Bryant offers to negotiate settlement with Smithfield
Bryant offers to negotiate settlement with Smithfield
SMITHFIELD - The town's war of words with Bryant University over how much the school should pay for municipal services took a more congenial turn this week - up to a point - when the university announced it has created a three-person team to negotiate a "memorandum of understanding" on the issue.
Just a day before the Sept. 4 announcement, the university's alleged unwillingness to negotiate was still a point of contention, fraying the town's 42-year relationship with Bryant and dividing members of the Town Council.
At its Sept. 3 meeting, the council split over a suggestion from Bryant President Ronald K. Machtley that an independent consultant determine the specific value of police and fire runs to the Douglas Pike campus.
In a letter to Town Manager Dennis Finlay dated Aug. 30, Machtley said Bryant would foot the bill for a consultant.
While Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr. expressed strong support for the idea, it bombed before three other councilors - one of them LaGreca's Republican colleague Ronald Manni - and the proposal went nowhere.
The council didn't bother to call a vote, because it was clear that Manni and Democrats Bernard Hawkins and Suzanna Alba would not abide any action delaying a face-to-face negotiation.
Councilor Maxine Cavanagh did not speak on the issue, but said later that she sides with LaGreca in support of using a consultant.
Instead, the council said it will make final adjustments to a draft proposal that in its current form would seek a $300,000 annual payment, and other compensation, from Bryant, and would send it to Machtley as a starting point for negotiating.
LaGreca, a former member of Bryant's board of trustees, said he favored hiring a consultant because in his view the council does not have a clear idea of what the public safety runs actually cost.
He said Machtley's offer included a willingness to let the town choose the consultant, and termed it "the most encouraging thing I've heard from Bryant on the matter."
Manni disagreed, saying the town has assigned cost figures to the runs, that Machtley has refused to negotiate for years despite asserting otherwise, and that any further action "needs to be done at the negotiating table."
Alba said hiring a consultant would further delay negotiations and, "I'm not OK with anybody spending money on still another consultant SLps It would be nice to sit at a table face-to-face before we bring in individuals who are foreign to the town."
She asserted that the money Bryant would spend on a consultant could be better spent on a scholarship for a local student.
In fact, Alba said, the controversy is not just about money, but also, "The sense is that we don't have a good relationship with Bryant" and that the two sides should be "community partners working together."
Hawkins also supported immediate negotiations, with Machtley and possibly the school's trustees.
The atmosphere seemed to improve the day after the council meeting when Bryant's director of university relations, Elizabeth O'Neil - who attended the session with two other Bryant representatives - told The Valley Breeze & Observer that Machtley has designated three senior staff members to negotiate a pact with the town and that "we're confident we can reach an equitable agreement."
Machtley himself did not appear at the meeting, but in his letter to Finlay he said he had spoken beforehand to LaGreca and the council president told him that "my presence is not needed nor expected.'
He named as members of the Bryant negotiating team O'Neil; management professor Roger Anderson, a Smithfield resident and former executive assistant to Machtley; and Farokh Bhada, Bryant's associate vice president of business affairs.
In an email to The Valley Breeze & Observer, O'Neil said her committee is "looking forward to renewing our dialogue with the Smithfield Town Council, with the goal of negotiating a memorandum of understanding that recognizes both the important role Bryant plays in the town's economy, as well as the town's request for additional support."
Under a new law sponsored by Smithfield's three Democratic legislators, the town starting next March can begin charging tax-exempt Bryant the full cost of public safety runs unless the two sides negotiate a different agreement.
Sen. Stephen Archambault urged the council last week to disregard the consultant idea and insist on negotiations.
He termed Machtley's proposal "a stall tactic or a maneuver to take control when all the control rests with you" because of the new law.
He said Bryant "fought tooth and nail" against the law, and "They lost, and I'm glad they did because they showed a lack of sincerity to the Town of Smithfield."
Archambault assailed lobbying efforts by Bryant, which, he said, inaccurately maintained the school has been negotiating with the town and sought to defeat the bill "on the face of lies."
He told the council that a Bryant contribution to the town would not jeopardize a separate, annual $500,000 payment in lieu of taxes the town receives from the state because of Bryant's presence here.
But Councilwoman Cavanagh said after the meeting she is uncertain that would be the case and that she will ask town officials to seek assurances in writing from the state that Archambault is correct.
She said she felt the council could accept the idea of using a consultant while at the same time urging Bryant to begin negotiating.
In his letter to town manager Finlay, Machtley, who maintains Bryant is an economic engine worth millions to the town annually, said he believes the town should be compensated, but that a consultant could supply specifics and "would be the logical next step in determining the appropriate amount."
He wrote that "our objective is to be a good neighbor and a continued source of economic prosperity and development for Smithfield."
Machtley recently offered a $35,000 annual payment to the town and 200 reconstituted laptop computers a year for the high school over 10 years, and other in-kind service enhancements, but the council termed that inadequate.
Machtley has called the new legislation "ill-conceived" and had hinted at possible legal action. Over the years he has maintained a philosophical objection to a university paying fees that, as a practical matter, he feels amount to taxes.
Machtley contends that with its payroll, students and faculty spending, and other considerations, Bryant pumps about $17 million a year into the local economy.
Some on the council have questioned that figure and the methodology used in arriving at it.
A majority of the council has been critical of Machtley for what they say is his reluctance to meet with them as a group. Machtley is known to have met once within the past year with LaGreca and Finlay, but has not held a session with the entire council since it was elected 10 months ago.
Alba said that she has never even met Machtley.
Bryant's announcement of a negotiating team seemed to ease tensions surrounding the payment issue, but only somewhat.
Councilor Manni, who has been pressing Bryant to negotiate for what he says is 14 years, said he looks at the committee's creation as a positive development, and Hawkins and Alba agreed.
Hawkins said, "It sounds like a step in the right direction" as long as the team is authorized to enter into an agreement," but added he's disappointed that Machtley himself will apparently not take part in the talks.
Alba said that while she's pleased the university has agreed to negotiate, she wonders how much authority the Bryant team will have and feels that Machtley should be part of the process, even if only by showing up at the first session "to meet council members and shake our hands. It's like he's behind this curtain."
Asked if Machtley will be part of the process, O'Neil responded by email that "the negotiating team will of course work very closely with President Machtley, but was appointed to assure that our dialogue with the Smithfield Town Council would progress with continuity of representation."
Asked for his reaction to the appointments, Archambault scolded Machtley because "He's still showing a lack of willingness to sit down with the council. I had expected by this point he would show an open mind to come to the table and negotiate in good faith."
In its current draft form, the town's proposal for payments- which is subject to change before it goes to Bryant - includes a call for the $300,000 annual contribution and for an additional $150,000 payment every five years for the purchase of police and fire equipment.
Manni and others pressing for payments from Bryant have stressed that the school is the only college or university in the state that does not make significant cash payments to its host community.
Machtley up to now has expressed a preference for making contributions through in-kind services and equipment donations.