November 22, 2017

News Briefs

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Tax Rate Set For 2017-2018 by City Council
The East Providence city council has given final approval of the 2017-2018 Fiscal Year budget at a meeting late last month. After paring down its original increase proposal, the council approved a rate increase in taxes of 1.48%. "The original draft presented to council a few weeks ago had a proposed increase of approximately 2.49%. After a series of reductions and modifications, the Final Budget now has an increase of approximately 1.48%.," said Mayor & At-Large Councilman James Briden.

"This is a good result given, among other factors, the fiscal impact of contributing the correct additional amounts to our Police and Fire pensions, purchasing Workers Comp insurance, and most significantly the additional cost of the 9 new labor contracts," said Briden.

The 5 year plan established by the Budget Commission in 2013 recommended tax increases which average to 1.6% annually from 2013 to 2018. By comparison, the actual 5 year average ends up being .816%. So over the span of 5 budgets, the City will have raised taxes by approximately one half (.816%) of the 1.6% average annual increases recommended.

"Since 2013, our City has made infrastructure improvements which have included investing in excess of 17 million on our water utility system. In the current budget $2.95 million was allocated to address the list of roads which are deemed to be in "critical" condition without increasing the tax rate.

Over the past few years, our bond rating has increased numerous times to the point that we are now at investment grade, our Audit Report opined that we have implemented "Best Practices" in essentially all areas of financial management and we have kept our debt relatively low at approximately 36 million given that our overall borrowing capacity is approximately 120 million," added Mayor Briden who is not running for re-election to his council seat.

"Over the next 5 years, the City of East Providence will need to continue to achieve the proper balance between being fiscally conservative and addressing certain important infrastructure needs," Briden said.

City Director of Finance Malcolm Moore said that homeowners will expect to see a tax rate of $22.70 per $1,000. An average tax hike of $66 is the estimate. Finance officials believe that the actual rate could drop if potential revenue increases come to fruition.

Kettle Point Developers Back Away from "Affordable Housing" Promise
In a move seen as controversial to some, including some city officials, AR Builders of Pennsylvania, have agreed to pay the city a sum of $1 million to not have to build a previously agreed upon percentage of affordable housing units. The development is the Kettle Point Project on Veteran's Memorial Parkway on some 40 waterfront acres of a former oil tank farm.

In 2015 the East Providence Waterfront Commission set aside 10% of the 228 apartments being built at Kettle Point as "affordable" units. The builders agreed to a 5% number and paid a fee to waive the other 5%. A.R. Building changed their minds and offered the city the $1M payment to renege on the prior agreement and provide no units of "affordable" housing. After being deadlocked on the issue, the Commission voted late last month to accept the $1M payment and forego the affordable housing requirement. Member Bill Fazioli changed his mind and the request was approved by a one vote margin. Instead, some 14 affordable units at a different project - “Ivy Place” across from city hall on Taunton Avenue may benefit. "There isn't an easy answer here, both sides made good points," said commission member and former City Manager Bill Fazioli.
Two city administrators balked at this decision. David Bachrach, Director of Community Development and Diane Feather, Planning Director (Jeanne Boyle has left this position for a similar post in Pawtucket) both addressed the city council. "This can eliminate waterfront access by residents and create a "gated community," said Bachrach. "It will make it harder for us to get future housing funding."

Diane Feather was concerned that a precedent could be set for future waterfront development in the city becoming "exclusive."

The city council has no control over the issue as the State General Assembly formed the commission and has overall authority. Fazioli maintained that "this is not a gated community. The public will have access via public roads and the bike path."

Long Anticipated Cumberland Farms Improvement Well Underway
The controversial and long awaited expansion of a popular Cumberland Farms gas station and Food Mart at the corner of Pawtucket and Wampanoag Trail, is finally taking shape. Workers have been at the site 6 to 7 days a week installing underground tanks and erecting a new building.

When the East Providence Zoning Board rejected a proposal from Cumberland Farms in 2015 to renovate and expand their operation on the corner of Wampanoag Trail and Pawtucket Avenue, many residents, especially in the Kent Heights neighborhood were unhappy. "A slap in the face! That’s what the Kent Heights Neighborhood was dealt by two members of the zoning board as it voted down the new Cumberland Farms proposal...the small mindedness of two zoning members killed the project which would have brought millions of dollars of private investment to a section of our neighborhood that is beginning to look like a third world country," was a statement from the Kent Heights Neighborhood Association at the time.

Although the Zoning Board did not approve the business expansion as requested, the East Providence City Council was in favor of the project. However the council could not overturn the zoning vote legally and it had to be resolved by the Superior Court.

In a ruling filed on March 24, 2016, the Rhode Island Superior Court said that "Upon review of the record before it, this Court finds that the Zoning Board's decision must be reversed, as it is in error of law and clearly erroneous. The Zoning Board's Decision was in violation of its statutory and ordinance provisions. Therefore, consistent with this opinion, this matter is reversed and Cumberland Farms' requests for dimensional relief are granted."

