2016-04-07 / Around Town

Introspective Nicholson Looks Ahead

By Barry Bridges

In a wide-ranging talk hitting on several aspects of municipal affairs, interim City Manager Joseph Nicholson took the helm as guest speaker at the Alliance for a Livable Newport’s annual meeting on Monday, April 4. About 30 attendees heard the latest on city projects, as well as Nicholson’s sometimes candid observations on the pluses and minuses of heading up the administration.

At the outset, Nicholson promised he would keep a close eye on tax rates as the spring budget season progresses. He mentioned a recent news article maintaining that Newport has a low burden compared to other Rhode Island localities, coming in at number 34 out of the 39 cities and towns in a ranking of the highest taxes.

And with anticipated hikes for fiscal 2017, the city staff has been reviewing the numbers and has reduced the amount of previously proposed rate increases. The city is now recommending a bump of 2.25 percent in the residential property tax rate to $10.91 per thousand dollars of valuation. The commercial tax rate would go up 2.30 percent to $15.13. Both estimates are less than earlier predictions, and are subject to the council’s upcoming budget approval process. Projected sewer rate increases have also been revised downward.

“We were able to [reduce the rate proposals] through some creativity,” said Nicholson, who wants the city to reclaim some sewer maintenance responsibilities. “We can [manage the sewer and stormwater collection system] cheaper than [a private company], and that is one way that we have lowered the numbers.

“No one is fond of the sewer rate, but it’s something we have to get done under the federal consent decree,” Nicholson added. “These issues will not simply go away.”

On the Broadway Streetscape Project, the city is working hard to reduce the impact to local businesses, with a focus on parking, said Nicholson. “We’ve developed a good synergy with merchants. We’ve hustled to find for parking for them. We know they are going through tough times with this construction.”

Installation of permeable pavers on the west side of the street has been slow. “As we whack those pavers in, the parking will return…. It will hopefully move like a massive wave down Broadway.”

If the weather cooperates, the current section under construction from Equality Park to Oak Street will be completed by the end of May, when work will then move further south along the corridor.

The manager also reported that the see-click-fix app for non-emergency issues has been working effectively and has already created desired efficiencies.

On a personal level, Nicholson revealed what he considered to be some of the highs and lows of the job since he was appointed interim manager in mid-2014.

In his view, the city staff is an especially strong asset. “We have marvelous people. When I came on as interim, I was not that appreciative of the staff because as solicitor I always had to play a ‘heavy’ role, where there was often tension in the room. But we have been through a lot in the last two years, and I know they are a good bunch of people.”

But there have also been drawbacks. “The period from my appointment to the November [2014] election was the saeculum obscurum

[dark age] for Newport. There was a lack of civility, a lack of professionalism, a lack of sanity. But the voters of Newport brought us back. We came out of it and we’re better for it.”

He also laments a persistent negativity toward government. “Sometimes in weak moments, it gets to you, and it gets to the staff. We talk about it incessantly. But I tell them to move on. Working together, we can really accomplish some good things.”

Nicholson commented that a difficult part of his job is “appearing in front of an [informed] audience such as this. You know the issues; I can’t schmooze you too much, because you know the details.”

And related to the city’s sometimes criticized communication efforts, Nicholson said, “As a lawyer, I’m used to keeping things close to my chest…. I come from that culture, and it’s difficult for me to break out of that. Now I have to talk about everything. I recognize I have to do that, to get the word out, whether it’s good or bad.”

He continued, “It’s not so much that government doesn’t want to share information, but the problem is that we sometimes get myopic. We forget that part of our obligation as public servants is to share…. But my door is open. I don’t have a monopoly on good ideas, and I want to hear what you have to say.”

With his permanent employment contract nearing approval, Nicholson reported that the average tenure for a city manager is just under six years.

“However, my father walked out of his law office at 90 years old, so I will be around as long as the council and the City of Newport will have me. I have no other place to go,” he confessed.

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