late Miguel Luna.
“Sometimes I get 200 calls in a day and for the first couple of months, I say ‘Oh my God this is crazy,’” Castillo said in an interview with the Hummel Report. The councilwoman wound up reimbursing the city $832 for what she determined to be personal calls.
So what happened?
Castillo said when her line was added to the council’s “family plan” of minutes, she was not included in the pool, which meant each call she made or received cost money. She also had transferred her personal cell phone number — the one everyone had for her as a contact — to the city phone, including family and friends, some of whom are in the Dominican Republic. And those international calls added up quickly.
Hummel: Did you have any discussion with anybody in the city that you really need to separate personal, business, potentially long-distance oversees?
Castillo: Not really. But you know, when I decided to take my personal phone, it’s (confusing) to get (a) different number.
Hummel: Was it a lot of calls? Was it calls out of the United States? How did it add up to hundreds of dollars of charges?
Castillo: First of all, when I get my phone, I’m not in the same plan for the city council. My minutes, if you pass a certain number of minutes you can get really get really, really expensive minutes. The most money is the city don’t put me in the same thing with the other city councilors.
Hummel: You weren’t in the big family plan.
Castillo: I’m out.
Hummel: You were part of the family, but you really weren’t part of the family
Castillo: Exactly.
The larger issue is whether Providence city council members should have taxpayer-funded phones at all. The Hummel Report spoke with every member on the council, and they defended the use, saying it is a necessary tool, especially those who are not given office space or voicemail at City Hall.
“My phone is my office,’’ first-term councilwoman Sabina Matos told us. “I believe we do need it. That’s how we communicate with the constituents. As long as we’re using it the right way and as long as we have a plan that doesn’t allow for abuse, we do need the cell phone. If we didn’t have the cell phone we should have a voicemail system set up in the city that we could check.”
Wilbur Jennings, also a first-term councilman said: “If there’s any emergency in my ward, or an emergency in general, they can always have access to me and get in touch with me.”
Hummel: Should the council be doing this when we’re in such tough budget times? What would your answer to that be?
Jennings: Well I tell you what. I’ll tell them: ‘We’re doing this for. We’re doing this for the people out there, for the taxpayers, it isn’t about doing anything personal for me or for my wife my brother, son or daughter.’ We’re doing it for the taxpayers and that’s what it really comes down to.
City Council President Michael Solomon was elected in 2006.
“They told me that I’d have a cell phone made available to me and at the time I didn’t think I needed one with my business and I have a plan that has plenty of minutes on it so I decided not to take the cell phone,’’ he said.
But Solomon doesn’t begrudge his fellow members using the city-issued phone, saying it’s a sign of the times.
“I think the council members put a lot of time in and some of them that’s their bloodline to their constituents. I think, obviously, it’s a tool you need. You wouldn’t ask a carpenter to go build a house and not give him a hammer, so I think it’s just one of the tools the council members use to keep in touch with their constituents.”

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization. If you have a story idea or want make a donation to the Hummel Report, go to www.hummelreport.com. Or mail Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.com.




