WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt used $1.1 million in public funds to buy five acres of vacant property with an assessed value of just under $200,000, a transaction she says will allow construction of new affordable housing.
But the deal has raised the ire of some city councilors, who argue she made the deal unilaterally without their knowledge or approval, and potentially in violation of city law.
According to an April 12 purchase-and-sale agreement obtained by Target 12, the seven-figure deal was made between Baldelli-Hunt and R&K Building Corp., a real estate holding company owned by prominent Woonsocket developer Raymond Bourque.
The deal for the Mendon Road property was finalized on Oct. 6, according to real-estate transactions published in The Providence Journal on Saturday — which is where and when City Councilmen Brian Thompson and John Ward said they first learned about it.
“This transaction was done without council approval,” Ward told Target 12, pointing out that Chapter 8 section 10 of the city charter stipulates that “all purchases or contracts in excess of $100,000 … shall not be awarded until approved by resolution of the City Council.”
“Various councilmembers are inquiring as to why it was done in the way it was done, and why it was so important everyone was kept in the dark,” he added.
The councilors have submitted requests for more information about the deal to city solicitor Michael Lepizzera, who Thompson said “didn’t know about the purchase” when he first inquired about it. Target 12 has confirmed Baldelli-Hunt used a private land attorney, Glenn Andreoni, to close on the deal.
“It’s concerning to all of us, and I’m hopeful that there was some reason for doing it this way — but I don’t see it,” Thompson said. “Our charter is pretty clear on this one.”
Baldelli-Hunt fired back, saying she’s aware of the $100,000 threshold — but didn’t think she needed council approval because her Planning Department received a nod from the federal government to move forward with the plan.
The mayor said she would now rely on the city solicitor to determine whether the decision not to include the council was a “misstep.” If so, she argued, the councilors should be asking, “How do we rectify it?”
“We should be at the same table,” Baldelli-Hunt told Target 12. “If for some reason the [Planning] Department had a misstep, and that’s what the solicitor decides, be professional elected officials and say, ‘OK, we need to fix this.’ Why do you want to drag down the city you’re trying to propel?”
She also took a personal shot at Ward, describing him as “someone who carries hatred for me.”
“He will do anything to try and hurt me and my reputation, and he has no issue hurting the city he represents,” Baldelli said.
Bourque didn’t immediately respond to phone calls seeking comment Wednesday. Lepizzera told Target 12 he’s “actively looking into the matter.” Ward said the council plans to call a special meeting next Wednesday to discuss the issue.
‘Why do it in secret?’
Among the details the councilors were still seeking as of Wednesday afternoon was a copy of the land appraisal done prior to the deal closing, a document which Ward said would help explain why the city spent $1.1 million on the property.
A Target 12 review of land records shows the two parcels have a combined assessed value of $197,900.
“What about this transaction had the mayor believing that she had to leave the City Council and the city solicitor out of participation in either discussion or consultation — even if she didn’t think it required city approval?” Ward said. “Why do it in secret?”
Asked whether the city had done an appraisal of the property prior to purchasing it, Baldelli-Hunt said, “I don’t know — I’d have to ask the Planning Department.” The mayor also said it’s not unusual to purchase property for more than its assessed value.
“In an urban community, it is very difficult to find large parcels of land,” she added, noting that the city is working on another deal to buy another chunk of land and “the asking price is far more” than the assessed value of the property.
The mayor confirmed she purchased the land using funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which is designed for municipalities “to create affordable housing for low-income households,” according to the HUD website.
Baldelli-Hunt said the goal is to use more of Woonsocket’s HOME funds — which she estimated still totaled about $1.9 million after the $1.1 million deal — to build roughly nine affordable houses of varying sizes on the property. The homes would then be sold to working families at a federally mandated rate that’s below market price, allowing the city to recoup expenses and potentially repeat the process elsewhere in the city.
“It’s not low-income housing — it’s affordable,” she said. The homes might go to an older resident looking to downsize, she said, or a graduating nursing student who doesn’t have a ton of money but wants to become a homeowner.
“It’s in a desirable section of the city as well, so that makes it even more appealing,” she said. “We’re an urban city and some of the areas of the city are more desirable than others to people.”
‘Roofs over people’s heads’
The mayor declined to offer a timeline for when the properties would be built.
But the land is vacant, meaning the city must start construction relatively quickly to remain complaint with federal regulations outlined on HUD’s website.
The HOME funds can only be used to purchase vacant property “if construction will begin on a HOME project within 12 months of purchase,” federal officials wrote the rules of the program.
“Land banking is prohibited,” they added.
And the city will still have to clear a series of local and state hurdles to get there. Currently, the property can only be accessed on a so-called “paper street,” meaning there’s a roadway that appears on maps but hasn’t been built yet.
Target 12 has confirmed a portion of the property is also on wetlands, which typically means the city would need R.I. Department of Environmental Management approval prior to building on those areas.
Despite those obstacles, Baldelli-Hunt is bullish about the project, saying the city is trying to do its part in the effort to address the state’s housing crisis.
“This is exactly what the governor, the speaker and the Senate president are pushing,” she said. “This is exactly what HUD is pushing.”
As for the councilors, she argued their questioning of whether she violated the city charter is “a story that shouldn’t even be taking place.”
“If there was something nefarious, that’s a different story,” she said. “But this is a good project and this is going to put roofs over people’s heads.”
Ward and Thompson said they would reserve judgement on the deal and how it came about until after they received the requested information and learned more about what’s going on. But they both expressed frustration about being left out of the loop on such a sizable transaction in a city of 43,000 residents.
“I am not going to pass judgement on what would be considered the motivation behind it,” Ward said. “I have a lot of thoughts about what it was, but she’s clearly ignoring the charter that limits her authority to buy property at will.”
This is hardly the first time Baldelli-Hunt has butted heads with the City Council.
Ward was one of three councilors who successfully ousted the mayor from office last October. The highly unusual move followed a complaint filed by then-Councilwoman Denise Sierra, who accused the mayor of repeatedly overstepping her authority.
The issue came to a head after the council approved two police union contracts, which Baldelli-Hunt subsequently vetoed, arguing collective-bargaining was under her authority. The council overrode her veto — only to discover later the police didn’t receive raises.
Woonsocket is the only Rhode Island community where the City Council can remove a mayor from office.
But her ouster was short-lived. Within weeks voters re-elected Baldelli-Hunt, who ran unopposed, with 76% of the vote.
“They did this the month before an election,” Baldelli-Hunt said at the time. “That is an indicator of how the majority of this City Council operates. It’s all about what their agenda is and what they’re trying to move forward.”
In addition to winning back her seat, Baldelli-Hunt was mostly successful in campaigning to unseat the three council members who voted to remove her: Ward and then-council members James Cournoyer and Roger Jalette.
Ward won re-election; the other two did not. Sierra, who filed the complaint but abstained from voting on the mayor’s removal, didn’t seek re-election.
Thompson is serving in his first term.
Tim White and Ted Nesi contributed to this report.