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City Finance Review Committee Asks for Public Input

Community forum on Feb. 25 at Newport Public Library

Last year, a seven-member Financial Advisory Committee was appointed by the City Council with the task of finding ways Newport can increase revenues and cut expenses.

It’s a vast, broad assignment that has committee members thinking about tourism, taxes, payments in lieu of taxes, pensions, school budgets, city-owned properties, hotels and more.

Their work is just getting started and next week, that committee is asking you to bring your ideas to the table at a public forum they’re hosting at the Newport Public Library.

The forum is on Feb. 25 at 6:30 p.m.

Newport isn’t facing immediate fiscal peril, but the city is under great pressure as revenues have leveled off, said Ron Becker, chairman of the committee. And while modest tax increases can bring in additional revenue, the city “needs to do a better job”  looking for other sources of revenue.

“The city has done a good job finding ways to cut or at least level expenses but we’re going to need to do more,” Becker said.

One avenue is through PILOT funds. The committee is identifying institutions, like schools and nonprofits, that might participate in a PILOT program with the understanding that tax-exempt organizations use city services.

Committee member John Florez, CEO of Drupal Connect, said Newport isn’t immune to the dual pressure of increasing expenses and declining revenues.

As the crown jewel of the Rhode Island tourism industry, Newport is poised to capitalize on its brand, Florez said, with results that could not just prevent tax increases, but might reduce taxes.

For example, the committee might consider whether the city should push to attract a five-star hotel.

“There are dozens and dozens of trade shows that come to Newport every year and the feedback always comes back that we don’t have the hotel chops,” Florez said. “That would bring an increased level of traffic to the city of Newport — a different kind of foot traffic.”

But on the flipside, Florez said, there would be resistance from some community groups that would say such a hotel would “comprise the integrity of the community and make Newport more congested.”

It’s a difficult balancing act. Cruise ships pay a fee when they come to Newport, but tour buses do not. Would additional fees for buses drive away business?

“We want to grow tourism, bring more business into town and its possible source of revenues but we don’t want to stick on fees and charges that will drive people away, Becker said.

And there’s numerous city owned properties that could be reimagined to solve urban planning issues or spark new tourism and business opportunities. Why not use them for parties and weddings with partnerships with local event planners?

The group started with “blue sky” ideas, Becker said, and quickly realized they were grappling with a monumental task. The organized their thoughts into more than a dozen categories before “we realized that’s too big” and pared it down to six general categories with committee members taking on two or three topics.

Since then, they’ve been collecting data and fact finding, Becker said, in the hopes of identifying the key stakeholders in any suggestion the committee ultimately ends up making.

And they can’t do it without input from the public. That’s why every Newport resident who is concerned about the city’s financial future is urged to attend the Feb. 25 forum.

With their report with specific suggestions due in May, the committee hopes to have some low hanging fruit that will help Newport find immediate savings.

The other suggestions, which might call for new legislation at the local and state level and other, substantial changes, will come with a roadmap in the hopes of making them achievable.

And they hope that the committee will continue as an ongoing entity after they submit their report in May.

“It doesn’t have to be a temporary assignment,” Florez said. “We can have this ongoing and really have an arm for the City Council that enables us to examine things on a perpetual basis.” 

