SOUTH KINGSTOWN – During Monday’s Town Council meeting, The Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce was granted a $7,000 tax exemption for this year on its building located at 230 Old Tower Hill Road with a 3-2 splintered council vote cast amidst rising tempers.
Each year the chamber pays $6,732 in total property taxes on their three year old building. The chamber sought a tax exemption that would replace the $7,000 appropriation they receive from the town each year, an exchange they saw as a wash for the town. The chamber said they would not ask for any additional funding. The total assessed value of the building as of Dec. 31, 2009 is $451,500. Land value is $254,900.
“Our job is to support businesses in town. Business is derived from a growing tax base,” Chamber Chair Clay Johnson said. “Business creates more paychecks in the community. They pay for food, oil, bills and leave discretionary income to spend at local businesses. This is what creates a vital community, a place where people can work in town.”
Chamber representatives, including Johnson, Executive Director Jospeh Iacoi, past chairman Joe Viele, and chamber historian Richard Pike, each made their case for the tax exemption, including the contribution made to the town by businesses through the hotel and meals tax.
“We’re not here looking for a hand out. We’re looking for a hand up,” Pike said. “We help businesses every day. As we help businesses grow, the town gets greater revenue. The more businesses, the more people hired and the less social services needed.”
However, council members became divided in separate trenches with Councilwoman Kathleen Fogarty touting herself as “the champion for taxpayers” on one side with Councilwoman Mary Eddy versus Council President Ella Whaley, Vice President Carol Hagan McEntee and Councilman Jim O’Neill on the other arguing for the value of the chamber and its contribution to the community.
At issue was whether the council’s decision would open a pandora’s box for other non-charitable organizations to come forward and whether the money should be reserved for 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organizations. The chamber of commerce will be the first 501(c)6 organization to enter into a pilot agreement with the town, a move that riled up some town residents who have seen funding decrease to 501(c)3 nonprofit charities.
“I object to my tax dollars being given to the chamber of commerce while I agree for what you do,” Maureen Martin, resident and the Director for Political Activities for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Healthcare Professionals said. “It’d be better to give tax relief to lower income tax residents rather than cutting a deal with the chamber. I think at a time when the town is giving less to places that are real nonprofit charities, this is a bad step forward.”
Fogarty cited past requests from the chamber, including a January 2010 request for $12,000 in funding and property tax exemption.
“This town council has been very fair to the chamber. I’m a little skeptical. I don’t believe we should be doing this,” Fogarty said. “I don’t disagree with any of the businesses, but I have to look at the bigger picture. In this economy, we have to protect the taxpayers.”
Fogarty suggested the chamber seek support from other southern Rhode Island communities since it just won a lawsuit filed by the other South County chambers against its name change from South Kingstown to Southern Rhode Island last week.
“I do not consider the chamber a charity. Organizations that we abate taxes for are groups that do work to help people,” Councilwoman Mary Eddy said. “I can’t see adding another category I consider the chamber to be. It deals with businesses, business problems. 501(c)3 is where we need to put money toward in time of tremendous cutbacks. My concern is we’re putting in a new category.”
Whaley, on the other hand, noted the various charitable contributions businesses in the community have made.
“If this does open a pandora’s box, if there are agencies that will apply for the future and are able to give back tenfold in the future, I would welcome something like that,” Whaley said. “This is a one year commitment. A lot of charitable organizations are members of the chamber and without the chamber, we have no business.”
Chamber Executive Director Joseph Iacoi noted that chamber’s charities, including the annual Dancing with the Stars competition with proceeds split between the chamber and the Domestic Violence Resource Center, the annual golf outing with half proceeds going toward the South Kingstown Lions Club and a job fair at the University of Rhode Island set for April 4.
Tempers began to burn when Fogarty brought up the chamber’s 2010 campaign contributions to Whaley and McEntee, $100 each and whether certain councilors who are members of the chamber should recluse themselves from voting. McEntee and O’Neill are members of the chamber, but do not belong to the chamber board.
“Maybe you’re looking at it this way because you didn’t get an endorsement,” McEntee said to Fogarty.
“That was a low blow. You are the most venomous poisonous human being to ever walk this earth,” O’Neill shouted at Fogarty, causing Whaley to diffuse the argument by slamming her gavel.
Town Solicitor Michael Ursillo said the attorney general’s office had declared that a council member cannot vote on issue if he or she is in a position of authority. None of the five councilors are chamber board members.
In other news:
The town council approved the Capital Improvement Program for FY 2012-2013 to FY 2017-2018. The capital budget represents $20 million in funds for 16 projects. For next year, the general fund amounts to $1.2 million, the water fund is $60,000, the wastewater fund is $307,000 and the school fund is $290,000.
The town council also agreed to send a letter to the cities of Providence and Newport to vet how they feel on the possibility of bringing a casino resort to their cities. The letter will be attached to a resolution by Councilman Jim O’Neill, who urges the state to open a full fledged casino to compete with Massachusetts, who will soon open three.