Magaziner: RI taxpayers may still be on the hook in PawSox deal

PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — A bill to construct a new $83-million ballpark in downtown Pawtucket is expected to be taken up by Senate lawmakers in mid-September, but the state’s general treasurer on Friday said he wants to sit down with city officials before he endorses the proposal.

During a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers on Friday, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner revealed he’s going to take a more hands-on approach to vetting the bill, which if passed would see the city of Pawtucket take on as much as $15 million in debt to help build a new stadium downtown.

Magaziner expressed concerns about Pawtucket’s finances and whether or not the state would still be on the hook should the city default on its loan.

“The PawSox is an important Rhode Island institution, we all want them to stay,” Magaziner said. “The question is whether the deal, as proposed, is a good deal for taxpayers or not.”

The bill introduced in late June would green-light the construction of an $83-million ballpark. The team would pay $45 million, with $33 million being paid through a 30-year lease agreement, while taxpayers would contribute the remaining $38 million: $23 million from the state and $15 million from the city, which would be paid back with tax revenue from the park and a surcharge on ticket sales.

Additionally, the revised bill spells out that Pawtucket would backstop its own bonds by pledging its non-education state aid, which is something that Gov. Gina Raimondo said gave her confidence to support the measure.

The team also said it’s committed to covering any cost overruns.

“The debt study that we did, no surprise, the liabilities of the City of Pawtucket are pretty high,” Magaziner added. “That being said, the legislation as introduced does suggest that there’s a state backstop.”

The analysis puts Magaziner at odds with the Raimondo administration, which says the bill would not leave state taxpayers on the hook.

“It was essential that the city backstop its own contribution and they have in fact done so,” Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor told Eyewitness News in June.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think this will cost the taxpayers of Rhode Island anything,” Raimondo added at the time.

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to take up the proposal during a special session on Sept. 19. Magaziner said he wants to meet with city leaders before that, hoping to better understand the deal.

Dylan Zelazo, Mayor Grebien’s chief of staff, said this in a statement Friday night:

“The mayor looks forward to meeting with the Treasurer and he’s confident the Treasurer will agree this is a great deal for taxpayers, and it’s critically important to keep the PawSox home in Pawtucket.”

Appearing on Dan Yorke State of Mind on Monday, Senate Finance Chairman William Conley said the bill will be thoroughly vetted.

“We need to ensure that every part of the package is looked at carefully and every part of the package is sustainable,” said Conley, D-East Providence.

Conley said he wants to take the PawSox bill on the road this fall, holding a series of Senate Finance hearings in communities around the state. He said he expects those hearings to begin in September.

While many state leaders have been reticent to offer vocal support of the ballpark proposal, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin – a former Pawtucket state representative – is trying to marshal support for the deal, saying in a newsletter he can see no downsides to the project and the bill should be passed.