Smithfield bills die in committee at General Assembly

Smithfield bills die in committee at General Assembly

SMITHFIELD - Three bills sought by municipal leaders here - one for consolidating the town and East Smithfield water districts, another for putting outdoor maintenance of school property under Town Hall control, and still another that would require local businesses to pay a $5 annual registration fee - never made it out of committee during the recently concluded General Assembly session.

Town Manager Dennis Finlay said he was disappointed in the results and hoped that the measures would be re-introduced when the legislature re-convenes in January.

Smithfield State Rep. Thomas Winfield said some legislators raised questions about the water consolidation bill because it required the town to cede assets of its water district to a new, independent district, including the town system and what is currently the separate East Smithfield Water District.

The town's water system supplies a population of nearly 10,000 in Smithfield and North Providence. It is overseen by the Town Council in its dual role as the municipal Water Supply Board.

The East Smithfield district, a chartered nonprofit whose policies are set by its ratepayers, serves about 7,700 people in the two communities.

Finlay has said the consolidation would be a significant step toward standardizing rates town-wide and minimizing duplication of effort.

Smithfield is also served by the separate Greenville Water District, which supplies some 9,000 residents in Smithfield and Johnston, but which has declined to participate in the proposed merger.

Winfield said other legislators, and representatives of some other water boards in the state, said they had reservations about the proposal based on experiences with similar mergers in their own communities.

A study committee from the town and the East Smithfield District has been working for several years to draft a proposal for consolidation.

Under the bills that stalled in both the House and Senate, the new water district could not be created unless voters in both the town and East Smithfield districts approve the idea at the polls.

The identical bills proposed a new entity, the Smithfield Consolidated Water District, which would be run by a board of seven directors elected by district voters at annual meetings that would also adopt the budget. At least four directors would be from Smithfield and at least two from North Providence, serving three-year staggered terms.

The district would set its own water rates and would have authority to acquire property by eminent domain.

Winfield said there was concern over the precedent of the town giving up control of its water district, especially because future development along the Route 7 "corporate corridor" will require substantial water system infrastructure.

He said the water district bills, and others that did not make it to a floor vote, are not dead because they can be put into the hopper again next year.

Winfield said the measures for a school grounds maintenance takeover were requested by the Town Council late in the legislative session, when the local delegation was concentrating much of its effort on a successful attempt to gain passage of a bill that would let the town charge Bryant University for fire and police services.

Councilman Bernard Hawkins, who made the motion to seek the maintenance legislation, said it would result in more efficient groundskeeping and would leave more money available for the School Department to spend on education.

Finlay said the legislation could be re-introduced, or the council and school board could work out an agreement between them short of legislative action.

Winfield said that he, himself, is an opponent of the third unsuccessful bill requested by the town - a measure that would require all businesses to register with Town Hall and pay a $5 fee to do so.

Finlay said a municipal ordinance already requires the fee, but that there is no state law backing it up.

The manager said the idea is to ensure that the tax assessor's office is aware of all businesses that operate here, because they are obligated to pay a tax on their fixtures and equipment.

The bill exempts from registration any businesses for which a separate license and up-to-date tax payments are required, because their existence is already known.

The statute was to carry a penalty of $25 for each day of violation.

Winfield said that while he felt obligated to introduce the bill because the town requested it, he opposes it because "It's a way to throw another nuisance fee onto businesses that are already struggling. It's not business-friendly."

Finlay said he considers the measure a way to "give some backbone" to the registration requirement already on town books so that business taxes get paid.