1

Unemployment Unattainable

To File, or Not to File (Online)

A total rehab of the hardwoods at a house in Barrington was welcome work last month for American Floors of Riverside.
Owner Keith Daly says work slows considerably around the holidays: when the Christmas tree goes up and people have holiday parties, they don’t want a floor crew sanding and putting down layers of pungent finish.
“I lay my guys off at that time and if there’s a week’s worth, we pick up a job. I’ll call them in and they’ll complain – they don’t want to come back in,’’ Daly said.
They don’t want to come back in because of the difficulty they’ve had dealing with the Rhode Island Department of Labor Training, which oversees the state’s unemployment insurance program. Cutbacks forced the layoff of nearly a third of the workforce over the summer, while the number of claims – 28,000 per week – has remained fairly steady.
Daly’s workers are just a few of the thousands who have complained about not being able to get through, either online or on the phone, to file a claim.
Charles Fogarty, director of the Department of Labor and Training, which handles unemployment insurance claims, says his program is funded entirely by federal money. And when the feds cut $3 million last summer, it forced Fogarty to lay off 51 of the 150 people employed
at DLT.
“We were having difficulty maintaining good customer service even in the best of times, but obviously having that occur all at once had a big impact. It was kind of like a torpedo to the bow,’’ Fogarty said.
So DLT has had to adjust to try and keep up with the workload – including a major push toward getting people to ditch the phone and use the web. In fact, 75% of all claims now come in online.
“If you’re frustrated with the phone, the best way to do it is with the Internet because you get a receipt; you know we’ve got it. We process them as quickly as they come in,’’ Fogarty said. “We’re not up to where we need to be, so I’m not saying it’s going to get done tomorrow, but it makes it a much more efficient system.’’
That’s what Daly told one of his employees.
“I said, `Just go online. It’ll be easy.’ [The employee] said, `No it won’t because when you do it online you still have to talk to somebody.’ I said, `No you just fill it out and then you collect.’”
That’s when Daly decided to find out for himself.
Daly: I laid myself off… normally I don’t. But I laid myself off because there was no work so I could. I did it online. I filled out all of the forms fine; everything worked out fine. Couple of weeks later I don’t hear anything. Finally I got a call left on my machine that my paperwork was filled [out], but I still have to speak to a representative, please call this number. And the number I had to call was the same number they’re calling.

Hummel: You’ve got young guys who are familiar with the Internet, know what they’re doing. It’s not an aversion to technology – it’s the same thing you ran into: you apply online but then there’s another step that you have to take that you can’t take.
Daly: It tells you you still have to speak to a representative.
Hummel: What’s your message to the state on this?
Daly: Just hire somebody to answer the phones. I think it would be less stressful if they could speak to someone.
And it turns out, some relief is on the way. DLT announced last month that it is going to bring back another 11 employees laid off last summer to help with the call load. Director Fogarty says it’s a work in progress.
“We’re looking at process changers, we’re looking at technology. We’re doing that – literally meeting every day to see what we can do. Things have gotten better, but obviously the customer service is not where we want it to be… where it needs to be, and we’re going to continue to work on it until we get it right.’’
To see the video version of this story go to hummelreport.org/1.31.2013.dlt.html.




Investigative Updates

 

    Editor’s note: As we head into the New Year, The Hummel Report has new information and developments on a handful of investigations from 2012.

 

All Fired Up

Taxpayers of the Central Coventry Fire District were lined up out the door in the auditorium at Coventry High School in early December, where court-appointed receiver, Richard Land, painted a grim picture of the district’s financial condition. And Land had this bombshell: several years ago, district officials overestimated expected tax revenue by $700,000 – and they repeated the mistake for two more years, largely accounting for a $2 million deficit.

Land also said the district’s practice of charging commercial properties at a higher tax rate than residential property is illegal, meaning homeowners will face a significant tax increase when they gather in February to consider a budget. That is, unless they decide to pursue dissolving the five-year-old district altogether.

 

Risky Business

More than a year ago, The Hummel Report first sounded the alarm on a tax-payer-funded business loan program in Providence with an exorbitant default rate. It’s become so bad that the federal agency providing the money has moved in to clean up the mess.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) met in November with city officials to review the loan portfolio and practices of the Providence Economic Development Partnership. By mutual agreement, the city will stop issuing new federally funded business loans until HUD can straighten out a mess that has been years in the making. HUD is picking up the $375,000 tab to do the review, meaning federal taxpayers are on the hook for Providence’s mistakes.

