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The Hummel Report: A Quarterly Update

Editor’s note: Jim Hummel has a quarterly update with new information on a handful of his investigations.

Update ApponaugInto The Homestretch — The Rhode Island Department of Transportation is putting the finishing touches on the much-anticipated and often-maligned Apponaug Circulator Project. The official completion date is Nov 30, when state officials hope the project, as envisioned years ago, will come to fruition and make traffic smoother.

Our investigation last spring showed there were more than 100 accidents at the five intersections in the six months since initial sections of the project were opened — four at the time with rotaries — primarily fender-benders caused by people confused about how to negotiate the traffic circles and who yields to whom.

The summer brought more headaches than relief as traffic was often backed up while crews continued to work. Viewers sent us pictures of the accidents, the plethora of orange barrels and ponding after heavy rains.

The DOT tells The Hummel Report the project is on time and on budget — the revised budget of $71 million, not the $30 million project initially presented to the taxpayers.

Update asphaltUp and Running — We first told you four years ago about a controversial asphalt plant right in the middle of Coventry and the owner’s pledge at the time to move out of that location. Last winter that pledge turned into a reality, and last month we went to see how he was doing at his new location at Quonset.

Owner Tom Miozzi directed the move himself, part of it during the early stages of a snowstorm last winter. He moved his plant, piece by piece, 12 miles down the back roads to its new home: a parcel double the size in Quonset, where there are no residential neighbors as there were in Coventry.

Miozzi tells us he is doing 11% more business than he did this time last year and expects to produce more than 140 tons of asphalt by the end of the season later this year, a record for his company.

Because there are no time restrictions on hours of operations, he says his trucks have been able to leave at 5am rather than 7am, opening up new business opportunities in neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Update bike pathOn The Beaten Path — Last year we reported on a plan aimed at making it easier to get to the Seekonk River on the East Side of Providence. Part of those plans included a bike path. And in August, they completed it.

It is officially called Segment 1A of the Blackstone Valley Bikeway, but the locals will likely call it the Gano Street section of a path that will eventually stretch north to the Massachusetts state line Woonsocket and south to Bristol. The ¾-mile path starts at the base of the Gano Street exit off Route 195 and runs along the Seekonk River to Pitman Street, with the easiest access at the Trenton Street boat ramp. The $2.5 million project was 100% federally funded. The DOT completed the project in 12 months, on time and on budget.

Update AmtrakNot In Our Backyard — Opponents of a proposed Amtrak rail line that would run through some prime sections of Charlestown got good news in July when the feds announced they had a change of heart and were not going to build the bypass after all.

The proposed bypass was part of a long-range plan by Amtrak to try and shorten the train route that runs The Northeast Corridor from Washington, DC to Boston. The proposal called for a jog north of Old Saybrook and East Lyme that eventually would chew through farm and conservation land like this in Charlestown.

Local leaders in both Connecticut and Rhode Island mounted strong opposition, arguing that the bypass wouldn’t save any time. The Federal Rail Administration made no comment, simply releasing a revised plan in July without the proposed bypass included.

Update signA Big Scoop — Finally, if you’re a customer of the Narragansett Bay Commission, you already have seen your rates triple over the past decade. Now the commission is facing a $5 million grab out of its reserve fund by the General Assembly, trying to plug its own hole in the budget.

Facing a more than $100 million budget deficit, the General Assembly last spring raided the reserve funds of several quasi-public agencies like the Narragansett Bay Commission. Ratepayers have gotten sticker shock as they’ve footed the bill for millions of dollars of improvements to the water quality of the bay, resulting in the cleanest water in more than a century.

A Commission spokeswoman tells us the NBC will likely use some restricted funds and does not anticipate having to raise rates to cover the $5 million legislative scoop. But it first needs permission from the state Public Utilities Commission to transfer the funds.

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation, go to HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org




Hummel Report: New Rotary at CCRI

CCRI long shotAnyone who has visited CCRI’s Warwick campus in the morning knows the drill: A line of cars backed up on the long road in from East Avenue, and controlled chaos as hundreds of people arrive in a short period of time.

