City insists housing agency pony up for inspections
BARRE — Barring a successful legal appeal, Barre’s largest landlord will be required to pay full freight under the city’s rental housing inspection program.
City councilors this week rejected the Barre Housing Authority’s bid to remain exempt from an inspection program that the organization says will force it to incur an unwanted annual expense for a redundant service.
That argument was at the heart of a protracted and sometimes spirited discussion of a complete rewrite of the ordinance governing the decade-old inspection program.
The debate spanned several hearings and produced conflicting legal opinions on the city’s ability to compel the public housing authority to participate fully in the program. That will mean paying the full annual registration — currently $30 per unit — and submitting to inspections.
Since the program’s inception BHA has been exempt from city inspections and has been charged $6 per unit. The federally funded organization is responsible for nearly 325 units of public housing in Barre, meaning the fee hike translates into more than $7,500 a year in increased costs.
Before soliciting a word of testimony it was pretty clear the council was ready to adopt the revised ordinance and move on.
Councilor Michael Boutin made that motion at the start of a brief public hearing that saw BHA Executive Director Charles “Chip” Castle halfheartedly renew his objection to the revised ordinance.
Noting lawyers for the city and the housing authority had “agreed to disagree” on the issue, Castle said he remained convinced the BHA should not be subject to an ordinance establishing minimum standards for rental housing in Barre.
“We believe that the housing authority is distinctly different from other private landlords, or other nonprofit organizations,” he said, suggesting the proposed fee was akin to a tax and barred by both state law and a 48-year-old agreement between the city and the housing authority.
“You can hammer and pound away at a square peg, and if you hammer hard enough and long enough you just might get it to fit in a round hole,” he said. “We believe this fee is equivalent to a tax.”
Mayor Thomas Lauzon disagreed, defending a revised ordinance that he said would strengthen the inspection program and suggesting it was unfortunate that some might mistakenly conclude the council doesn’t support the housing authority.
“If I didn’t have faith in our staff and … I didn’t believe that this was good public policy and it didn’t make our community as a whole safer, I wouldn’t be supporting it,” he said.
Councilors unanimously approved the proposed ordinance and briefly discussed phasing in the increase in the annual fee paid by the housing authority over three years to soften the blow. However, the idea was quickly abandoned when Lauzon said he didn’t believe the council had that authority.
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