Smithfield-Bryant impasse continues as Machtley offers closed-door talks

Smithfield-Bryant impasse continues as Machtley offers closed-door talks

SMITHFIELD - Years of wrangling between the town and Bryant University over whether Bryant should pay for municipal public safety runs to the campus have come down to a single month, and no agreement is yet in sight.

According to a new Rhode Island law, the town as of March 1 "shall bill the actual costs for police, fire and rescue services supplied, unless otherwise reimbursed."

Town Manager Dennis Finlay says that since negotiations between the two sides have never even started, he's preparing a system for billing the tax-exempt university according to the state mandate, contained in a statute passed by last year's General Assembly at the request of the Town Council.

Finlay, whom the council has named "point person" to get negotiations arranged, said he has sent Bryant's financial consultant, Charles River Associates, detailed information on how the costs are calculated.

He said that with negotiations expected to be complex, the window for reaching agreement before the deadline is beginning to close.

Meanwhile, Finlay e-mailed the council on Tuesday, Jan. 28, saying he had just received a call from Bryant President Ronald K. Machtley asking for a meeting, which Machtley assumed would be closed unless he heard otherwise, between "town representatives" and his negotiating team at 10 a.m. Feb. 7 in Town Hall. Machtley said that he, himself, would not attend.

The council has consistently indicated it wants open talks, and one member reached yesterday, Suzanna Alba, said she would refuse to attend if the public was left out.

Another member, Ronald Manni, said the town solicitor has advised the council to hold talks in open session.

Councilwoman Maxine Cavanagh said she would await an opinion from the solicitor before making any decisions.

Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr. said, "I have no problem with a closed meeting with representatives of the town and Bryant, provided that there is no involvement with the council other than being there to observe."

It was unclear as of yesterday whether the meeting would take place and who would attend.

Machtley said in an e-mail to town officials that the point of the meeting would be to review the research of the Bryant consultant "and to discuss next steps."

According to the language of the state law, if no alternative financial arrangement is made, the town must charge the university for each public safety run, says Town Solicitor Edmund L. Alves Jr.

Whether Bryant would actually pay up is another matter. President Machtley has said on several occasions that a legal challenge is one of Bryant's options.

Machtley has said in the past that he opposes the levying of what he considers a tax on a nonprofit educational institution.

Plus, he has said, Bryant is an economic engine that generates some $17 million a year for the local economy in addition to in-kind services it supplies the town.

Some town officials have questioned his figures and argue that Bryant is now the only major university or college in the state that does not make a payment in lieu of taxes to its host community.

The state pays Smithfield some $500,000 a year because of Bryant's presence here. State Sen. Stephen Archambault has said that contribution would not be jeopardized if the town strikes up a separate agreement with the university.

The Town Council, as an alternative to billing Bryant for individual police, fire, and other emergency runs, has proposed a 20-year agreement under which the school would pay $300,000 annually and make a separate, $150,000 payment every four years for public safety equipment purchases. Additionally, the pact would require Bryant to create a number of scholarships and tuition remissions for town residents.

Bryant at one point offered $35,000 a year and the annual donation for a decade of 200 renovated laptop computers for the high school at a yearly value of $80,000 to $100,000.

The council dismissed the offer as inadequate, especially in light of much larger contributions other universities are making to their host communities, but has said it considers its own offer as merely a starting point toward compromise, indicating a possibility it would settle for less.