Bryant negotiations: No-show Machtley, low-ball offer anger Town Council

Bryant negotiations: No-show Machtley, low-ball offer anger Town Council

SMITHFIELD - The problematic relationship between community leaders and Bryant University eroded further last Thursday when Bryant President Ronald K. Machtley was a no-show at a Town Council meeting called to negotiate a university payment to the town in lieu of taxes.

Council members, and the town's legislative delegation, were further angered when a Machtley aide said the president would also be unable to attend a special session the council held this past Tuesday, even though the General Assembly was poised to act on proposed legislation forcing Bryant to pay up.

Instead, Machtley sent the council a proposed 10-year agreement offering a $35,000 annual payment and an enhancement of in-kind services, but local officials dismissed it as grossly inadequate and said Machtley by his absence was showing disdain for Smithfield's taxpayers.

At the Tuesday meeting, with Bryant representatives present but Machtley again absent, the council agreed to make a counterproposal - a 20-year agreement seeking a voluntary, $300,000 annual payment from the university that would rise 1.5 percent a year, plus a payment once every five years of $150,000 for the purchase of police and fire equipment.

The plan, proposed by Councilor Ronald Manni, also asks Bryant to donate land for a municipal fire station in the campus part of town, the appraised value of which could be put toward the $300,000 yearly payment.

Manni's plan also calls for additional payments every time the undergraduate population of 3,200 grows by 100 students.

He said of the proposed agreement, "We're not asking for anything more than other colleges and universities are doing for their host communities."

In approving the suggestions, the council stressed that the proposal - a combination of ideas from previous council plans that went nowhere - is not a demand, but a starting point for negotiations with Bryant.

Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr. asked Town Manager Dennis Finlay to contact the university to arrange dates for meetings with Machtley.

Council members said that certain givebacks in Bryant's $35,000 offer would effectively wipe out the value of the cash payment.

State Sen. Stephen Archambault said of the proposal, "There's no money on the table here."

Bryant's representatives, including university lobbyist Robert Goldberg, did not comment on the town's new proposal, which is expected to be put into a formal draft at the council's next meeting July 9.

The council has been hoping to reach agreement with Bryant without forcing the school's hand through the General Assembly, but has complained that Machtley won't negotiate even though the town is likely to settle for less than the legislation would allow.

The identical bills pending in both houses, expected to be taken up between Wednesday and Friday of this week, would authorize the town to charge tax-exempt Bryant for municipal police, fire, and rescue runs to the Douglas Pike campus - thought to be worth between $250,000 and $357,000 a year - unless the university negotiates a different agreement with the town by July 1.

Charges for rescue runs would be reduced by any money the Fire Department receives from patient insurance coverage for ambulance service.

Sen. Archambault said that passage of the bills would give the town leverage in any talks with the university.

The tenor of Thursday's 90-minute meeting was set as much by Machtley's absence as by the alleged shortcomings of Bryant's offer.

His executive assistant, James Patti, said Machtley had commitments that would also make it impossible for him to attend the Tuesday session, which the council proposed in an attempt to reach common ground before the General Assembly acted on the legislation.

Patti said Machtley received the council's notice of last Thursday's meeting only a few days in advance and that he was tied up with Bryant's annual student orientation.

The session was called by Councilor Manni, an outspoken critic of Bryant as the last holdout among colleges and universities around the state that makes no cash contributions to its host community.

Archambault said of Machtley's absence, "I'm kind of floored that there isn't a willingness to sit here at the table."

Asserting that it was difficult to get Bryant to negotiate even when he was council president several years ago, Archambault declared, "This shows we're not getting anywhere."

State Rep. Thomas Winfield, who has sponsored an identical companion bill to Archambault's in the House, said, 'We're always ready to go and there's always some excuse from Bryant."

Councilor Suzanna Alba declared, "a majority on the council is not satisfied with the current contribution - I'd like that to be clear and I'd like that message to get to Mr. Machtley."

Of his absence, Alba said, "Mr. Machtley has a responsibility to the citizens of Smithfield - if he could be here before the public that would speak volumes. It's not sending a good message to the citizens of Smithfield if he doesn't show up."

State Rep. Gregory Costantino said Bryant contributes far less to the town than other universities give their host communities, including Roger Williams University in Bristol, which he said is comparable. Roger Williams provides an annual cash payment to the town of $150,000, which increases 1.5 percent a year.

The school also offers, once every five years, $100,000 for the municipal purchase of fire and police equipment, and scholarships and tuition remissions for town employees that Costantino said far exceed what Bryant offers Smithfield.

The 15-year Roger Williams agreement, effective since 2008, also created a town-university "cooperative committee" that meets quarterly to discuss mutual concerns.

For Smithfield, Bryant offered as part of its most recent proposal to provide 200 refurbished laptop computers to the high school each year for the duration of the agreement.

Bryant also offered to continue or embellish current in-kind programs including a $36,000 annual tuition scholarship for a local high school student; use of Bryant sports facilities for high school athletic teams; support of the Confucius Classroom in local schools; and hosting the town's annual July Fourth celebration at a cost of $23,000.

Machtley has said the university puts no strain on the local school system, provides $565,000 in financial aid to 36 of its students from Smithfield, and is - with its payroll and the business it generates locally - a $17 million annual economic engine for the town.

Machtley also noted that Smithfield receives $497,000 a year from the state in lieu of taxes because of Bryant's presence here.

Town officials have questioned many of Machtley's assertions, saying they are subjective and cannot be accurately measured.

At Thursday's meeting, some council members expressed annoyance at Machtley's apparent preference to meet only with Council President LaGreca, a former Bryant trustee.

Machtley's aide, Patti, said, "Our view is that the council president speaks for the council."

Alba, part of the two-person Democratic minority on the council, replied that LaGreca "may be president of the council, but I'm not sure he's representative of all our minds."

"Should we all be present?" she asked Republican LaGreca, who responded, "Absolutely."

Republican Maxine Cavanagh said that while she is not satisfied with the current arrangement with Bryant, "I'd like to be able to work with them and not have a bill that shoves it down their throats."

Noting that action on the bills is imminent, Archambault told Patti that Bryant must come to the table, asserting that while he and his two legislator colleagues don't wish to push legislation on the university, "This bill is going to go if you can't reach an agreement."

He told Patti, 'You are not going to get a moratorium on this." The delegation has said it expects the bills to pass.

Pressing Patti on why Machtley was unavailable, Archambault asked whether the president was currently out of town, and Patti replied, 'I'm not going to answer that."

He stressed however, that attendance at a council meeting was impossible for the president, adding, "I am intimately familiar with his calendar."