Watertown Daily Times (New York) - by Christopher Robbins
As the city prepares to sell two properties rehabilitated using funds from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, council members are objecting to the sums spent fixing them up.
The houses at 2 Grove St. and 819 Knox St. were renovated at a cost of almost $200,000 in state and federal grant funds, but the properties are slated to sell for far less.
“I obviously don’t think that’s a great use of money,” said Councilman William D. Hosmer. “
Housing program administrators spent almost $90,000 on the house at 819 Knox St., which will be sold to its occupants at its assessed value of $51,000. The house at 2 Grove St., slated to be sold for $42,000, had more than $105,000 spent for its partial demolition and rehabilitation.
City Council members think that money could have been better spent.
“I’d much rather see money like that distributed to more people,” said Councilman Daniel E. Skamperle. “I’d rather see maybe four houses get $50,000 for renovation.”
Mayor William D. Nelson agreed.
“If we could have taken that money and fixed up five houses, that would have been the ideal,” he said. “Could we have gotten more bang for our buck? Probably.”
James A. O’Neill, the president of C. W. Augustine of DeKalb Junction, the firm that administers the city’s housing program, has told council members that his options were limited by restrictions on the use of the federal grant money.
The Neighborhood Stabilization Program money could be spent only on properties owned by the city.
When the program was started, Mr. O’Neill and former city planner J. Justin Woods identified just 10 properties that fit the program. Nonetheless, council members say that money should have been better distributed.
“That $200,000 should have gone a lot farther and gotten the taxpayers more,” said Mr. Skamperle.
Before rushing to judgment, council members should look at the body of work done through the housing program, said Councilwoman Jennifer Stevenson.
“I would like to see what their options were, what houses were eligible for the program,” she said. “I haven’t seen them yet. I would like to see them before I comment.”
She said she would tour the properties Friday.
Councilman Wayne L. Ashley, who has toured some of the houses, objected to the decision to rehabilitate 2 Grove St.
“I personally looked at all the city-owned houses. I do not believe that the Grove Street house was a good investment to put $105,000 in,” he said. “The living space to me appears to be less than 500 square feet. The square footage is preposterous for the amount of money they put in the house.”
Mr. Ashley said that for the cost per square foot spent on renovating the house, the city could have done better.
“We spent $200 a square foot on that house. People who build houses say they are spending about $150 a square foot,” he said. “That was a poor decision to put money in that house.”
Mr. Nelson emphasized that city department heads and Mr. O’Neill decided how the program funds would be spent.
“City Council didn’t oversee the program, city staff oversaw the program,” he said. “It would have been nice if some of that money could have gone further. It would have been nice to do more houses.”