 

Spin City

The three wind turbines along the Providence waterfront sat motionless for the better part of 2012. But this fall, they finally began spinning. Many wondered if it would ever happen, but on October 24 it finally did. The first of three turbines started spinning as employees of the Narragansett Bay Commission and the crews that installed the windmills looked on.

Since then, all three have begun generating power that will help pay off the $12 million project over the next decade. The electricity will power much of the plant, and any excess will be sold back to National Grid.

 

Too Close for Comfort

Last spring we found 15 registered sex offenders living within 300 feet of schools in the city of Providence, an apparent violation of state law. In one case, a Level 2 offender’s back deck was 100 feet from the front door of an elementary school in the city’s North End.

Our investigation prompted a flurry of court activity, with the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) jumping in on behalf of the sex offenders. But the ACLU lost its first round in court in November.

A Superior Court judge ruled that the state law prohibiting sex offenders from living near schools is constitutional. The ACLU filed suit after the Providence Police gave the offenders we identified 30 days to move or be arrested. The ACLU says it is likely to appeal the ruling and the police will hold off on eviction proceedings until it is ultimately hashed out in the state Supreme Court.

 

Wrestling for Answers

In February we discovered bureaucratic red tape keeping two boys from wrestling for their high school team. That story broke the logjam just as the season was ending. Now the boys are back on the mat, looking forward to their senior years.

Xavier Lopez and Jonas Xiong missed their entire junior years because the Rhode Island Interscholastic League  and the Providence School Department said their move to a charter school barred them from wrestling at Hope High School even though they had done so the previous two years. The charter school has no wrestling program.

Our story last spring prompted the league to grant the boys an emergency waiver, and they were allowed to wrestle at the state tournament. Because they had not competed for most of the year, they were eliminated in the early rounds. But Lopez and Xiong have been training since then with the Hope squad team and are ready for a full season as seniors this winter. Lopez is a co-captain of this year’s squad.

 

Changing of the Guard

We’ve come full circle in Central Falls, where three years ago a Hummel Report interview got the ball rolling on a federal corruption case into the administration of then-Mayor Charles Moreau. Moreau is heading to prison next month and voters elected a new leader in December.

James Diossa, the 28-year-old city councilman who was frozen out during the Moreau administration, got his vindication on December 11, when he won in a landslide over Moreau’s former police chief Joe Moran. Diossa took 66 percent of the vote.

He was sworn in on New Year’s Day, six weeks before Moreau learns how long he’ll being going to prison on the federal corruption charges that forced him to resign.

    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.

 




Not Registering

PORTSMOUTH – Lynn Krizic arrived in the summer of 2011 to become the town’s new school superintendent – a fresh start after a suburban Chicago school district decided not to renew her contract as superintendent.

 

She came with a doctorate degree from the University of Illinois and a vanity plate from the state of Illinois trumpeting that accomplishment: DOC LSK 1.

 

A year and a half later, Krizic still has her 2003 Saab 2.3 Turbo registered in Illinois, despite a Rhode Island law that says she has 30 days to change registrations after moving here. We caught up with Krizic as she arrived for work in the Saab the week before Christmas.

 

Krizic: ”You know I just haven’t changed (the license plates) out yet. My husband travels extensively; he’s been renewing the insurance from afar and I just haven’t changed those out yet.”

 

Hummel: “It’s been 18 months, though.”

 

Krizic: “I know it has; I know it’s been a long time.”

 

Hummel: “You know the law in Rhode Island says 30 days?”

 

Krizic: “You know, someone did inform me of that – that I have 30 days once you move here. So yes, it’s obviously something I have to take care of once the new year happens.”

 

What Krizic didn’t tell us was that the School Committee told her a year ago she needed to change her license plates. David Croston, the newly elected chairman, tells the Hummel Report the committee gave her a warning, then said it was a personal matter for her to take care of.

 

Krizic, who lived in Portsmouth for her first year in Rhode Island, did register for the 2012 beach season in Little Compton, where she moved six months ago.

 

We found the sticker on her Illinois license plate expired last April and the windshield sticker in the city of Elmhurst, Illinois, where she lived before coming to Portsmouth, also out of date.

 

Elmhurst does not charge property taxes on cars.

 

Hummel: “You know that your plates even in Illinois are expired.”

 

Krizic: “Actually they’re not expired; my sticker is at home, it is not expired. If you go into the system my plates have been renewed.”