But students, faculty and staff arriving for the first day of classes this year not only got a big welcome on the sign leading into campus, but also a new traffic pattern that is making a comeback in some parts of Rhode Island: The roundabout, or rotary, which the administration hopes will reduce some of the confusion and congestion that has plagued the campus in years past. The rotary is designed to both slow down and keep the traffic moving.

“We had a lot of cars going in a lot of different directions, and a lot of people trying to get into the building, without a tremendous amount of direction,” said college spokesman Patrick Stone. The rotary and associated improvements cost $1.8 million and include landscaping, a modified speed bump and better signage for a crosswalk from the faculty parking lot. They are part of a five-year plan to give the aging campus a face-lift.

CCRI rotaryIt’s the rotary — and particularly the speed bump — that has drawn the most reaction. And it has been a mixed reaction from the students, faculty and staff we spoke with over the first week of school.

“I’ve been here before; the traffic pattern sucks,” said student Malcom DePina of Providence. “I blame the roundabout. I think the roundabout hurts because it’s slower to get in.”

Jean-Luc Gonzalez agreed: “It’s mainly because the roundabout’s so slow because no one knows how to yield at times. That entire line that goes back onto that little intersection is always backed up and it’s a pain.”

Others, though, thought it was an improvement. “I think I kind of like it; it’s easier for passengers to move around,” said Ibraheim Shode.

One the of the biggest changes is a closure of the road that goes under the main building. It is now totally blocked off to motor vehicles, with handicapped parking accessible in the back, forcing drivers to go around the building to get there.

“I think speed, and again, public safety is the heart of this entire project, really slowing everything down a little bit,” said Stone, the college spokesman.  “We had a lot of fast cars and people running into the college, and kids trying to scramble to get to their classes and everybody was go, go, go.”

CCRI crosswalkSeveral faculty members approached us complaining privately about the new traffic pattern. Students, though, had no problem talking publicly about a speed bump they say is both higher and longer than it was last year.

Stone countered: “I think the reasoning for that speed bump, primarily, is that’s a really high traffic [area] for pedestrians. That’s where our faculty and staff walk in — a lot of the people coming off the bus will walk over that way to go up that second-floor ramp. We really wanted to make sure that was as slow as possible.”

Others told us the lines were so long because the rotary slowed the traffic down, then motorists faced another slow-down with the speed bump, defeating the purpose of the rotary: to keep things moving slowly, but steadily.

In addition to the rotary, the college renovated the Great Hall inside and has plans to replace the long, main pedestrian ramp leading up from the parking lot, an original structure that is clearly showing its age.

Just as there has been a steep learning curve with the state’s Apponaug Circulator project not too far from CCRI, the college says it may take a little while for those arriving here to get used to the new pattern.

On the Friday before classes began, CCRI sent out a mass email, outlining the new traffic pattern and preaching patience during the transition period. Student Nick Wainwright agrees there will be a learning curve. “It’s kind of confusing; I ran into a couple of problems this morning. People don’t know how to yield. Classic Rhode Island.”

Stone is preaching patience: “I think there’s people who are going into this and they’ve never seen a rotary, there’s not that many in Rhode Island. It’s becoming a more popular aspect, I think, of traffic engineering to bring it back, especially in these areas where it wasn’t necessarily the safest it could have been before, when you have a lot of fast traffic. So I’m sure it is new to people and like I said, that first day even to now people are getting used to it.”

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org




Rhode Island Spotlight: Westerly Library

Westerly Wilcox ParkOn one of the prettiest afternoons of the summer, more than a dozen children gathered under a sprawling magnolia tree for a program called Art in the Park. The setting: Wilcox Park in the heart of downtown Westerly, a 15-acre oasis that hosted dozens of programs and community events over the course of the summer.

At the southern edge of the park is Westerly Library, founded in 1892. Together, the library and the park have been a focal point — and a resource — for Westerly and surrounding communities forWesterly stacks view more than a century. What many don’t know is that the two entities are privately held: Only 25% of the operating budget comes from the town of Westerly and neighboring Stonington, Connecticut. The rest comes from an endowment, grants and donations.