The Court further stated that "As a result, upon review of the record, the Court finds that the Zoning Board's Decision is clearly erroneous as the record demonstrates that Cumberland Farms sustained its burden of proving that a hardship exists which justifies granting its requested relief. As the nay votes were neither legal nor factually supported, a remand would only result in further delay and unnecessarily extend the harm. Accordingly, this Court must reverse the Zoning Board's Decision." The newly expanded Cumberland Farms hopes to open during the holidays.

City Students Get Two-Hour Reprieve on Reading, Writing & Arithmetic
As October came to a close, parents and city students awakened to a robocall message that school would be delayed for two hours. At 6:17 AM a message from the RI Broadcasters Emergency network announced that "Schools in East Providence are delayed for 2 hours but all staff must report at normal time." The school department message system also was sent to parents which said, "Due to a problem with bus transportation there will be a 2 hour delay of school today for all students. There will be no morning Kindergarten. All faculty, staff and administration, should report on time. We apologize for the inconvenience."

As bus drivers arrived at their lot on Commercial Way they found that busses wouldn't start. 33 bus batteries had been stolen. With many students getting a bus ride to school, classes had to be delayed. The police were called and quickly announced the arrest of a suspect. "The East Providence Police Department reports the arrest of Edmund Pittsley, age 38, of Providence Street, Rehoboth, MA for the larceny of bus batteries that were discovered on 10/25/17 at Ocean State Bus Lines on Commercial Way in East Providence," said Lt. Raymond Blinn of the East Providence Police.

Pittsley, after being contacted by police, turned himself in Thursday morning. Late "Detectives from the EPPD have recovered all 33 batteries that had been stolen from the bus company overnight. The batteries have since been returned to the bus company. One official said earlier that "this is the latest craze in New England. Vandals steal school bus batteries and sell them cheaply."

Recently Middleborough public schools had a similar incident in which school bus batteries were stolen. Portsmouth, RI and other communities throughout the region have reported the same thefts. The batteries cost about $170 new and can fetch $15 to $20 at scrap yards. "The batteries were recovered from Berger Recycling in Pawtucket after the owner saw the noon newscast. We thank Berger Recycling for their assistance in this matter," said Lt. Blinn. Pittsley was arraigned this afternoon in 6th District Court on the felony charges of Larceny over $1500 and Conspiracy.

EPHS Teacher to Challenge Senator Dan DaPonte for District 14 Senate Seat
Veteran high school teacher and former teacher association president, Val Lawson has announced her intentions last month to run for the District 14 senate seat currently held by long time State Senator Dan Da Ponte. Lawson said that she is a lifelong East Providence resident, a graduate of East Providence High School and a teacher for 27 years.

“I have lived in EP my entire life, I am a Townie through and through. As an educator, coach, advocate, housing authority commissioner, local union president, and Democratic City Committee member, I have invested in East Providence at every stage of my professional career and in my varied interests,” said Lawson's statement. “With the support of my husband Lenny, my family, friends, and colleagues, it didn’t take long to see that the state senate provides an opportunity to strengthen my community and continue to make a positive impact on the town I love.

“I am proud to be an active participant in my union. NEA Rhode Island encourages members to get involved in their communities. As a former local president in East Providence and as vice president of NEARI, I would not ask others to do more than I am willing to do myself. I believe strongly in public education, I am a steadfast supporter of East Providence and it would be an honor to represent my District 14 neighbors in the Rhode Island Senate.”

U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse Announce Funding Aid
U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse announce a grant to help East Providence and Woonsocket programs for new, affordable housing and homeless assistance projects. "WASHINGTON, DC - In an effort to revitalize local neighborhoods and increase affordable housing throughout the state, U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse today announced that Rhode Island will receive a total of $2,365,802 in federal aid from several programs, including $1,928,805 from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, $330,974 from the Home Investment Partnership (HOME) program, and $106,023 from the Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) program. Each program is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“By expanding access to affordable housing for Rhode Islanders, we are able to build stronger and more stable communities and boost our economy. When these federal funds are leveraged with local resources, residents of Woonsocket and East Providence will be able to access affordable housing and continue to strengthen both communities,” said Senator Reed, the Ranking Member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD), which appropriates these funds, and a senior member of the Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over CDBG, HOME, and ESG. “I’m proud to help deliver these funds and I look forward to working with our cities and towns to help them address the pressing need for accessible housing, enhance their neighborhoods, and build Rhode Island’s economy.”

East Providence and Woonsocket will split over $1.9 million in this round of CDBG funding, with Woonsocket receiving $1,237,295 and East Providence receiving $691,510.

East Providence School Superintendent Crowley Staying Put
Although originally hired to lead a transition between educational leaders in the city, Superintendent Kathryn Crowley has a new contract and extension which will keep her around for awhile. Crowley was hired in 2015 and agreed on a three year deal at the time. She has received extensions each year and wants to remain here as the district prepares to put forth a bond issue for the construction of a new high school. Terms and salary were not released at the time but all parties seemed pleased that Crowley will remain in place for awhile. Crowley, once retired, has been a Superintendent in Little Compton, RI. and has also worked in administrative capacities in Bristol-Warren and Johnston, RI. She has suspended her retirement to work in East Providence.

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