 

Two days after our interview, a current sticker appeared on her car, which is parked across from Town Hall in front of the School Administration building – one of the most public intersections in town. Portsmouth’s police chief told The Hummel Report last month that if Krizic doesn’t register in 30 days, his department will take action.

 

The law addressing out-of-state plates has come into sharper focus since the General Assembly eliminated its car tax subsidy several years ago, putting an added tax burden on most Rhode Island motorists, including some with older cars who haven’t had to pay any car tax for years.

 

And at least one community has begun to crack down. The tax assessor in Barrington two months ago began visiting places in town – like the high school parking lot – where out-of-state vehicles being driven by residents were appearing regularly. The assessor has sent letters to the owners, encouraging them to get registered before the town notifies the police.

 

Krizic downplayed the revenue the car tax generates as a funding mechanism for Portsmouth schools.

 

Krizic: “You know the car taxes that everybody pays in Portsmouth are not going to have any impact on our state aid. Our state aid is based on a formula, based on students, based on free and reduced lunch, and even if the town of Portsmouth – if they bought 10 cars and paid taxes on those 10 cars it would not increase our state aid here.”

 

Hummel: “It wouldn’t increase your state aid, but it’s the amount you’re paying locally the people in Portsmouth pick up, right?”

 

Krizic: “You know, I really do appreciate this opportunity to talk to you and I don’t really know where this conversation is going.”

 

Hummel: “Well, the fact is there are people who pay property taxes because they have to register their car 30 days after they move here. Your car is not registered in Rhode Island, you’re not paying taxes on that car, and that affects the local budget. Would you agree with all of that?”

 

Krizic: “Indirectly maybe, but not directly. It does not affect our budget directly.”

 

Krizic is mid-way through a three-year contract that pays her $145,000 a year, plus an $8,000 annual expense account.

 

Last week Krizic was back to work after the Christmas vacation and still had not registered her car in Rhode Island.

 

To see the video version of this story go to www.hummelreport.org. If you have a story idea for Jim send it directly to jim@hummelreport.org.




The Hummel Report

You’re Fired!

The ex-head of Providence Water conceals one key detail from her new employer

A year ago this month the head of the Providence Water Supply Board was shown the door.

Pamela Marchand had been the general manager of the state’s premier water agency for six years, only to arrive at work one day and find out it would be her last. She was being terminated immediately. But nobody would say why, or how much it would cost ratepayers to buy out her contract.

Ten weeks after she was fired, Marchand signed a three-year contract as the new executive director of the Bristol County Water Authority. She called her new position a dream job and nearly every one of the board members who voted unanimously to hire her thought Marchand had left her previous job voluntarily.

Marchand was going to an agency a tenth the size of Providence and taking a 30 percent pay cut, but apparently no one in Bristol County thought to ask why. The Hummel Report has learned that ratepayers will shell out more than a quarter of a million dollars to buy out Marchand’s contract by the time it runs out early next year including salary, car allowance, medical and dental payments and unused vacation and holiday pay. She was earning $180,000 a year at the time of her departure.

It took us six months – and a change in the state’s open records law – to obtain the details of her termination. The board refused to comment at the time of her firing and denied our initial request last spring for her contract and termination agreement, saying it was not obliged to produce it under state law, even though public money was involved.

The General Assembly modified the open records law in June to include public employee contracts, and we resubmitted our request. We received the numbers and found out Marchand was terminated without cause, but the paper trail offered no explanation as to why.

Board Chairman Brett Smiley would not answer us directly when we pressed him for a reason.

Smiley: “We made a determination that it was in the best interests of Providence Water and in the best interest of the ratepayers to bring on a new general manager.”

Hummel: “But those ratepayers are picking up $250,000 and many are saying if it’s a shift of a opinion, if it’s a direction the board wanted to go, don’t they deserve an answer what the reason is? We’ve gotten no reason at all.”

Smiley: “The ratepayers of Providence Water have the least expensive water in Rhode Island and we’ve just gone into our fourth year without requesting a rate hike. So I think the ratepayers of Providence Water are getting excellent water at an amazing value that no other system in the state can provide and should be really pleased with the water that they’re getting and the price they’re paying for it.”

Inside sources tell the Hummel Report that Marchand had a falling out with the new administration and that Mayor Angel Taveras wanted her out.

So the authority sent a termination notice to Marchand on December 19, 2011, effectively immediately. That meant it had to pay her for 14 months of salary, translating to $207,000. In addition Marchand received $700 in car allowance; $2,675 in medical and dental payments; $4,769 in holiday pay; and $41,000 for unused vacation time for a total of $256,144.

