Gary Morse says it is illegal.
The Barrington resident says town officials are breaking the law when they extend a tax break to the developers of affordable housing projects in town, and he recently filed a lawsuit against the town regarding the issue.
For years, Barrington has cut a deal to the developer of Sweetbriar, the Bristol-based East Bay Community Development Corporation. While thousands of Barrington residents are required to pay their tax bills based on the full tax rate, the officials at EBCDC are allowed to pay 8 percent of the collected rents of the 50-unit development.
The result, says Mr. Morse, is an illegal system which forces regular residents to shoulder an unfair tax burden. All across town, people are paying higher tax bills so the town can subsidize the Sweetbriar development.
The lawsuit states that as a result of the 8 percent abatement, “an unlawful tax assessment has been levied upon plaintiff’s (Mr. Morse’s) real property in the amount of $13.85.”
Sweetbriar’s 2013 property tax bill totaled $36,257, but would have been $101,891 without the abatement. The difference — $65,634 — falls upon other Barrington residents.
Some town officials have defended the 8 percent deal.
In prior interviews, Barrington Town Council President June Speakman agreed that the town was not “required” to give the abatement to new developments, but challenged the idea of canceling the tax break for Sweetbriar.
“I don’t think we’re legally able to visit it with Sweetbriar. I don’t know if we can do that,” she said. “With Rhode Island Housing, when I called them, they said it is their interpretation that the town is required to give the 8 percent… There are other communities that have not given it.”
Mr. Morse contends that the town’s own record — actual minutes from town meetings — shows that the 8 percent tax abatement is illegal. He points to the minutes from a 2004 Barrington Zoning Board meeting, which states: “The tax statute entitled Assessment and Taxation of Qualifying Low Income Housing, RI Gen. Laws 44-5-13.11, provides that the 8 percent reduced rate of property tax applies only to revenue generated from rehabilitated buildings and not to new construction. Forty nine of the proposed affordable housing units are new construction. Therefore, the applicant did not prove that the statute applied to the project.”
Mr. Morse tries to illustrate some of the problems with the tax abatement by offering a comparison: Take two houses at the Walker Farm affordable housing development on County Road. One home was purchased by a family that qualified at the low to moderate income level; that family is now paying a property tax bill of about $3,500 a year.
The Walker Farm home located next door to that family was not moving on the open market, so the developer, West Elmwood Corp., rents the property instead. If the town sticks with its approach to offer a subsidy to the developers of affordable housing, West Elmwood would have to pay about $700 a year in taxes.
Mr. Morse then asks why the town should subject someone who qualifies for affordable housing to a tax bill that is significantly higher than the one sent to the developer who built the properties.
“The town council has corrupted the property assessment scheme to advantage developers,” Mr. Morse said in a recent interview.
Mr. Morse reportedly appealed his own property taxes based on the “alleged illegal subsidy” offered to Sweetbriar, but his appeal was denied.
It was also alleged by certain town officials that the town’s assessing board of review did not have the power to rule on Mr. Morse’s appeal.
Mr. Morse approached the town council most recently at its March 3 meeting, but the issue appeared as a “correspondence” on the agenda which did not allow for an action to be taken by the council. At that time, Mr. Morse said he did not want this debate to be forced into the courts and therefore result in taxpayers’ money being spent by the town to argue the case.
He said his intent was for the town council to “intervene” on the issue and save taxpayers’ time and money.
Ms. Speakman replied, saying that “… it’s probably time for you to go to court. That’s my reaction. I’m not a lawyer.”
Council member Cindy Coyne confirmed that it was the recommendation to steer Mr. Morse to court, and town solicitor agreed, stating that the council did not have the jurisdiction to remand this issue back to the board of assessing review.
Mr. Morse filed his lawsuit in court on April 16.
Named in the lawsuit
Gary Morse’s recently filed lawsuit against the town regarding the 8 percent tax abatement offered to the Sweetbriar developer names a number of defendants. They are:
• Tax assessor Mike Minardi
• Finance directo Kathleen Raposa
• Town manager Peter DeAngelis
• Town council members June Speakman, Kate Weymouth, Cynthia Coyne, Ann Strong and Bill DeWitt
• Board of assessment review members Kevin Salvaggio, Kristopher Leaden and John Alessandro
• The Town of Barrington
• Sweetbriar LP