Council readies for Bryant proposal

Council readies for Bryant proposal

SMITHFIELD - With its members still divided over how to approach negotiations with Bryant University on reimbursement for municipal services, the Town Council nonetheless appears ready to vote Oct. 1 on an initial proposal that would get talks started.

Under a proposed "memorandum of understanding," the council would ask tax-exempt Bryant to pay $300,000 a year for Police and Fire Department runs to the campus, and to make a separate, $150,000 payment every five years for the purchase of public safety-related equipment and capital improvements.

The proposal would also ask Bryant to provide six more scholarships for local students, in addition to the single grant the university now offers, and to provide tuition remissions for a limited number of high school students, for town employees, and members of the Police and Fire Departments.

But even before sitting down with Bryant, which has named a three-member negotiating team of senior staffers, council members are themselves in a wrangle over strategy for the talks.

At the council's Sept. 17 meeting, President Alberto LaGreca Jr. continued to press - unsuccessfully - for the hiring of a consultant to determine how much each emergency run to the Douglas Pike campus actually costs.

Under legislation passed this year, the town can charge Bryant for the cost of such runs, unless the two sides negotiate a different agreement by next March.

LaGreca asserted that without exact cost figures to show the university, "I think we're starting off in a very weak position."

But fellow Republican Ronald Manni has been adamant in maintaining that Town Manager Dennis Finlay and Finance Director Randy R. Rossi have supplied sufficient cost figures in consultation with the police and fire chiefs.

He said that Bryant's offer to pay for a consultant chosen by the town will simply further delay the negotiations process and "would just kick the can further down the road."

LaGreca said he has heard varying cost estimates that "are all over the place," adding, "There's nothing worse than to go into negotiations with numbers that are soft."

The council has split 3-2 on the issue, with Manni and Democrats Bernard Hawkins and Suzanna Alba seeking immediate talks with no consultant.

Hawkins said that a consultant must rely on information supplied by public safety officials, and so would likely come up with estimates similar to the town's.

Republican Maxine Cavanagh said she prefers starting talks now, but hiring a consultant as well.

She said that arriving at accurate cost figures for each response will be "a horrendous job," since it will require specific information including the rank and pay scale of department employees who participate on individual runs, and what type of medical equipment is used by emergency personnel.

She and LaGreca said issues also exist on how third-party insurance reimbursements to the town for medical runs would figure in, and whether - if an agreement is reached with Bryant - the state will eliminate the nearly $500,000 it pays the town in lieu of taxes because of Bryant's presence here.

Manni said that other colleges and universities in the state compensate their host communities and continue to receive the state money.

According to figures supplied by Finlay and Rossi, recent history shows that the town can expect to send police to the campus - for incidents that are more than routine - 144 times a year.

Each of those runs could be expected to include a lieutenant, two patrol officers, and two vehicles, and for one hour would cost the town $195, he said.

A fire run for the same duration might include a captain, a lieutenant, two privates, a rescue captain a rescue lieutenant, a fire truck and a rescue vehicle, and would cost $757. Finlay estimated the town would make 273 such calls in a year, and that the fire and police calls combined would cost $235,000 at an hour each. But, he said, a number of responses could last longer and would cost more.

Finlay said his estimates do not include a deduction for health insurance reimbursements to the Fire Department, but that the payments must eventually be factored in because the town cannot expect to collect twice for medical runs.

He said one reason for the disparity in cost between police and fire runs is a national standard requirement that mandates a fire truck accompany every medic vehicle.

The proposal for expanded scholarships became an issue at the Sept. 17 meeting when Donald Burns, chairman of the town's Conservation Commission, argued against asking Bryant to fund scholarships, since they benefit individual students and not taxpayers in general.

It's the taxpayer who should be compensated for any municipal costs incurred by Bryant's presence here, Burns said.

And, he added, if scholarships are to be part of the agreement, they should be available to any high school student who lives in Smithfield, not just to students at Smithfield High, as the council's draft agreement stated.

Alba, who has been pushing for expansion of scholarships, disagreed with Burns on the taxpayer issue, saying that in its totality the proposed agreement does benefit the community at large.

However, she agreed with his suggestion on opening the grants to local students no matter where they attend high school.

Joseph O'Connor, a taxpayer, said the various requests to Bryant add up to some $500,000 a year, and asked the council if it feels the amount is too high to be practical.

Alba replied, "We're not expecting them to approve all of this, but we'd like to use it as a starting point."

After lengthy debate, and some disagreement on how the annual payments from Bryant would be used, the council agreed to put them into an earmarked account outside the general fund, with the council to decided from year to year how best to spend them depending on existing municipal needs.

The council said it would have a final draft of its proposal ready for a vote at the Oct. 1 meeting and would send the resulting memorandum to Bryant.

A date for the start of talks has not yet been scheduled.