Bay Commission Winds

Environmental agency puts turbines to good use

Wherever you go on the Providence waterfront these days, they are impossible to miss: Three massive wind turbines that have changed the landscape of the Providence River.
So who, you may wonder, put them up, and why? And why are they not spinning yet?
Thomas Uva oversees the turbine project for the Narragansett Bay Commission, which handles the wastewater for 10 communities and 70 percent of all households that have sewers in Rhode Island. The commission handles 30 billion gallons of sewage annually, spending $4 million per year on electricity.
Uva: We depend on electricity. Wastewater treatment plants are the largest users in the country.
Hummel: Even a small rate increase that might cost me $20 in my house, translates into hundreds of thousands of dollars for you.
Uva: Absolutely, absolutely and that translates into the 10 cities and towns we send bills out to, so anything we can do to stabilize our electric rates helps our ratepayers.
So the commission began exploring wind energy six years ago. It’s taken that long to go through feasibility studies, zoning approval and to figure out the economics.
Uva: We did extensive studies on wind energy. We put up meteorological towers so we could measure wind speed throughout a two-year period almost. So we had plenty of wind data, so we knew this was a potential good site. Not a site an expensive developer might go in to build in, but because we could use the energy here. It was very cost-effective and a good opportunity for us.
Hummel: Did your gut tell you that you thought the wind was good or were you surprised when the results came back?
Uva: No, I wasn’t surprised. It’s windy here every day. The way the wind comes up Narragansett Bay it’s almost like a funnel and it blows the wind right up the bay right over our facility.
And that’s one of the big differences between this project and a failed proposal in North Kingstown, last year, that ultimately collapsed under the weight of public controversy. The turbines are located in an industrial area, but the commission reached out to those living miles away in residential neighborhoods as well.
Uva: And we sent letters out to 300 of our neighbors and we had two public meetings. In addition to the letter, we sent a survey out asking if they favored wind power and overwhelmingly the surveys that were returned to us were in favor of seeing wind turbines go up in the area.
The project will cost $12 million and is being financed through revenue bonds. The commission expects to have it paid off in 12 years and the life expectancy of the turbines is 20 to 25 years. No federal money is involved and because some of the parts were manufactured overseas the commission could not use stimulus money.
Uva: There’s one turbine manufacturer in America that makes these size turbines and that was General Electric. They wouldn’t even talk to us. They want to do large wind farms. They don’t want to do small projects like this.
Hummel: So three turbines to them was not worth their time?
Uva: They wouldn’t even talk to us.
This project is also different from the controversial turbine the town of Portsmouth put up several years ago — with the purpose of selling all of the electricity it produced back to National Grid. The Narragansett Bay Commission estimates it will be able to supply 40 percent of the power it needs power from the three turbines — and sell back any excess to the grid during off-peak use times.
The 363-foot turbines arrived in pieces by boat and by truck in January and the commission put together this time-lapse video together when they were assembled over the course of five days in February. They are located in a big triangle on the commission’s property at Field’s Point.
Hummel: Tell me why it takes so long, from February to June or July, when you get them online.
Uva: It’s similar to building a house and when you build a house you pour your foundation and build the walls and you put the roof in and button up the house. Then you have to go inside and put up your sheetrock, put in your insulation, put in your wiring and electricity. And that’s where we stand right now.
The commission is also building a huge central link that will take in the electricity produced from all three turbines and distribute it.
Uva: Jim, if you can’t put up wind turbines in this industrial area, Field’s Point, you can’t put them up anywhere in Rhode Island. It’s not going to happen. I view these as three beautiful flowers that have blossomed in piles of coal, salt and scrap metal and I can’t wait to see them start spinning and generating power for our ratepayers.
Uva expects the three to go online sometime this summer.
The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization. If you have a story idea or want make a donation to the Hummel Report, go to www.hummelreport.com. Or mail Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.com.




Paying the Freight

Wickford Junction proves a costly startup project

Despite the state being on the hook for a potential cost of $50K per month, D.O.T Director Michael Lewis says Wickford Junction makes long-term sense for Rhode Islanders.

