Providence councilor wants to rein in costs of WaterFire

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A member of the Providence City Council is questioning why the city spends more than $150,000 a year to support WaterFire Providence, the nonprofit arts organization that oversees the lighting of the braziers above the Providence River in downtown on weekend nights throughout the summer.

Councilman Michael Correia, who represents the Mount Pleasant and Manton neighborhoods in Ward 6, introduced a resolution at last week’s council meeting calling for the city to analyze the fiscal impact of its support for the popular organization. The resolution also asks that future agreements between the city and WaterFire include measures limiting the growth of the cost.

“They are taking, in my opinion, advantage of the taxpayers of the city as well as various city departments that they’re getting services from,” Correia, a Democrat, said.

Correia acknowledged that WaterFire events bring thousands of visitors to the capital city each year, but he said the city shouldn’t be required to subsidize an organization that appears to be successful.

A cost breakdown of city services for WaterFire provided by Correia shows the city spent $763,000 between 2012 and 2016 on related police details, permits, traffic engineering and maintenance. He said WaterFire’s deal with the city only requires the organization to pay about $27,000 a year for police details and $5,800 a year for parks sanitation services.

The WaterFire art installation was started in 1994 by Barnaby Evans, but the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization was founded in 1998. The organization generated about $2.3 million in revenue and spent $2.1 million in 2014, according to its most recent IRS Form 990. Evans was paid $93,608 in salary and $75,402 in other compensation in 2014, records show.

Last month, WaterFire asked the City Council to approve a tax treaty for its new 27,000-square-foot building on Valley Street. The organization is seeking to pay $1,000 in taxes a year for up to 10 years on a building that Evans maintains would normally be exempt from taxes.

In an interview Wednesday, Evans said WaterFire brings in $9 million a year in taxes from people who visit the city for it, including hotel and restaurant taxes. He said he’s open to discussing his organization’s arrangement with city officials, but noted that WaterFire is free to attend.

He said the building on Valley Street is a $6-million investment that came from federal dollars and created jobs for local contractors. He said bike paths will soon be installed in the area as well.

“We think it’s a great bargain for the city,” Evans said.

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