Disputes between host communities and universities over compensation for public services are nothing new, but protracted delays in Smithfield negotiating an agreement with Bryant University has led to frustration on both sides.
On Feb. 25, eight months after a state law was passed calling for Bryant to work out a way to reimburse the town for emergency-services costs, town councilors and a university negotiating team are scheduled to meet in public for the first time. That’s three days before a March 1 deadline, at which point the town is allowed by law to start billing for those services.
The meeting will focus on a consultant’s report undertaken at Bryant’s expense to determine actual costs for emergency services incurred by the university. The town has estimated that those costs amount to anywhere between $250,000 and $345,000 a year. The report paid for by Bryant and completed by Charles River Associates of Boston has not yet been made public.
“I’m thrilled we have a mutual date,” said Town Councilor Suzanna L. Alba, “but it doesn’t seem like it’s a meeting, just a presentation. I’m not sure how far we will get if there is no actual discussion and exchange of ideas.”
Elizabeth O’Neil, Bryant’s executive director of university relations and a member of the negotiating team, said that the consultant’s report is complex, so the presentation and questions and answers that follow will likely take most of the meeting.
“They were eager to begin negotiations without having that basis of fact in place,” said O’Neil, referring to the report. “We felt so strongly that the facts were really at the heart of the negotiations.”
The long-running conflict has been marked by delays, which each side blames on the other, and split council votes over when and how to meet with Bryant, as recently as Feb. 4.
University President Ronald K. Machtley has not yet talked directly to the council, Alba said, nor have councilors met with the negotiating committee, despite appeals and sending certified letters. The consultant’s work has taken several months.
“So here we are now,” Alba said. “There’s always been some sort of step or obstacle. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve just wanted to sit down with someone from Bryant University. I don’t know if it’s unwillingness on their part to meet with us or it’s just that they don’t feel they’re at the point where they can. In my experience [with] negotiations, you start somewhere.”