From Route 102 in North Kingstown the 4-story building it’s hard to miss. A clock-tower overlooks brand new entrance roads, fresh landscaping and a gleaming glass elevator.
The brand-new Wickford Junction commuter rail station is impressive. And it should be, with a price tag of $44 million taxpayer dollars.
At a dedication ceremony last month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood praised Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, all of whom spoke glowingly about the future of transportation and being able to secure stimulus money, among other federal tax dollars, to build the new station.
“All of those 30-second commercials you may have seen during the last campaign about the fact the stimulus didn’t work were wrong. It worked,” LaHood said to an applauding audience of hundreds that had gathered for the grand opening.
The service had been years in the planning and execution, and extends commuter rail service provided by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority to South County.
While federal tax dollars covered $36 million of the total cost, Rhode Island’s taxpayers kicked in $8 million in bond money, which means there will be interest costs as well. The project is a public/private partnership between Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation and Bob Cioe, who developed the adjacent Wickford Junction shopping center.
Cioe had reason to smile as construction workers who benefited from the $25 million price tag of the garage alone came up to receive awards for their work. The state paid Cioe $3.2 million for the land that houses the 4-level, 1,100-space parking garage. And Cioe’s company will also be paid to operate the facility. If for some reason it doesn’t work, the state owns the building and Cioe walks away.
What you don’t see in the press releases is how much it will cost taxpayers to maintain the station. The state is paying Cioe’s company a $15,000 per month ‘management’ fee. It is also paying a $15,300 monthly parking operator fee. And an estimated $8,400/month electric bill.
Throw in trash and snow removal, landscaping and other costs and the bill to maintain the facility comes to $56,000 per month. That’s $672,000 a year. The D.O.T. is banking on the $4/day parking fee and other revenue generated from concessions inside the station to initially generate up to $10,000 per month. That still leaves the state responsible for more than half a million in operating expenses every year. A D.O.T. spokesman tells the Hummel Report D.O.T applied for a federal grant to cover those costs.
We sat down last week with D.O.T Director Michael Lewis to take a closer look at how the project came together – and the total cost to taxpayers.
Lewis: The only way you can pull these things off is it has to be a win-win. We are not operators of transit systems or parking garages. It’s not what the state does best. Maintenance is not our strong point and I don’t mean that in a demeaning way, that’s not what we’re funded to do.
Hummel: If the revenues are not making it, is the state on the hook for paying that?
Lewis: Yes. In the agreement, we all recognize this will be a startup. It’s not going to be Day No. 1, 1,500 people. People have to get used to it; people are dedicated to their cars. Some people don’t know Wickford Junction exists.
Because Amtrak owns the Northeast rail corridor the state had to pay the railroad to do all of the work along the tracks, including signaling and installation of the 850-foot platform, which contributed to the total cost of $44 million. The parking garage itself and the roads leading in and out — built by a private company — cost about $25 million. There is a charging station in the garage for Hybrid cars and a glass elevator spanning the four levels.
And, a lot of room for parking.
Hummel: What do you say to the person who looks at that and says, ‘1,100 spaces. This place is humongous. Do we need something this big?’
Lewis: Well, first of all, I would say that’s 1,100 cars that are not on Route 4 and Route 95. I think that’s good thing. We can go up more floors. I think that in time that’s going to be maxed out and people are going to be looking for more space there.
Hummel: What about the building itself, $24 million for, in effect, a parking deck. It’s a lot of concrete and it’s 1,100 spots it’s $24 million.
Lewis: You know, it’s about $7 million less than we thought it was going to be. You know nothing is free, nobody gives these things away, you don’t take them off the shelf at Home Depot on sale, public transportation facilities are expensive. I had nothing to do with the planning of this…But I absolutely think it’s the right thing to do. It provides that access to Boston market for people, you can live in South County and look for job opportunities in Boston and vice versa.
The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization. If you have a story idea or want make a donation to the Hummel Report, go to www.hummelreport.com. Or mail Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.com.




In Plain Sight

Sex offenders living near schools despite a law requiring them to reside outside 300 feet
From the back window of his house, Douglas Northup can look directly at the front door of the Anthony Carnevale Elementary School just off Harford Ave in Providence. A slight glance to the left gives him a clear view of the school’s playground. The school’s parking lot borders his property, separated only by a 5-foot fence.

