HAVERHILL — The director of the YMCA withdrew her request last night that the city waive development fees for the group’s Wadleigh House renovation.
Tracy Fuller rescinded the request at the City Council meeting after it became clear Mayor James Fiorentini and councilors were not going to find common ground on the matter.
Fiorentini began the discussion by reiterating his opposition to the request, but he also apologized for previously giving misinformation about the amount of the building fees. At a meeting two weeks ago, Fuller said the fees were $26,000. But the next day Fiorentini said they were $60,000. In fact, the fees are $29,000, the mayor said last night.
The project, across the street from City Hall, is a 22-unit housing development for low-income men and women. The YMCA demolished the former 18-unit home at 170 Main St. this past summer and plans to erect the new building in its place. The new structure, which is expected to be ready for tenants next summer, is designed to be in character with the Main Street Historic District.
Tracy has said the $4.1 million project has proved more costly than anticipated due to asbestos-related issues and other problems.
The mayor called it “a great project” and said the city has provided $176,000 in federal affordable housing money and $40,000 in site cleanup money to the YMCA for the development. But he said the city can’t afford to set a precedent of waiving development fees for nonprofits.
If the city gave the break to YMCA, the mayor said, it would be hard to justify turning down similar requests from other nonprofits, including churches, boys and girls clubs and educational entities such as Zion Bible College, the mayor said.
“It won’t make us go broke,” Fiorentini said of the YMCA request. “But If we did this for YMCA, I don’t see how we could say no to others.”
The mayor also told councilors he does not believe they have the legal authority to waive building fees for any group. “It would be like waiving taxes,” he said.
Before Fuller withdrew her request, councilors debated the matter and what they could do to make sure they have the ability to waive building fees in the future.
City Councilor William Ryan argued in favor of approving the YMCA request.
“This is the one time they came asking the city of Haverhill to help them and we should pony up,” Ryan said, suggesting YMCA might not finish the renovation without the city subsidy. “They might say, why bother?”
Ryan also said the council should fight for the right to use its “discretion” to waive building fees. He said he would support waiving building fees for some nonprofits, for instance, but oppose doing so for others such as Zion Bible College.
Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien said the council was “a little discourteous” to Fuller when the matter first came up two weeks ago. “She deserves better,” Daly O’Brien said of Fuller. “She does so much for the community.”
Other councilors insisted they were correct to question and delay action on the request until they received accurate and verifiable information about the exact amount of the building fees.
Councilor William Macek said he agreed with those who wanted to help the YMCA, but that he had concerns over the council’s legal authority to waive the fees. He proposed postponing the matter again, until that question could be definitively answered. At that point, Fuller stepped to the podium to rescind the request.
Fiorentini and Fuller then shook hands. The mayor went on to say he would look for more grants and possibly other city money that could be used to help YMCA with Wadleigh House.
The council has also referred the issue of discounting building fees for non-profits to a study committee to research the law and develop a uniform policy.
The 170 Main St. property was originally home to the Griffin-White Home for Men. YMCA of the North Shore bought the building more than a decade ago, changed the name to the Wadleigh House and continued to operate it as a home for low-income men until time caught up with the structure. Instead of trying to rehabilitate it, the YMCA decided to demolish it and start over.
The Wadleigh House units will be in addition to 52 single-room units the YMCA offers at its main location at 81 Winter St.