George Costanza February 20, 2014 at 01:28 PM
"Additional sources of revenue"-- We don't need more taxes, we need less spending. Cops do a great job here, but they don't need to make $150k per year plus pension benefits and healthcare for life (can't they get by on $90K per year plus benefits?). There are over 120 City employees who make over $100k + benefits per year, by the way that is TWICE the median HOUSEHOLD income for residents in the City of Newport. There are only 23,000 residents here. We need to spend like a small town not like a big City. ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Has anyone seen what's going on in the General Assembly? Assuming the State Pension Mediated Agreement is approved, that would decrease State money to the City by $1 mil in the first year, $10 mil in 5 years. Plus the City Police and Fire pension systems (separate from the State system) are only 60% funded.
John Florez February 20, 2014 at 01:39 PM
George- The committee is not going to consider additional taxes. You should come to the public forum and share your ideas.
George Costanza February 20, 2014 at 01:47 PM
Hi John, thank you for the invitation. I would respectfully suggest the City stay away from drawing more hotels into town. 18% of each night stay goes directly to Providence. The City needs to get rid of regulations preventing people from short-term rentals, that's how we pay our property taxes. The best way to increase revenue would be to "relocate" or get rid of the Chapel terrace housing project and 3rd Street housing project, and make that land available to residential development, and to engage the Navy with the Navy Hospital property, which is in an excellent location for condominium development. -------------- I am very worried about City finances because every year City budgets increase, and now state Aid will certainly decrease. Thank you for your involvement
Larry Gotch February 21, 2014 at 08:32 AM
What time at the Library? I think the intersection leading from Newport to the big traffic circle near the NAVY Base could be reconfigured to liberate all that dead land at the end of the road. That land could be used for a COSCO or similar. The tall ship the PERRY should bring in some revenue when it comes to Ft. Adams. The Volvo Ocean Race is coming to Newport, that should drive some revenues. When the cruise ships bring people to Newport in the fall, out of state busses take those people away from the retail area to the non-tax paying Mansions. I find that interesting. Having events that drive people and revenues to town would be a help, yet people are opposed to having so much activity. We can't have it both ways. I believe having a forum to look at the financial difficulties we have is a terrific idea to help everyone understand where we are and how to proceed. Cudos.
MikeD February 21, 2014 at 12:37 PM
Don't less than half of all properties pay taxes in the first place? Maybe I should start a non-profit foundation too.
John Florez February 21, 2014 at 02:45 PM
George, with all respect I would like t point out out an inaccuracy in one of the statements you made. Salaries for police officers range from $48,601 to $60,605. That does not include sergeants, Lts, Captains. The highest salary is for a Captain position and is $83,480. Some police officers make additional money from special details or overtime, neither of which is pensionable. I look forward to meeting you Tuesday at 6:30PM at the Library on Spring Street.
Jack February 21, 2014 at 06:49 PM
I can't make the meeting but I have suggested this many times in the past, add an admission tax of XX% to all events that charge more than 1 1/2 times the minimum wage. This figure could be more or less decided by the committee. Using the minimum wage as a starting point allows increases as the economy returns and wages go up (no need to readdress the subject)......also at the same time it protects events like school plays and sporting events and many other things like movies and reasonable cover charges. The first thing you will hear is that a fee like this will hurt the mansions and to that I say bull as the Preservation Society itself raised the price for the Breakers and left the others as they were and saw no change in visitors. The Jazz and Folk Festivals along with the Tennis Tourney are just 3 more events that could add to the City coffers and surely you do not think a small fee would hurt ticket sales (Jazz sold out in 1 day last year). The Boat Show and the music venues at the Yachting Center will also bring in a decent amount and see no drop in patrons. Charging tour busses that go south of Memorial Blvd should also be on the table, they can be issued a sticker like the ones they display for other locations. When I travel I have never not gone into an event because of a piggyback tax and for those who eat out here you pay one at every restaurant in town and you still go. These are but a few ideas that would add to the monies collected from patrons other than Newport home owners
George Costanza February 21, 2014 at 07:11 PM
Dear John: you forget detail and overtime pay, which often are greater than the salary. www.riopengov.org had Newport's police salaries for the year 2010-2011 which is what I am referring to. They no longer have those figures accessible online, but they do show that there are 113 RI State troopers who earn more than $140,000.00 a year before benefits such as health care, life insurance, pension, and time-off. There is also a treasure trove of information concerning Newport's pension plan.------------------------------------------------------------- The point being, if I managed your company, and I paid half of your employees btw $30k-60k in overtime, you would fire me, because it makes no sense. The correct thing to do would be to hire more full time employees.
Larry Gotch February 22, 2014 at 01:13 PM
Another source of income could be a fine for people who's building alarms go off frequently. Warning for the first time within one year. Reasonable fine for the second time. Substantial fine for the third offense. I like what Jack suggests: User Fees for non residents. Do we offer access to inlanders for our beaches via beach passes? While we are at it can we do something about motorcycles with straight pipes and loud boom box cars? Now there is a source of revenue. Turn it down in town. How about some police foot patrols on Lower Thames St. at night on the weekends? People act differently in Newport than they do at home. OK just pay. We welcome everybody. The expectation is that they will behave reasonably. Law enforcement, now there is a money maker.
John Florez February 24, 2014 at 11:30 AM
here's some additional information on police overtime pay: In calendar year 2013, 73 police officers had overtime pay. The annual amount ranged from $227 to $40,752 with the average overtime earning being $11,035. The top ten overtime earners ranged from $19,803 to $40,752 for 2013.
Bill February 24, 2014 at 12:12 PM
they already charge for frequent alarms
Larry Gotch February 24, 2014 at 02:12 PM
They must be making a boatload of cash off IYRS then.
George Costanza February 24, 2014 at 02:12 PM
Great information. Can you get the same detailed information for police Detail pay? (a second category of additional pay)
John Florez February 25, 2014 at 11:29 AM
This is straight from the Comptroller, the only Police pay is salary and OT.
Larry Gotch February 25, 2014 at 05:39 PM
More thoughts............ every time we find a way to fill the coffers, e.g. a B&B room tax, a positive. There seems to be some things that has a negative impact. E.G. It is said that the state stance on taxes whew in RI are driving some people out of the state, a negative. Every time someone donates property to the Land Trust, that land comes off the real-estate tax rolls, a negative. We can't let the negatives outweigh the positives. It appears that the 501c corporations are a bane of Newport. When first established, the intent of the 501c was to assist these public entities to exist. Certainly no one will argue with that. Here it is a matter of proportion or disproportion. Our Police department is in proportion to keep the peace here in Newport. The Fire department is sufficient to offer the protection we need. The schools are staffed enough to educate our children. The DPW keeps the storm drains cleared, the pot holes filled, and the streets plowed. All this and more are in proportion to our needs. EXCEPT, the tax exempt's put the proportions out of balance. The millionaires gave up their mansions because they couldn't afford their taxes. Now we get no taxes from them because they belong to the Preservation Society. Besides those, there are plenty more. When the 501c laws were introduced, they were a help and worked well. Now they are playing against us. Could it be possible that the laws that protect the 501c's (especially the commercially successful ones) be adjusted to bring the burden of providing them the same services we ALL receive, into proportion that befits our City that enables their success? Perhaps these 501c's might simply respond to a suggested gratuity to the City based on our need and their benefits. You never know. I am sure some of my thoughts might not be well received in some circles, but these are some of the thoughts that are discussed a dinner tables across the City. Sorry.
G3 February 25, 2014 at 08:31 PM
No one could have said it better, Larry.

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