Tax deals, streetcar among Council President Aponte’s top priorities

Luis Aponte seen here getting sworn in after being elected Providence City Council president. (Photo: Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – City Council President Luis Aponte said this week he will seek to provide developers with more predictability when it comes to tax rates, but stopped short of committing to new Mayor Jorge Elorza’s pledge to hold the line on taxes in his first budget.

Providence’s new legislative leader also offered strong support for a proposed streetcar system while highlighting the need to spur economic development in all city neighborhoods, during a wide-ranging interview in City Hall Monday afternoon.

“We need to send out a strong message that Providence is open to good development,” Aponte told WPRI.com. “We want to make the process as predictable and as efficient as possible for the developers while maintaining the obligation to make sure we strike the best deal for the city.”

The 51-year-old Democrat was elected council president Monday afternoon, shortly after he was sworn in for his fifth term representing the Washington Park and Lower South Providence neighborhoods that comprise the city’s 10th Ward.

After attending Elorza’s inauguration ceremony and chatting with dozens of new and old friends in the aldermen’s chamber – “I’m the prettiest guy at the dance,” he joked – Aponte sat down with WPRI.com for his first in-depth interview to discuss his goals for the next four years.

At the top of his list: tax-stabilization agreements, the city’s term for the tax breaks it has provided certain developers for more than 20 years.

Aponte said he expects to move quickly to begin discussions with Friendship & Clifford LLC, the developer who wants to build a $50-million private student apartment complex on part of the vacant land created by the relocation of I-195. The firm can back out of a deal reached to purchase the land if it does not receive a tax-stabilization agreement from the city by March 1.

But while the timing of that project will bring a sense of urgency to reaching a deal, Aponte said he wants to develop a more “predictable” system for future tax breaks. As more developers show interest in the I-195 land, he acknowledged that they will likely seek tax deals from the city.

Tax stabilization agreements have historically functioned as an economic-development initiative designed to allow developers to gradually increase their property tax payments over the course of 10, 15 and sometimes 20 years in exchange for creating jobs and filling vacant buildings – often in downtown. With few exceptions, each deal was negotiated separately with the City Council.

A 2013 WPRI.com review of 81 such deals showed dozens of deals were overly generous and poorly monitored over the last 20 years, prompting the City Council to begin analyzing each agreement to ensure that developers followed through on their promises.

In October, the council released a report that made 18 recommendations for revamping the city’s process for tax-stabilization agreements, but the year ended before the City Council considered most of the changes.

Aponte said he supports the idea of providing “standard, modest agreements” to all developers who meet certain criteria, but “if there is something they want beyond that, whether it’s a longer term or a better rate, then they have to come back to us.”

As for other top priorities, Aponte said he hopes to sit with Elorza and agree on a vision for Providence “so that we can measure where we are in four years.” He said he hopes that city leaders won’t limit economic development opportunities to just downtown.

Noncommittal on tax increase

While Aponte said he hopes to maintain a strong relationship with the mayor, he isn’t likely to rubberstamp all of Elorza’s ideas.

When asked about Elorza’s promise to not seek a tax increase in his first budget, Aponte said he isn’t ready to make that commitment until he sees more financial projections for the city. Last week, the city’s finance director told the City Council the city is facing a $10.4-million gap in the budget that will take effect July 1, 2015. Several council members have said they believe the figure could be as high as $24 million.

Although Aponte said he “loves” a planned streetcar system that would connect Lower South Providence with the East Side, Elorza has said he wants to learn more about the cost of the project. The city has been approved for $13 million in federal funding, but the total project is expected to cost $117 million.

And then there’s the Allens Avenue waterfront, which falls in the neighborhood Aponte represents.

Aponte supports the idea of mixed-use development along the area north of Thurbers Avenue, which is currently comprised of several scrap metal yards. Elorza has said he supports “heavy industrial use” along much of Allens Avenue.

“I think I have a different definition of what the port is,” Aponte said. “The area south of Thurbers Avenue has deep water and rail. Thurbers Avenue north to the hurricane barrier is not the port.”

More accountability and transparency

Policy aside, Aponte also said he understands that his rise to council president will likely come with a greater level of scrutiny.

Aponte has been criticized in recent months for failing to file dozens of campaign finance reports with the R.I. Board of Elections, resulting in more than $50,000 in state fines. He said he has filed the majority of his past-due reports and plans to seek a payment arrangement with the board to address his fines.

“I don’t think it’s unfair that when one seeks more responsibility that a responsible electorate expects more accountability and more transparency from that person,” Aponte said.

As for the council itself, Aponte said he intends to appoint veteran Councilman John Igliozzi chairman of the powerful Finance Committee and Council President Pro Tempore Sabina Matos chairwoman of the Urban Redevelopment, Renewal and Planning (URRP) Committee. He is considering Councilman Terry Hassett to head up the Ordinance Committee.

Aponte said he intends to restore a committee that will focus on state legislation, with the goal of having more of a presence at the State House. He is planning to form a public safety committee that will focus on everything from neighborhood blight to police and community relations. He also wants to form an education committee that will be policy-centric.

He acknowledged that he was upset six members of the council voted against his candidacy for president Monday, noting that when he knew he lost the race for president in 2011, he chose to cast a vote in favor of Michael Solomon.

But he said that won’t stop him from appointing the six councilors who opposed him – Seth Yurdin, Ward 1; Sam Zurier, Ward 2; Nick Narducci, Ward 4; Jo-Ann Ryan, Ward 5; Wilbur Jennings, Ward 8; and David Salvatore, Ward 14 – to committees.

After the 2011 vote, Solomon refused to assign four council members places on any committees.

“I have to prove them wrong,” Aponte said. “What happened four years ago will not happen with this council. No one is going to be in Siberia. I don’t want them to just remain on the sideline as the loyal opposition.”

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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