Scott MacKay Commentary
8:40 am
Mon July 22, 2013

At Bryant University, A War Between Town and Gown

Rhode Island politicians are increasingly looking to non-profit institutions to finance local government. The latest tug-of-war between town and gown is in Smithfield, where the town thinks Bryant University is not paying its fair share. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says its time for cooperation, not confrontation.

Byrant University has come to a head with the town of Smithfield, which feels the school should pay more for things like emergency services.
Byrant University has come to a head with the town of Smithfield, which feels the school should pay more for things like emergency services.
Credit Courtesy Bryant University

Smithfield is the latest community to face a high-profile dispute between a storied Rhode Island non-profit and hard-pressed property taxpayers represented by town councilors and state lawmakers. As is usually the case, the joust between Bryant University and the town is over money.

Smithfield wants Bryant to pay for police, fire and rescue services used by Bryant, the business-orientated university that has come a long way in recent years under the leadership of President Ronald Machtley, the former Republican congressman.

The town wants Bryant to ante up between $250,000 and $350,000 annually to reimburse it for services used by the university and its students. Bryant has countered that this is unfair because it already contributes to the town by paying for a July 4th fireworks celebration and allowing use of its athletic facilities and the awarding of a full scholarship to a top ranked Smithfield high school student.

Years of on-and-off talks between Bryant leaders and town officials have not been productive. So the town decided to play hardball, winning General Assembly approval of a new law assessing Bryant for the fees if the two sides cannot reach a negotiated payment agreement. The measure began as rough and perhaps illegal bill to force the university to pay property taxes, but was wisely watered down to include only service fees.

Both House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence and Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who signed the measure into law over Bryant’s objection, say the legislation is designed to get the university to negotiate seriously with town officials and come to an agreement on the money issues.

Town-gown relationships between colleges and their host communities have always been freighted with a mix of envy and respect. The working-class locals who pay Rhode Island’s high property taxes wonder why they have to support colleges filled with students who drain services and drive fancier cars than the Townies.

Providence has been Rhode Island’s flash point for this ancient joust. Rhode Islanders of a certain age will recall the 1990 Providence mayoral campaign when Democratic candidate Andrew Annaldo ran a famous television spot asserting that a janitor at the city’s Ivy League university ``pays more in taxes that Brown University itself.’’

Things have changed much since those days in Providence. Now, Brown, Providence College and Johnson & Wales University collectively pay millions of dollars in fees to city government. And Johnson & Wales and Brown have become important partners in helping the city and state revive the city’s historic but frayed Jewelry District into a 21st Century economic engine.

Christina Paxson, the new Brown president, has been vocal in support of expanding the university’s footprint  in the Jewelry District, where Brown has opened a new medical school and already employs more than 1,000 people. Now Brown is collaborating with the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College to develop the historic Dynamo House power station into a nursing school and office space.

Truth be told, many of the property taxpayers in communities with colleges would like nothing so much as to have their children attend the school. This is where Bryant and the town might find some common ground. It seems reasonable to ask the university to open up more scholarships to deserving Smithfield High School graduates.

Bryant has also proposed donating used laptops to Smithfield schools. But the town would rather have new cash than old laptops, says State Sen. Stephen Archambault, a Democrat who represents Smithfield. The town can’t meet the police payroll with laptops. Archambault points to Bristol, a community with about the same population as Smithfield and a college, Roger Williams University,  that mirrors the Bryant student population. Bristol contributes about $250,000 a year to Bristol.

On the other side, Smithfield pols should not be allowed to fleece Bryant. One of the reasons the colleges in Providence _ and Brown particularly - so frosted successive mayoral administrations was because they bought properties outside their original campuses and took those properties off the tax rolls. Bryant has never done this; the university has plenty of land on its rural campus for expansion.

Colleges are not sugar bowls for politicians to dip into every time they need government money. In the 21 century, a state with a lack of private sector economic growth cannot squeeze the colleges that contribute so much to our growth of good jobs.

In the short run, it would be nice if President Machtley and Smithfield town leaders could hammer out an agreement both sides could live with. The alternative would be litigation over whether the new law violates Bryant’s tax-exempt status, which would be a victory for only for the lawyers.

In the long run, there is a better way to deal with this. That would be for the colleges to lobby at the Statehouse for increased state aid to cities and towns that host colleges and their students.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org