Northup, 29, is listed by the state of Rhode Island as a Level 2 sex offender. He was convicted in 2005 of assaulting a 14-year-old girl that he didn’t know. He is one of more than 400 registered sex offenders living in Providence alone, with hundreds more spread throughout Rhode Island.
Rhode Island law dictates that he cannot live within 300 feet of any school — public or private. It is something Northup was told as he left prison. ACI officials even made him sign a form that he understood violating the law was a felony carrying a maximum 5-year prison sentence, and could jeopardize his parole or probation status.
But a Hummel Report investigation shows Northup is one of 15 registered sex offenders in Providence living within the 300-foot zone. In Northup’s case, the school is less than 200 feet from his house. How do we know? Through public information available to us online. With the click of a mouse anybody can find the name, address, date of birth and description of the offender and his or her crime, as well as a picture of the convict. We matched that against a map of schools throughout the city.
It’s information that is also available to the Providence Police Department, which has a sergeant assigned, full-time, to its sex offenders unit. And, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections; probation and parole officers are supposed to do periodic spot checks on where offenders are living.
Providence Police Major Keith Tucker, a 31-year veteran of the department, oversees the sex offender unit. We provided him a list of our findings, the result of a three-month investigation.
Hummel: I guess people see this law and they wonder where the police fit in and where corrections fit in?
Tucker: It’s important for us to be up on where people are living. It is the law, the 300 feet is the law. The issue, I think, is our ability to go out there and be up on this all of the time. I think there’s a lot of communications between us and corrections, probation and parole, when we become aware of these things, and we do act on them.
Corrections Director A.T. Wall says Providence has a lot of sex offenders and the caseloads for probation and parole officers tend to be higher there.
“Another important piece of that process is the duty to register,” Wall said. “Our institutional staff explain that under Rhode Island law, a sex offender is required to notify the police department in the city or town where he’s going to reside. We put them on notice. We explain the law’s requirements. They acknowledge in writing that they’ve been told of this duty to register and we send a copy to the local police department.”
We found offenders living throughout the city, including Veazie Street. Dominique Gaines has a kindergartner at the Veazie Street School, just off Douglas Ave. She didn’t know about it until we told her.
Gaines: When I heard Level 3 sex offender, I was like, my son goes here. It’s close.
Hummel: How do you feel about that?
Gaines: Nervous.
For years, the Urban League of Rhode Island has run a shelter on Prairie Ave that currently houses a dozen Level 2 and 3 sex offenders. The property borders Flynn Elementary School, which closed last summer, but had been open for years before that well within the 300-foot zone. A police substation and state probation/parole office is housed in the same building as the shelter, with a clear view of the school.
Director Wall said the 300-foot rule isn’t as clear cut as it may seem.
“The fact is that we know that individuals are not suppose to be living within 300 feet of a school. We also know that the overriding goal for our department and for the police is to avoid re-offense and the key to it is stability. And so it presents a dilemma for us. Somebody who has a place where they reside each evening and it’s known is somebody whose living situation is more stable than if they are moving around night to night and they are less likely to re-offend. So while we might take note of the fact you’re living within 300 feet of a school…it’s not the sole focus for our probation officers.”
We asked Major Tucker if this is a situation where it’s a law that sounds good in theory but may be tough to execute.
“Sometimes it takes a little time for law enforcement to be able to catch up,” the major said. “To be able to enforce the law as it’s written. We have a limited amount of resources — we already have priorities, and then when things through legislation become clearly what has to be a priority, we have to change the way we do things to make that happen.”
The Providence Police said they will take the results of our findings now – and do their own investigation.
The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization. If you have a story idea or want make a donation to the Hummel Report, go to www.hummelreport.com. Or mail Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.com.




