2016-02-11 / Around Town

Councilors Powwow with Legislators

By Barry Bridges

The needs of schools and Newport’s aging infrastructure were among the topics of conversation when City Councilors convened with the local state legislative delegation at a lightly-attended public workshop on Saturday, Feb. 6, to discuss what can be expected from this year’s session on Smith Hill.

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, Jamestown; Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, Newport; Rep. Marvin Abney, DNewport, Middletown; and Lauren Carson, D-Newport, sat down with city leaders to take a look at the months ahead.

Paiva Weed reported that Newport will potentially be in line for additional revenues through increased payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT), as well as educational aid.

Although there is no guarantee that Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposed 2017 budget will emerge unscathed as it moves through legislative debate, as introduced it would increase the city’s education aid by 1.3 percent, or $161,793. She added that there could also be adjustments to the per-pupil local costs that figure into out-of-district placements, potential increases in funding for special needs students, and better rates of reimbursement for school construction.

“The proposed budget is a starting point, but we are making education aid a priority,” said Paiva Weed.

The Senate president is also excited by a recent emphasis on dual enrollments, where high school students take college-level courses. “It’s in the budget this year and it opens a whole new door for kids who may not otherwise have the option…. It doesn’t necessarily involve money going to the cities and towns, but it’s a good opportunity for students and parents.”

Interim Newport City Manager Joseph Nicholson took the lead in suggesting legislation that could be helpful to the city, focusing on budget-busting infrastructure demands.

“We’d like to ask for an increase in meal and beverage taxes for targeted sewer and road infrastructure projects,” he advised the state delegation. “You don’t have to have a crystal ball to see that at some point our costs will become untenable.”

In Rhode Island, localities receive a one percent meal and beverage tax that is applied to restaurant receipts. That is on top of the seven percent sales tax on those tabs that goes into state coffers.

Nicholson pointed to several components contributing to increased infrastructure costs, including the city’s consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency that mandates certain improvements; sewers that are on the verge of collapse; and the damaging impact of sea level rise and intense rainstorms.

“We want to build up some funds outside of borrowing,” he elaborated. “We’re simply looking at potential ways to get some help.”

Paiva Weed said that she would be willing to consider the idea and advised, “If you’re going to go to restaurants with increased meal and beverage taxes, send us draft legislation but go ahead and have your public hearings now and vote at the local level.”

She also suggested broadening the playing field in light of today’s seemingly ubiquitous food offerings.

“You should also keep in mind the disconnect between places like 7-Eleven and The Hungry Monkey. The only difference is that people at The Hungry Monkey are paying meals and beverages taxes, and people at 7-Eleven aren’t…. I think that in the spirit of being fair to all of our local restaurants, that’s something that should be looked at.”

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