Chafee signs bill, nudging Bryant's president to negotiate

Chafee signs bill, nudging Bryant's president to negotiate

Town Council and Machtley expected to meet soon

SMITHFIELD – When Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the controversial Bryant University bill July 11, he gave municipal leaders what they wanted: A chance to meet Bryant President Ronald K. Machtley across the table to negotiate payments for municipal services to the tax-exempt university.

The Town Council had complained for months that Machtley would not negotiate short of being forced to do so. He, in turn, denied that but said the town was seeking to squeeze Bryant despite what he termed the school’s extensive and positive effect on the town’s economy.

Differences between the two sides aren’t nearly resolved. But in a statement released after the bill became law, Machtley said that while he was disappointed the governor didn’t veto it, “We will meet with the town in the hope that amicable and fair agreements can be reached to avoid expensive and time consuming litigation.”

While he said also that the university will review its options, “including litigation,” it appeared that the two sides will indeed sit down and talk – which the council has said was its ultimate goal in seeking the legislation. It allows the town to begin charging Bryant starting next March unless the two sides negotiate a different arrangement beforehand.

The council is drafting a “memorandum of understanding” that would ask Bryant for an annual payment of $300,000 in compensation for public safety runs to the campus, plus $150,000 every five years for police and fire equipment.

However, the council is still working on the proposal, which is subject to change, and members have said they consider it a starting point for give-and-take.

In a statement released Friday by Chafee, the governor said, “This legislation is not about taxing a nonprofit or undermining its (Internal Revenue Service) protections, but it is about bringing both partners to the table to strike a balanced and fair relationship. I believe the town of Smithfield and the university have an opportunity to collaborate and work out an agreement that is beneficial to both entities.”

Although Machtley has not met with the full council since it was elected last November, he has offered an annual payment of $35,000, a donation of 200 reconstituted laptop computers for the high school every year for a decade, and an enhancement of existing in-kind services.

Statements from both sides over the past few weeks, with the tone increasingly strained, indicated that they were far apart both financially and philosophically, because Machtley has said repeatedly he opposes payments by the university that would in effect amount to a tax.

In fact, in his statement – issued through Steinreich Communications, a national public relations firm based in Fort Lee, N.J. – he said, “We continue to believe this legislation is unconstitutional, unwarranted, and needlessly divisive.”

State Rep. Thomas Winfield, who sponsored the legislation along with state Sen. Stephen Archambault and Rep. Gregory Costantino, said he had told the governor that the standoff was “a long, ongoing battle and this gives the town a bit of leverage in negotiations – and the town wants to negotiate.”

He said he also told the governor that “the town will not abuse this and will bargain in good faith – I know the town will do that.”

Town Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr., a former Bryant Trustee, said he was hopeful agreement can be reached short of costly litigation, asserting that “reasonable people can come to a reasonable solution.”

Despite the recent tensions, he termed Machtley “a class act,” and Bryant “a class organization.”