Investigative Update

Shining spotlight on waste & corruption prompts further action
Editor’s note: The Hummel Report has new information and developments on a handful of previous investigations:

Living Free

In the summer of 2010 we found Angela Spadoni, an employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, living rent-free in the caretaker’s house at Colt State Park. Spadoni, the niece of a D.E.M. supervisor, hadn’t paid rent for nearly a year and a half. The state was also picking up thousands in oil and electric costs. A total of five people were disciplined after our investigation showed they’d dropped the ball.
Michael Sullivan, D.E.M.’s director at the time, ordered Spadoni to repay the state $9,568 and agreed to an installment plan. We’ve learned Spadoni has only paid back $5,923 of it. A D.E.M. spokeswoman says Spadoni was making the payments though through payroll deduction – but she went out on unpaid personal leave of absence last August, and the payments stopped. Spadoni’s no longer living in the house and she has a year to return to her position as a semi-skilled laborer at Colt State Park; at that point the deductions will resume.

Chained In

In January we found fire exit doors chained at the Construction Career Academy charter school in Cranston. That prompted an immediate visit from a state trooper and fire marshal, who cited the school for two code violations. The head of the school told us they had begun using the chains to secure the broken doors at night. But undercover video showed the doors still locked after students had arrived for the school day.
The school was ordered to stop chaining the doors immediately. Within weeks brand new doors were installed, something officials said they had been planning to do for months.

Bad Timing

Last summer the beginning of construction on a state-of-the-art pavilion at East Matunuck State Beach right at height of the beach season raised the collective eyebrows of many beachgoers, who had to use port-o-johns and distant parking lots. But a warm winter has put construction crews ahead and the D.E.M. plans to open in May a $4 million environmentally-friendly pavilion that will generate its owns electricity and hot water.

Re(Calling) Mayor Flanagan

It looks like Fall River Mayor Will Flanagan may face the recall vote we first told you about right after his second inauguration in January after all.
Retired city firefighter Bob Camara and city resident Dan Robillard ran into legal obstacles when they made their first attempt to start a recall petition in December. They are waiting the requisite 90 days after Flanagan’s inauguration to begin the process at City Hall. Once approved, they’ll have two weeks to secure signatures from 5 percent of the city’s voters – about 2,400 people. If they get that, Mayor Flanagan would be the first in the city’s history to face a recall vote.

A Fresh Start

Rehoboth Police Chief Stephen Enos has kept a low public profile since being forced out of his job a year ago. Enos tried unsuccessfully to obtain a private investigator’s license from the city council in East Providence, where he was an officer for 20 years. The Hummel report has since learned that Enos has applied for the chief’s job in Port St. Lucie, Florida – 1,400 miles from Rehoboth. It is a city of nearly 200,000 an hour north of West Palm Beach – and a world away from his troubles in Rehoboth. The motto of the department is Courage, Knowledge, Integrity. The clerk there tells the Hummel Report Enos is one of about four dozen candidates for the position and a decision won’t be made until later this spring.

Trash Talk

South Kingstown businessman Mark Cullion went to court after the Block Island Town Council rejected his bid last fall to take over the trash-hauling contract from BIRM – the Block Island Recycling Management company – offering $157,000 more to the town for the service, but losing out on the contract anyway. BIRM has tried to have the suit – first filed in Washington County Superior Court – dismissed. The case has since moved to Providence, where a judge denied that motion, meaning the suit moves forward.

More Trouble

We first introduced you to Fall River firefighter Michael Coogan when he ran unsuccessfully for a Fall River state senate in 2010. But he was also facing allegations from a Barrington man who said Coogan was working as an unlicensed contractor in Rhode Island – and did shoddy work to boot.
A state board agreed and fined Coogan tens of thousands of dollars. But he has ignored the judgment. That resulted in the Rhode Island attorney general’s office filing criminal charges. Coogan, who has since filed for bankruptcy, was arraigned last month and pleaded not guilty.
The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization. If you have a story idea or want make a donation to the Hummel Report, go to www.hummelreport.com. Or mail Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.com.




For Whom the Bridge Tolls

RI residents charged erroneous EZ Pass fees

It has become a popular and efficient way to negotiate toll roads and bridges in more than a dozen states. And for many, EZ Pass is simply a matter of economics. To get across theNewportBridgeit’ll cost $4 if you pay cash. ForRhode Islandresidents with an EZ pass – 83 cents.

