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Board OKs lien change for Ashfield House

ASHFIELD — The Selectboard has decided to help owners of the nearly 200-year-old Ashfield House get a $510,000 loan to refinance and renovate the affordable-housing apartment building.

Nonprofit Rural Development Inc.’s chances of securing the no-interest loan will be enhanced because the Selecboard agreed to subordinate a long-standing $287,518 lien on the property.

But the board also plans to discuss at town meeting releasing RDI from the 20-year-old lien altogether, and, in Chairman Thomas Carter’s words, “get the town out of the business of having anything to do with financing the building.”

In 2004, RDI and Ashfield House Inc. reached a purchase agreement, and the Selectboard at the time agreed to release the Ashfield House Inc. and its owners, Suzanne M. Corbett and Mary T. Corbett, from their obligations to pay off a federal grant-funded home improvement loan before the sale, transferring the lien instead to RDI.

But the town’s lien has apparently been grounds for a group of residents to come to the Selectboard over the past few years with complaints about how the Ashfield House is run.

Former owner Suzanne Corbett has been among those who have raised complaints about current management. Also, the majority of Open Meeting Law complaints that have been filed against the Selectboard over the last two years have come from those with Ashfield House-related complaints.

The town’s Finance Committee has recommended releasing RDI from its obligations to pay off the lien in exchange for a $30,000 payment made over a five-year period.

But, Robin Sherman, executive director of the RDI’sw parent, Franklin County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, said the agency can’t afford to do that. Instead, she offered to pay $5,000 to be released from the lien.

In a June 28 letter to the board, Sherman said the Ashfield House has lost money every year since 2007. “Losses have ranged from a low of approximately $1,000 in 2007 to a high of more than $41,000 in 2012, she said. Since 2008, the property has operated with an average loss of more than $17,000 each year.”

She said the vacancy rate at the 18-apartment building has been higher than anticipated. Also, she said, utilities, heating oil, taxes and maintenance costs have been higher than expected.

She noted that RDI currently owes the Housing Authority about $86,000 in unpaid bills for property management services. “HRA needs these funds, and cannot continue to offer its services to Ashfield House without payment,” Sherman wrote.

The $510,000 sought in new financing, a 20-year no-interest loan, would pay off debt and cover capital improvements. These would include exterior painting, new propane-fired boilers, and energy conservation measures.

The board voted 2-1 in favor of reducing the priority of the lien repayment, with Selectboard member Ron Coler giving the “no” vote. Coler said he would rather accept the $5,000 offer and move forward. “We’ve kicked this can down the road, and I’m really ready to take the $5,000 and be done with it,” he said.

Carter pointed out that the lien was not for “town money” but for federal grant money. In return for subordinating the loan the first time, he said, “What we’ve got is this big beautiful apartment building, a historic site.”

Both Selectboard member Paullette Leukhardt and Finance Committee member Ricki Carroll thought it would be best to have a town meeting discussion on releasing the lien.

“As long as this moves forward — that’s my issue,” said Carter.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
dbronc@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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