The Finance Review Committee (FRC) and Charter Review Commission (CRC)

Official seal of Newport, Rhode Island

Official seal of Newport, Rhode Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ALN Hosts Finance and Charter Panels

By Barry Bridges

The Finance Review Committee (FRC) and Charter Review Commission (CRC) recently discussed their findings in a public forum sponsored by Alliance for a Livable Newport. After months of work, their reports were presented to City Council on May 28 and are presently under consideration.

The FRC, under the leadership of Ronald Becker, compiled a lengthy list of ideas for city leaders with the goal of creating efficiencies and saving money. The recommendations were grouped into broad categories of city services, schools, financial planning, tax exempt property, tourism, and salaries and benefits.

Concerning the schools, the FRC proposed creating a dedicated grant-writing position; combining the city and school finance functions under one department; improving communications through the city/school liaison subcommittee; and implementing strategies to reduce high per-pupil expenditures.

Other ideas included pursuing payments-in-lieu-of-taxes from tax exempt entities and increasing parking meter revenues by expanding hours and street coverage. The panel also offered specific changes to pensions and medical benefits to improve Newport’s bottom line.

Becker emphasized that at this point, all of the proposals are recommendations for action by the council. The committee hopes to receive steady progress reports on the status of its suggestions until all points have been implemented or rejected.

In a parallel effort, the CRC, spearheaded by Isabel Griffith, studied whether amendments to Newport’s Charter could result in more efficient city operations.

Griffith told forum participants that “when we began work, we were charged by the mayor with what we were supposed to do, and one of the things he said was ‘don’t avoid any topics.’”

In that vein, some topics quickly grabbed attention, such as whether the School Committee should be appointed and whether the council should have staggered terms. In the end, the CRC considered but did not endorse changes in those areas of city government.

“The interesting thing that people have mentioned is that with the hot-button issues we recommended no change,” said Griffith. “However, the decisions we made not to change the charter are just as strong, in my opinion, as our decisions to suggest where changes should be made.”

Griffith continued, “I would say that the most interesting change we suggested has been the one having to do with the increase in the number of wards from which the council is elected.” Newport is currently divided into three wards, but the CRC would like to see that number increased to four, with three seats remaining at-large.

Other ideas include mandating that the council regularly review all of its boards and commissions for effectiveness, and, in a nod to the FRC, creating a new section in the charter to permit the merging of the city’s financial department with that of the schools.

Any changes ultimately made to the charter would have to first be approved by the electorate.

CRC member Lauren Carson said, “It’s very important to know that our ideas came from the public. We did the best we could to listen and shape those ideas into a proposal. The City Council will see [our ideas] first, and they will give each recommendation a thumbs up or thumbs down. Those with a thumbs up will then go to all the voters. So, it’s still open to public discussion and it’s still open to examination.”

To get on November’s ballot, measures have to be in the Secretary of State’s office in early August. With this deadline in mind, councilors are due to debate the CRC report at their next meeting on Wednesday, July 9.