Marchand became a leading contender for the Bristol County Water Authority job following her termination. We were able to reach seven of the nine members who voted to hire her. Only Allan Klepper, who headed the search committee and is now the board chairman, knew Marchand had been terminated. The other six we reached said they did not know she had been fired and apparently no one asked.

The board chairman at the time, John Jannitto, tells the Hummel Report that he thought “she was fed up with what was going on [in Providence] and decided to move out and go to a smaller water authority. That’s the impression she gave.”

Jannitto was quoted at the time of Marchand’s hiring as saying: “She was not removed.” And that if Marchand had been terminated, the board would have found out about it in the vetting process. He told us that if he had known she was fired, it might have changed his mind on hiring her.

Klepper and several other board members we spoke with said they have been pleased by Marchand’s performance in her first eight months on the job. Klepper added that she has extraordinary experience in the water management field. She is earning $125,000 a year in Bristol County.

Marchand, though her personal lawyer, declined our request for an interview. So we paid her an unannounced visit to her office last month, where she refused to answer our questions and asked us to leave the offices, which are in a public building.

“This is not a discussion,” she told us, before shutting a door and walking away. “You are not welcome here.”

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.




The Hummel Report

In the Hot Seat
The alarm is sounded on Pawtucket Fire Marshall Steven Parent

Captain Steven Parent is a 25-year veteran of the Pawtucket Fire Department and for the past two years has served as the city’s fire marshal. He makes $64,000 a year.

Sixteen months ago, Parent added his girlfriend’s daughter to his family medical plan, joining his ex-wife and two daughters on the City’s Blue Cross plan.

We asked the captain about it as he arrived for work earlier this month. His  response? There’s a simple explanation.

“Because we were planning on getting married and unfortunately we had some family issues, a serious accident in the family,” Parent said. “It kind of pushed it all back. So, that’s basically what it came down to.”

A year-and-a-half later, Parent still hasn’t gotten married, although we spotted his City-issued car regularly at his girlfriend’s house in Smithfield. The girlfriend’s daughter was on the family plan for nearly a year, costing the City thousands of dollars in claims. When The Pawtucket Times interviewed him, after our story ran, he referred to her as his “fiancée.”

Parent told us he got approval from the personnel office at the time – that he questioned whether he could actually put her on his plan before the marriage, and that the City agreed to it.

But Mayor Donald Grebien says there are inconsistencies in Parent’s account and has asked the police department to look into it. The mayor says a detective has been assigned to investigate.

“Clearly, he never should have been put on the Blue Cross, no matter what the circumstances,” Grebien says. “For someone to get on Blue Cross, they have to provide a marriage certificate… We’ve gone back to the former employee who put him on, had the discussion with her. There are dual conflicting stories out there.”

“What the former employee said, is that she remembers it happened but they were under the presumption that this was his daughter from a previous marriage,” he states.

Grebien says the former human resources director may not have been getting the straight story from Parent when he approached her, which is why the mayor has called in the police.

The City of Pawtucket is self-insured, meaning it pays directly for all claims made on its policies. Grebien says the girlfriend’s daughter cost the City just shy of $3,000 for the 10 months she was on the family plan. That includes $2,775.58 for claims to Blue Cross, $115.29 in pharmacy claims and a $72.27 administrative fee the City paid to Blue Cross.

Last month – eight days after we interviewed him – Captain Parent wrote a check to reimburse the City for the girl’s medical expenses.

Hummel: “So, are you saying that instead of anticipating, saying `I’m going to get married – it’s going to be a couple of months down the line,’ he should have waited until it actually happened?”

Grebien: “Absolutely, and the employee shouldn’t have put him in whatsoever. The former employee is saying that… her recollection is that [Parent] came in and she was under the impression this was his daughter from a previous marriage, because at that time his ex-wife was still being covered.

If you went in there even with the story of having the intent of being married in August and you said, okay, ‘Filing deadline, open enrollment, is July, it’s a month’s time,’ you still have to know in your mind as an individual – if something changes, and you didn’t get married in August, the bulb’s got to go off.”

So where does it go from here?

“If we can prove there was intent, clearly we’re going to go after whatever recourse there is,” Grebien said. “My opinion, it’s above the $500 rule so it could be as aggressive as a felony.”

But we won’t know that until the police investigation is complete. And in the meantime, Captain Parent remains on the job.

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.




The Hummel Spotlight

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

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.