A 17-year-old dispute between Smithfield and Bryant University over the latter’s tax-exempt status finally came to a head this month, after state lawmakers passed a bill requiring the school to negotiate an agreement to help cover the annual cost of its use of town public-safety services by March or be forced to pay those bills.
Questioning the legality of the legislation, Bryant President Ronald K. Machtley, who has been at the helm for 18 years, called the mandate “a tax on a nonprofit.” He threatened to challenge its constitutionality in court if the bill became law.
While Machtley last week was pushing for Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee to veto the bill, that would merely buy the university more time to resolve a longstanding issue that has strained relations between the town and school.
Machtley has said he remains “willing to sit down to talk to the town.” But having a direct Town Council-to-university president discussion has been the sticking point over the years, town councilors and lawmakers say – as contentious as the issue of the proposed agreement itself.
“I can’t even fathom that Bryant would spend money to seek legal representation when they could just travel down the road to meet with the Town Council and come to an agreement that works for both of us,” said Town Councilor Suzanna L. Alba.
Machtley, however, views the issue as one concerning “fundamental rights and fairness.”
Smithfield’s General Assembly delegation and Town Council members had a mostly unified response in interviews last week about Machtley’s assertion that the bill constituted a “frontal attack” on the university, saying he has failed repeatedly to do what he says he will – sit down and negotiate in person.
Newly elected Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield, introduced a version of the bill in January that would have removed Bryant’s tax-exempt status entirely, but that did not garner support. He amended it to its present form, which passed the Senate, along with a companion House bill backed by Smithfield lawmakers, late in the recently ended legislative session.
In June, Archambault and others say Machtley’s staff indicated he couldn’t show up for a council meeting on the topic because of freshman orientation. Machtley later informed the public and Town Council that he had to have surgery. But the inaccessibility has a longer history, Smithfield leaders say.