2014-01-31 / Front Page

Finance Reviewers Seek Input

By Tom Walsh

Determined to author a municipal finance blueprint that does not just “go on a shelf and gather dust,” Ron Becker and the Finance Review Committee continue to seek ideas about how to help Newport officials control the cost of running the city and increase revenue fairly.

“Our job is to come up with recommendations and a road map to implement them,” said Becker, who was elected chairman of the seven-member committee when it organized last fall. “It’s not just saying ‘here’s what to do.’ We also need to recommend how to do it. I think we have a good shot at getting that done as long as we stay on track.”

For now, Becker said, the committee has not taken a position on any specific proposals. “We are strictly in an information gathering mode presently,” he said. "Once we have completed that phase of our efforts, we then will review all the information and identify ideas worth pursuing to determine whether they can be framed into viable proposals.”

It’s an ambitious undertaking with a tight May 1 deadline.

Hank Kniskern, a member of the committee, said it will be important for the panel to think “longterm” in its deliberations. “One of the problems is that the city looks short-term rather than long-term,” he said. “The goal of leadership is to prepare your organization for the future. Our job will be to prepare and advise the city how to meet financial responsibilities and demands.”

Becker said that unlike numerous other cities and towns in Rhode Island and elsewhere that have been plagued by under-funded employee pension plans, Newport is 12 years into a 30-year amortization plan that is working. “As long as we stay on track with that we will be all right,” he said. Newport police and fire personnel come under the city’s pension system. Newport school retirees belong to the state system, which is beyond the city’s control.

Constantly increasing health insurance costs is another issue to watch, Becker said, adding that he favors switching people to Medicare coverage at age 65.

Becker also serves as president of the Alliance for a Livable Newport and is a member of the city’s Trust and Investment Commission. He and his wife, Johanna, retired in Newport after careers at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in Boston.

“This city is in much better shape than many other municipalities,” he said.

Asked whether the finance panel might recommend job reductions to curb spending, Becker said he could not address that issue at this stage of the work. However, he said, if there are unneeded municipal jobs “there aren't many of them. The city has reduced staff in recent years and there’s not much fat left, if any.”

In fact, he added, “We may have over done that a bit.” For example, Becker said, the School Department once had an employee whose job was to write grant proposals. “Now we don’t get as many grants as we used to. A good grant writer more than pays for him or herself. When it comes to issues such as these, we’re trying to take an even-handed approach.”

Where can the panel look to enhance city revenue?

An increase in the state’s payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) for the city’s tax-exempt properties will be examined, Becker said. “But our approach on these must be one of fairness,” he said. “The city has a lot of good nonprofits and they contribute to the community in large ways.” He added, “Tourism is the major industry in Newport and we have to do things to increase it, not reduce it.” In any case, General Assembly approval would be needed to make any move in this area.

The panel will also look at revenue received from cruise ships that stop in Newport. The city now receives $6 per passenger from the cruise lines that visit. However, Becker said that because cruise lines are paid by passengers who book trips months or even years in advance, there is as much as a twoyear lag time before the city could collect higher fees.

Becker had hoped the panel would finish its research phase in January. However, he conceded that the work will spill into February. The committee will use February and March to develop proposals from the data, and then will spend April fine-tuning to produce its report by May 1. During this time, the panel will invite the public to a special forum to hear citizens’ views on these issues.

“This is a very aggressive program,” Becker said.

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