RI GOP Chair: Regional water board bill is a bailout for Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party is calling on Gov. Gina Raimondo and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to oppose legislation that would create an 11-member regional board with the power to manage water systems and borrow funds to purchase or lease property.

In a statement released Monday, GOP Chairman Brandon Bell called the legislation a “scheme to bail out the city of Providence by hiking up the water bills of customers across Rhode Island.”

“Rhode Islanders pay enough in taxes,” Bell said. “We do not need to pay a hidden water tax to bail out the city of Providence.”

The bill was crafted by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration and is sponsored in the House by Rep. Scott Slater and Senate by Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, two Providence Democrats. The House Corporations Committee is set to hold a hearing on the legislation Tuesday.

Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for Elorza, said the proposed legislation “does not provide for any specific transaction but merely creates a statewide water authority that provides for shared governance and protections for labor.”

“Providence Water currently provides water for 60% of Rhode Island,” Crowell said. “It cannot continue to operate as a city department that provides water for a majority of state residents forever.”

If the bill is approved, the Rhode Island Cooperative Water Authority would be comprised of four gubernatorial appointees, three appointees chosen by the mayor of Providence and two appointees chosen by the mayor of Cranston. The mayors of North Providence and Johnston would also get one appointee each. The board would choose a chairman from among its members.

Then, once the authority is established as an official “public utility,” the bill calls for the board to be reconstituted with appointees picked by the governor and to reflect the communities serviced by the authority.

The bill comes a year after a consultant hired by Elorza to help with its financial woes suggested the city should consider a one-time asset transfer yielding at least $372 million – the value of the water supply’s assets in 2015 – or smaller annualized payments over time that could come as a result of a sale or lease.

Elorza has said he has no interest in selling the water supply to a private entity, but he has expressed interest in finding a way to generate revenue from the water system. His administration has hired a New Jersey firm to assess the value of the Providence Water Supply Board’s assets.

The Johnston Town Council has already approved a resolution opposing any proposal that would involve selling Providence’s water supply. In an email to constituents last week, Scituate Town Council President John Mahoney warned the proposed regional board “could be detrimental to our community.”

Providence Water owns a significant amount of land in Scituate, including the reservoir. Mahoney said the bill does not give a representative from Scituate a place on the board and “could potentially make future negotiations for the town’s revenue extremely difficult or impossible all together.”

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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