Woonsocket looks to state to exempt water treatment plant from neighboring taxes

Woonsocket looks to state to exempt water treatment plant from neighboring taxes

North Smithfield officials oppose potential change in law

A bill aimed at exempting Woonsocket's water treatment plant from some North Smithfield taxes, even if the facility is built on the neighboring town's land, has been sponsored by the majority leader, and the city's entire delegation, in the state House of Representatives.

North Smithfield officials spoke out against the legislation this week, saying such a law would impede open and transparent negotiations over such taxes.

House Bill 8311 is sponsored by Reps. John J. DeSimone, Stephen Casey, Michael Morin, Robert Phillips and Spencer Dickinson and was introduced on June 12, just one week before the General Assembly is scheduled to begin summer recess.

The bill, which as of Tuesday, June 17 was under review by the House Finance Committee, adds to the list of tax exempt property "a municipally owned water treatment facility which is partially or totally located in another community and supplies potable water in compliance with state and federal standards to that community."

The text continues "in that instance land value may be taxed; but the treatment facility, it's infrastructure and it's means of delivery of raw and/or finished water at or adjacent to the treatment facility is exempt from taxation."

Woonsocket must build a new, upgraded facility under mandate from the Department of Environmental Management to replace the existing plant on Manville Road and improve the quality of the city's drinking water, eliminating pollutants that are currently discharged into the Blackstone River.

In 2011, city officials announced that they had chosen a site on which to build the plant, and had plans to purchase 18 acres of land behind Bernon Heights School from resident Roland Michaud. When Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt took office in December, however, she indicated that she wanted to revisit the issue and explore alternative properties.

Now, it seems, city officials have reopened discussion on building the plant on a site in North Smithfield.

Phillips said he agreed to sponsor the legislation at the request of the city, and added that the only property in North Smithfield that he knows is under consideration is the Woonsocket Police firing range, a forested plot not far from the plant's current location.

"I know they're looking at a lot of options," said Phillips.

The Water Advisory Committee - a seven member board tasked with evaluating the city's options back in 2011 - ranked the site third among the Woonsocket's choices.

"The physical advantages of the North Smithfield site are mitigated by the risk and uncertainty of taxes that would be paid to the town of North Smithfield," the committee explained in a report. "In the absence of a negotiated tax treaty, the annual taxes on a facility sited in North Smithfield could range from $600,000 per year to over $1 million dollars per year."

The plant's full 50-plus-year expected life, the committee added, must be taken into consideration in any discussion of potential taxes.

House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, who represents District 48 in North Smithfield and Burrillville, alerted officials in North Smithfield about the legislation.

"Bill 8311 will not allow us to continue in transparent and open discussions or negotiations and will impede the process tremendously," said Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton in a letter to House Speaker Nick Mattiello. "Taxpayers will not receive what they deserve if the bill is passed and open government is not part of the process."

"While I understand and sympathize with their financial plight, I do believe that this flies in the face of our current negotiations on the matter," Hamilton said, adding that she worked with Mayor Leo Fontaine and his administration for years to determine a "fair and equitable tax."

Town Council President John Flaherty agreed.

"I'm very concerned that North Smithfield town officials didn't even have time to discuss this due to the bill's introduction on the very same day as the Council's last meeting on June 12," said Flaherty in his own letter to the speaker.

"I sincerely hope that this bill does not advance and that any possible movement in the future will only be allowed following input from the North Smithfield Town Council."

Phillips, however, says the legislation is just a precautionary measure.

"If they decide that North Smithfield is the optimal spot to put it, then we're prepared," he said. "Usually they work out a (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) program, but we want to make sure that we're not held hostage and everything's negotiated in advance."

Phillips said he does not believe the bill would not affect any other municipalities in the state.

It is unclear if the bill has the support to pass through the General Assembly before session is scheduled to end on Friday.

"There's a core group and I think if it's pushed forward by leadership, then most people would vote for it," Phillips said.