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.”