Two volunteers from Tap-In stood before the town council earlier this month and asked for help.
The local nonprofit that assists thousands of people across the East Bay was requesting about $4,700 from the Spencer Trust, an account established in 1933 with the intent of helping “the poor and unfortunate” of Barrington.
Tap-In officials had filed a request months earlier, but there was some confusion about whether the agency qualified for the funds, and if so, whether their request was made too late for the current fiscal year. Council members told the volunteers from the nonprofit that they should come back to the December meeting, where the request could be formally addressed.
It turns out, Tap-In officials are not the only people confused about the Spencer Trust these days.
Some in town have wondered why the bulk of the money from the account has been spent on affordable housing while a smaller amount has been shared directly with social service agencies or individuals asking for assistance.
There are also questions — and in some cases, frustration — with the lack of a clear path to acquiring the funds, the use of trust money to pay for legal or administrative fees, and whether the town council should serve as trustees for the account.
“I think there are enough questions being raised that we should clear the air and show people what has been done,” said council member Ann Strong, referring to the expenditures of money from the trust.
“It should be a clear process, so that everyone is on a clear and level playing field.”
Ms. Strong said she believes the trust money should not be used for affordable housing projects, and would be better spent directly helping the “poor and unfortunate” people of Barrington. She said the funds should not be used for loans to property developers: “Had I been on the town council at that time, I would not have voted to use the money that way,” she said.
But that’s exactly what Barrington officials did. A few years ago the town was involved in creating the Walker Farm Lane affordable housing development on County Road, and council members spent about $16,000 for survey and down payment costs, and also approved a loan to the developer, West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation. The money was paid back to the trust. The council used more than $200,000 from the trust to help purchase property on George Street (near Four Town Farm) that officials plan to use for a cemetery and an affordable housing development. (To qualify for some of the low to moderate income level housing, families could earn approximately $90,000 a year.)
Ms. Strong said there are other ways the money could be helping local people.
“There are homeless people in Barrington,” she said. “There are people who are much more unfortunate than those who want a three-bedroom house in town. To me, the person who goes without so that their dog can have food — there are people like that who need help.”
Barrington Town Council President June Speakman said it is appropriate to use Spencer Trust money for the development of affordable housing projects in town, although she said she was not entirely clear about whether the use was appropriate if the housing units were then rented or sold to people from outside of Barrington. Ms. Speakman said she planned to provide a full summary of the expenditures from the trust and justification for them.
“I believe the trustees have acted appropriately in the past,” she said.
Ms. Speakman said Spencer Trust funds have also been given to agencies that help less fortunate people in Barrington. She pointed to the East Bay Community Action Program, which has been awarded multiple grants of $10,000 from the trust.
Ms. Strong said she does not take issue with the money that went to EBCAP, but is not convinced that the funds used on affordable housing were well-spent: “Some went to what I would consider appropriate uses. … Some I agree with. Some I don’t.”
A recent letter from the town solicitor, Michael Ursillo, in response to a resident’s inquiry states that bylaws adopted by the board of trustees (council members) provide that the Spencer “funds can be utilized in connection with ‘affordable housing.’” “Again, providing affordable housing for eligible town residents is a legitimate purpose of the Trust as determined by town officials who serve as the trustees. Housing is clearly a basic necessity of life,” he wrote.
In response to a question about $9,114.14 in trust money being spent on the firm of Ursillo, Teitz & Ritch during the purchase of the George Street property, Mr. Ursillo pointed to a consent order issued by a judge in Jan. 2005.
“… that sum did not consist solely of legal fees but costs of the title search; title policy; conveyance stamps, taxes, etc. The actual legal fees amounted to $600. The payment of legal fees, accountant fees, and other professional fees from the Trust is permitted as a necessary expenditure to further the purposes of the Trust,” he wrote. “There is no question that professionals must be engaged to carry out the intent of the Trust. You will note that management fees in connection with the investment of the trust funds are also paid from the Trust.”
While Mr. Ursillo points to the bylaws, some are questioning the timing of the expenditures. According to meeting minutes, the bylaws were not approved until 2012, which was after the town used the money for affordable housing-related reasons.
In 2011, an elderly Barrington man living in a small second-floor apartment on Maple Avenue performed surgery on one of his dogs because he did not have enough money to pay a veterinarian to perform the procedure.
During the town-wide revaluation a few years back, a Sowams area resident said she would not be able to stay in her house, never mind make the necessary repairs, when her property was re-assessed and her taxes increased.
More recently, an older resident’s well ran dry and she found herself without the needed money to pay for a new connection to the Bristol County Water Authority water system.
At first glance, the Spencer Trust funds would seem a good resource for those folks, but there is some confusion about how to acquire the money.
In fact, there is no application available, no online form, no hotline number. There is no one at the town hall whose sole responsibility is to deal with the trust or people applying for the money. Right now, various officials have handled different aspects of managing the trust.
“We don’t have a department of social services in town that exists to help people in need,” said Ms. Speakman. “When you have the money, you need to make sure you’re expending it to people who qualify.”
Ms. Speakman said she supports using a small percentage of the trust funds to cover administrative services. During the November council meeting, town planner Phil Hervey placed a request for $150,000 from the trust — most of the money was to be used to pay for new heating systems for about 15 residents, while $15,000 was to cover administrative fees paid to EBCAP. Some members of the council balked at that idea.
“Fifteen thousand sounds like a lot,” Councilor Bill DeWitt said, adding that the total equated to about $800 or $900 per heating system for administrative fees.
“That money would be better spent on a heating system,” said Ms. Strong, later adding that much of the administrative work should be handled by the applicants themselves.
Councilor Kate Weymouth said she did not believe 10 percent of the fund request was “a whole lot.” And Ms. Speakman added that it was not a good idea to lump additional duties onto another town official — she said part of the reason why Dean Huff resigned as finance director was because he had been saddled with too many extra tasks.
In a follow-up interview, Ms. Speakman said the administrative costs associated with distributing Spencer Trust money would have to come from somewhere.
“If we don’t pay EBCAP to administer the home heating installation, taxpayers are going to have to pay it through Peter (DeAngelis, town manager) and Phil’s (Hervey) salary,” she said. “People need to acknowledge that there are costs to running this program.”
Meanwhile, officials are still working to develop a process for people who want to apply for the trust money. The council will discuss the issue at its December meeting.
Who should be running the trust?
At the November council meeting, Steve Martin, the chairman of the town’s housing board, stood before the council and offered his group as a new board of trustees for the Spencer Trust. Just a few minutes after Mr. Martin spoke, Steve Primiano told the council that the trust needed a dedicated group to oversee the money, possibly made up of five people including some from various charitable organizations. Town solicitor Michael Ursillo said there was another option — the council could retain the power and instead create an advisory board to provide recommendations. In the end, the council continued the discussion to its December meeting.
What is the Spencer Trust?
In Jan. 2005, the trust of Wilton H. Spencer, a Providence native who died in 1935, was distributed to a number of parties, according to the details of a Superior Court settlement. The town of Barrington received the majority of the money — $2.7 million. A few of Mr. Spencer’s relatives received between $350,000 and $216,000. The town’s money, as was directed by Mr. Spencer, will be held in perpetuity as the Amey Tucker Spencer Fund and used to help the poor and unfortunate of Barrington. The $2.7 million can never be drawn against, but interest from the funds is available.