2014-01-10 / Front Page

Newport Eyes New State Aid

By Tom Walsh

Although Newport officials won’t gather until late January to officially decide the city's requests from the Rhode Island General Assembly in 2014, a growing list of municipal and regional concerns emerged from interviews this week.

As in the past, the question of toll charges for users of the Sakonnet River Bridge promises to spur the loudest debate – even as local officials insist that jobs and the economy stand above all else in importance.

“The bridge will still be a loud issue,” said state Rep. Peter F. Martin, D-Newport. “It’s the most public issue. It will get a lot of ink.” Martin remains staunchly in favor of the original Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority proposal to charge motorists with E-ZPass transponders 75 cents per crossing. Amid raucous debate, the authority later trimmed the rate to its current 10 cents per bridge crossing.

“I still believe that we have to pay for what we use,” Martin said.

“It’s still too early to know whether tolls will be part of any recommendation,” said Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport. She said a solution to the issue requires a “much broader approach” because long-term highway and bridge infrastructure maintenance is not unique to Newport or Aquidneck Island. “Providence and Pawtucket have bridges as well,” she said. “It’s not just a Rhode Island issue. It’s nationwide. We have to maintain our infrastructure in a sustainable way.”

Meanwhile, a legislative study commission continues to examine the Sakonnet River Bridge toll issue.

While toll questions simmer, there are those in city government who daily address different concerns.

“A lot of our issues involve identifying potential new revenue sources,” said Newport City Manager Jane Howington. She said unfunded local spending mandates that come to cities and towns from either the federal or state governments pose continuing challenges.

For example, she said, Newport currently bears 75 percent of the student tuition cost at the MET School, a network of six small, state-funded public vocational education high schools in Providence and Newport. Newport’s tuition contribution increases to 100 percent in the next school year, Howington said. “We are constantly looking to create new partnerships to meet these kinds of responsibilities,” she said.

To better address such needs, the Newport City Council created a Finance Review Committee. Among other things, the new panel will consider whether various taxexempt organizations should be making “payments in lieu of taxes” (PILOT) to the city.

Howington said the answer to that question is “in some cases yes, some cases no.” She added, “Some tax-exempt entities have risen to the occasion.” When the review panel began its work, Mayor Harry Winthrop suggested that the city could seek additional funding through a state formula that partially reimburses cities and towns for revenue lost because property is tax-exempt.

That would require enabling legislation at the General Assembly.

“Senator Paiva Weed has been working with Newport on this issue,” Howington said.

Howington added that the taxexempt situation can be tricky because increasing PILOT payments may result in organizations such as the Newport Preservation Society needing to increase admission fees to historic properties. “In those cases we need to find a balance,” she said. “If you’re not careful you can bite your nose to spite your face. We have a tourist economy and you have to be careful not to do something that hurts the rest of the economy.”

She said the city housing authority is in a similar situation. “If they have to raise rents to afford higher payments to the city, then some people might not be able to afford to live there,” she said. “You can’t go into this with just one goal. It can be a real balancing act.”

Howington offered another example of how the legislature may help Newport and the rest of Aquidneck Island this year. She said all three communities on the island share a desire to “create a robust IT environment” as a way to strengthen the local economy. To do that, she said, there is one final step necessary to improve islandwide IT connectivity. That would involve connecting businesses using the current IT connections used by island schools. The cost, she said, is estimated at between $30,000 and $50,000.

“We’re hoping to get the state to participate in the project because it is one that involves cooperation between communities,” Howington said. She said local officials sought state funds for this purpose last year but did so too late in the General Assembly session. “We hope for a better outcome this year if we start earlier,” she said.

Paiva Weed said that with the Navy’s substantial presence in Newport, the city needs to support what she called the “defense economy.” With that in mind she gathered a group of senators from elsewhere in Rhode Island last fall for a tour of the Navy base. “They were extremely impressed,” she said.

Further, she said Newport and other communities would benefit from regulatory reform and flexibility.

“This year many of the legislative initiatives that will benefit Newport will also benefit many other cities and towns," the Senate president said. Among these, she said, will be her effort to elevate the arts into a “creative economic sector.” She said there may be a fresh look at the state’s tax structure, including corporate and estate taxes. And, she said, federal “fairness” legislation to uniformly tax Internet sales could trigger a new look at Rhode Island’s own sales tax level.

“It’s exciting,” Paiva Weed said, adding that with no single grand issue facing Newport at the 2014 General Assembly, “It’s all about the economy and jobs.”

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