That has resulted in the vast majority of the 25 million vehicles crossing the bridge since 2008 to useEZPass.Lance Edwards is now one of those motorists.

“I go toPrudenceIslandmaybe two or three times during the winter,” Edwards said. “And when they increased the cost of the tolls considerably, it literally would have cost me $8 roundtrip.’’

So Edwards, who lives inExeter, had a choice: go to an office on theJamestownside of the bridge and purchase a transponder, or order one from the distributor in New Jersey, ACS Inc., which is now owned by Xerox.

Edwards ordered online and when his transponder arrived last month there was already a charge for $2.35 from an exit nearWorcesteron the Massachusetts Turnpike – two days before it got to Edwards’ house. He said he probably wouldn’t have checked the bill, but his sister-in-law warned him the same thing had happened to her.

ACS ships the transponders inside an envelope and the transponder is supposed to be wrapped in a Mylar bag: to keep the device from being read – and charged – by tolling agencies during shipping.

Edwards: So when I opened the box, the first thing I see is the transponder wrapped in a very thin bubble wrap. Underneath that was my original paperwork, and underneath that is an empty Mylar pouch. Flat with nothing in it.

When he called ACS inNew Jersey, a representative insisted he must have been on the Mass Pike. When Edwards pressed them, they agreed to reverse the charges.

So we posed the scenario to David Darlington, chairman of theRhode IslandBridgeand Turnpike Authority, which oversees the EZ Pass system inRhode Island.Darlingtonwas initially skeptical, but after doing a little digging on his own discovered Edwards’ claims were was true.

“(ACS is) aware of it and their chosen method to deal with it is, if somebody calls they’ll make an adjustment,’’Darlingtonsaid. “But that’s not how we operate. It shouldn’t be charged – simply because somebody trusted us and didn’t look at their bill doesn’t mean they should be charged for things they didn’t do or didn’t incur.’’

As a result, Darlington has ordered the the Bridge and Turnpike Authority staff to work overtime to review every one of the 40,000 EZ Pass transponders shipped from New Jersey since the program began here in Rhode Island four years ago. Up until now, he said, there hadn’t been many complaints.

He’s now found that about 4 percent of the 40,000 transponders shipped fromNew Jerseythe past four years had improper charges. The average charge was about $4, but one account totaled $12. The authority is contacting those who were improperly charged to notify them of a refund.

ACS has accounts with the majority of the 25 EZ Pass agencies in 14 states,  includingRhode Island. Last week, the board of the Bridge and Turnpike Authority RhodeIslandvoted to cancel its contract with ACS, something it had planned to do months ago anyway before we raised the issue of improper charges – because of other issues it had with the company.

An ACS spokesman inKentuckytells the Hummel Report that the improper charges are “a rare occurrence impacting a small fraction of drivers who receive their transponders through the mail.’’

In a statement, it said: “We have identified the issue and taken immediate steps to rectify it. We expect no further similar problems. Any transponder inadvertently charged, will have their account credited. We apologize for any inconvenience.’’

“I think a lot of bigger tolling agencies, you know these kinds of issues would be acceptable and they would say this is how we’re going to process through,’’Darlingtonsaid. “This little agency here inRhode Island, we try to be a little more proactive about things. If this issue had been raised to us earlier, we would have done it earlier and taken care of these customers. The process shouldn’t be: we’re going to charge you for something you never did, and unless you pick it up and call us, you have to eat the cost of it. That just shouldn’t be.’’

“For something like that to happen and have millions of transponders sent out annually you’d have to have a very inefficient shipping department and a manager that isn’t doing his job,” Lance Edwards said.

Darlingtonsaid from now on all of the transponders will be shipped fromRhode Island.

 

The Hummel Report is a 5013Cnon-profit organization. If you have a story idea or want make a donation to the Hummel Report, go to www.hummelreport.com. Or mail Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.com.