Ticklish times for town and gown negotiators

Ticklish times for town and gown negotiators

SMITHFIELD - Both sides say they'll give it the old college try, but you don't need an MBA to deduce that a dicey start lies ahead for negotiations over what Bryant University should pay the town for municipal services.

That became clear at the Town Council's Oct. 1 meeting, when a Bryant official indicated that unless the town provides specific cost figures for public safety runs to the Douglas Pike campus, "We'll be going around in circles."

Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr. said he agrees with the comment, made by Elizabeth O'Neil, Bryant's executive director of university relations.

She reiterated the university's desire to have the town hire an outside consultant - at Bryant's expense - to determine exact cost figures for the runs.

But the council is divided, 3-2, in favor of negotiating on the basis of figures supplied by its own department heads.

The council majority holds that Bryant President Ronald K. Machtley has been avoiding negotiations for years, that Bryant is now the only college or university in the state that doesn't pay its host community, and that hiring a consultant will simply delay matters further.

But the chairman of Bryant's Board of Trustees, Michael E. Fisher, placed an ad in last week's Valley Breeze & Observer asserting that an independent study is needed to "give us all a transparent and equitable approach" in determining the cost of services.

Issuing a separate statement through O'Neil, the university expressed dismay over what it termed the council's refusal "to work collaboratively" with the help of a consultant.

At its meeting, the council gave final approval to a proposed "memorandum of understanding" in which it seeks a $300,000 annual payment from Bryant under a 20-year agreement that would raise the payout 1.5 percent a year.

The memo also calls for an additional $150,000 payment every four years for the purchase of public safety equipment or related capital improvements, a $25,000 annual payment for civic activities, and a variety of scholarships and tuition waivers for local students and municipal employees.

The council has said that much of the memo's contents reflect provisions of a similar agreement between Roger Williams University and the town of Bristol.

LaGreca, a former Bryant trustee, and Republican colleague Maxine Cavanagh favor hiring a consultant. But Republican Ronald Manni and Democrats Bernard Hawkins and Suzanna Alba have been firm in accepting cost figures supplied by Town Manager Dennis Finlay and Finance Director Randy R. Rossi in consultation with the police and fire chiefs.

LaGreca said he is resigned to accepting the majority's wishes and still hopes that the proposed agreement will be "a starting point to sit down and start a cordial discussion."

The General Assembly this year passed legislation that allows the town to charge tax-exempt Bryant for public safety runs, unless the two sides negotiate a different financial agreement by next March.

Bryant's recent statement, made in response to a Valley Breeze and Observer request for reaction to the council's proposal, termed the town memo "just a 'wish list' of payments far out of step with the state law requirements and financially unfeasible for a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization dedicated to higher education."

It said a Bryant proposal to make a $35,000 annual payment to the town and to donate 200 laptop computers to the high school each year for a decade, at an annual cost of $80,000 to $100,000, "was never seriously considered by the Town Council."

The statement said Bryant already contributes direct and in-kind support valued at $800,000 annually, but in past weeks the council has questioned how the university arrives at its financial impact numbers.

President Machtley, who the council has criticized numerous times for an alleged, long-term unwillingness to talk, or even to show up at council meetings, recently named a three-person committee of senior staffers, including O'Neil, to negotiate.

Council members have said they don't expect Bryant to accept all of their proposed terms, but that a sit-down - not yet scheduled - could kick off a process leading to an agreement that would take effect next July 1.

As to where all this may be headed otherwise, Machtley has said on several occasions that he has not ruled out a legal challenge to the new legislation.

Cavanagh said the council should take note, as it strives to come up with an agreement palatable for both sides, that over the course of the agreement Bryant would be required to pay out some $10 million.

Taxpayer Joseph O'Connor told the council that while he thinks Bryant's attitude has been "indifferent and rude," the town's proposal is impractically high and that when the two sides come to the table "I think you're in for an extremely rough experience."

However, Town Manager Finlay said he believes the town's figures are an accurate estimate of what the public safety runs cost.

The council agreed with a suggestion by Cavanagh that police and fire personnel should begin keeping detailed records now of all runs to Bryant and the resources that are expended on them.

According to the proposal, the value of any land donations Bryant makes to the town - which is eyeing the area around the 420-acre campus for a future North End fire station - could be deducted from the annual payment.

The council also seeks a number of scholarships and tuition remissions at Bryant.

According to the university's website, yearly tuition is $36,872, room fees range up to $10,480, and meal plans range up to $5,600.

The council's memorandum requests:

* A Smithfield Academic Achievement Scholarship, paying four years of full tuition and room and board to a Smithfield High graduate in the top 10 percent of the class.

* Three annual Bryant and Smithfield Community Partnership Scholarships of $10,000 a year to town residents who are graduating with at least a 3.0 average.

* Two annual Smithfield Memorial Fire and Police Scholarships, for full tuition, only, to town residents graduating from Smithfield High School with at least a 3.0 average and who have a parent or grandparent currently or formerly associated with the Police or Fire Department.

* Free tuition for a limited number of advanced students at Smithfield High for seats in undergraduate courses, with the number of students to be set by the university.

* Tuition waivers for full-time municipal and school employees, including police and firefighters, for enrollment part-time in Bryant courses.

* Continued donation by Bryant to the town and its schools of surplus computer equipment and technical and maintenance support.

* Continued free use of Bryant facilities for the high school graduation, athletic facilities for school teams, and the university library by town residents; and continued university funding of the town's annual Fourth of July celebration

The proposal also calls for a joint, 10-member "Town/University Cooperative Committee" to meet quarterly to discuss issues of mutual interest or concern.

LaGreca said it will be up to Finlay and the university to set a date for the start of talks, which will be held in open session.