EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 22, 2012

Mayor against waiving YMCA building fees of $60K or more

City's estimate of fees is $60,000 to $100,000

By Shawn Regan sregan@eagletribune.com
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — HAVERHILL — Mayor James Fiorentini said he will oppose the Haverhill YMCA’s request that the city waive $60,000 in building fees for the Wadleigh House renovation.

The project, across the street from City Hall, is a 22-unit housing development for low-income men and women.

City Council was poised to approve the request last Tuesday night, but postponed the matter after receiving information the fees required by the city might be closer to $100,000. At the meeting, the organization’s director told councilors the fees amounted to $26,000.

The YMCA demolished the former 18-unit home at 170 Main St. this past summer and plans to erect a new, 22-unit 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.

YMCA Director Tracy Fuller said the $4.1 million project has proved more costly than anticipated due to asbestos-related issues and other problems.

“Costs have gone over and we need the break to finish it,” she said in asking the council to waive the city fees, suggesting they amount to $26,000.

But Councilor Colin LePage said information he received from the city’s Building Department had the fees closer to $100,000.

Late last week, Fiorentini said the building fees are actually about $60,000, not including water and sewer fees that he said the YMCA also wants the city to forego. The mayor said he did not know the amount of the utility fees, but estimated they could be another $10,000.

Fiorentini said he is against waiving the fees for financial reasons and as a matter of principal.

“Sixty thousand is a lot of money. It’s a full position,” he said. “If we waived the money, we would have to make it up with higher fees somewhere else or with spending cuts.”

Finances aside, Fiorentini said he is even more concerned with setting a precedent for waiving building fees for nonprofit groups.

“Although we have waived some fees for some nonprofits in the past, this is not our normal practice,” he said, noting the city did not waive any fees for the Merrimack Valley Hospice House when it was being built on North Avenue several years ago. “If we did this for the YMCA, we would have to do it for the Boys and Girls Scouts, the Salvation Army and many others.”

Despite his opposition to the waiver, the mayor stressed the city has and will continue to support the YMCA and Wadleigh House.

“The city has already contributed $180,000 in public housing funds for (Wadleigh House) because it’s a great project,” he said. “I’m willing to talk to them about paying the fees in installments, but we can’t waive them.”

Despite the uncertainty and lack of clear information at Tuesday night’s council meeting, Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien pushed for her colleagues to waive the fees that night.

“I’m sad we have a problem with this tonight,” Daly O’Brien said. “We have given this break to Emmaus House and other non-profits in the past, so I disagree with holding this up. We’re being punitive to a charitable organization.”

Emmaus House is another nonprofit that runs an emergency shelter and provides various kinds of housing for poor and disabled people in Haverhill.

Other councilors praised the YMCA and said they will likely support the request, but that they were uncomfortable voting without knowing the exact amount of the fees and the mayor’s position.

“I don’t want to approve this and then have the mayor veto it and say he’s against it,” Councilor William Macek said, noting that has happened on similar proposals recently.

The council eventually voted 7-1 to postpone the matter until tomorrow night, with Daly O’Brien the lone dissenter and President John Michitson absent.

Fiorentini said it’s unclear to him whether the council has the authority to waive building fees on its own. He said City Solicitor William Cox will provide an opinion on the matter before tomorrow’s council meeting.

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.

“In designing the new structure, we used the photograph of the pre-1953 building as our guide,” Fuller said in a prior interview. “The new Wadleigh House will closely resemble this building, and thus will be much more in keeping with the architectural styles of its neighbors down the hill.”

Fuller told councilors the YMCA does not expect to make a profit on the project. Any money it does make will be invested back into the property for upkeep and maintenance, she said.

“This is a clean, well-run program that is critically needed in this city,” Councilor William Ryan said of the YMCA’s affordable housing efforts. “The city gets a good return for our buck on these developments.”

The Wadleigh House units will be in addition to 52 single-room units the YMCA offers at its main location at 81 Winter St.

After postponing the matter last week, the council referred the issue of discounting building fees for non-profits to a study committee to develop a policy.

“Part of the problem we are having with this being divisive is we don’t have an established policy,” Macek said.