“Most libraries are municipal libraries, some have private portions to them, so they may have associations attached,” said the library’s executive director, Brigitte Hopkins. “But they’re not completely private, so we’re fairly unique in Rhode Island.”

It began in the late 1800s when Stephen Wilcox, a local business owner and inventor, stepped in to provide seed money for a local library. His contribution, matched with community donations, was a precursor of what was to come over the next 125 years. What you see today — in the library and throughout the park — is the result of that generosity. The main building has undergone a series of additions and renovations that creates unique spaces inside, from reading areas and a computer room to an art gallery with rotating exhibits upstairs and a teen room that was formerly a book storage area — plus a third-floor terrace room with an outside deck. Over the past century, the building has grown to more than 50,000 square feet.

The number of programs and events in the library and park has increased significantly since Hopkins took over as director three and a half years ago. We saw numerous children’s programs, a weekend folk festival in July and preparations for a Shakespeare in the Park series in August.

“It’s great that we can provide a venue, or host programs, because we have this space so we can connect these programs or events and our community members,” Hopkins said.

Everywhere you look, there is history, including a century-old gazebo-like bandstand that just underwent a major renovation and hosts scores of weddings every year. Across the way is the park cottage, also a century old, where caretakers used to live, with a prime view of a pond and fountain.

Westerly LibraryBack at the library, visitors who come in the front door will see a calendar of events to the left, changing from week to week, and a huge plaque to the right with a list of donors that is a testament to the community’s support.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have people in our community and region who donate to the library,” Algiere said. “It is a private library and the park is private, open to the public, it’s a unique situation. And we’re very fortunate to have people in the community who recognize that and donate their time and their money.”

We asked Hopkins what makes Westerly different from other places she’s worked.

“The community,” she said, without hesitation. “I think it’s the community; the staff (is) great, but the community, I think, really feeds our dedication and our enthusiasm about working here. There’s such pride the community holds for the institution, and you can feel it walking in. And, I think, because the community supports us we’re excited to be here.”

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to Jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org




The Hummel Report: Do We Need an Inspector General?

IG pic State HouseFiguring out a way to close an annual budget deficit has become a familiar challenge at the Rhode Island State House. This year’s $9.2 billion budget — a 30% increase over what the state was spending just a decade ago — relies on the governor coming up with $25 million of yet-to-be specified cuts and the legislature scooping millions of dollars in reserves from agencies like The Narragansett Bay Commission.

But what if there was more money available without having to raise taxes or fees or use other financial gimmicks? Ray Berberick of Portsmouth has a suggestion: Create an office of the inspector general.

It’s a pitch that he gave to Governor Lincoln Chafee five years ago when Berberick and others were fighting a proposal to toll vehicles on the Sakonnet River Bridge. Politicians, trying to close yet another budget gap, asked the opponents: In lieu of tolls, where would you find the money? “[An inspector general] will find scores of millions of dollars in funds that are spent incorrectly,” said Berberick, a retired lieutenant colonel who served  for two years as an inspector general when he was stationed with the US Army at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, in the mid-1990s. He was trained before taking over the position.

IG pic Berberick SH“During the training I thought, ‘My God, if only half the people in the world knew the concepts of what the inspector general can bring to the table to make things more efficient and effective.’ Then there would be a lot less, not fraud waste and abuse from criminal intent, but just streamlined procedures [that would] save everybody time,” Berberick said.

Berberick and other proponents envision an inspector general, whose duties lie somewhere between the state’s auditor general and the Rhode Island attorney general, with a focused mission of looking for waste, fraud and abuse. And if the IG comes across potential criminal activity, he or she would immediately refer it to the attorney general.

Massachusetts was the first in the country to create the position 35 years ago and is one of 12 US states to have an IG. And Florida has taken it one step further, as 26 agencies have individual inspectors general across the spectrum of state government.

In Rhode Island, an inspector general bill has been filed each session for nearly two decades, including two on the House side and two on the Senate side in 2017. But they’ve gone nowhere. Berberick testified in May before the House Finance Committee along with the lead sponsor of one of the bills, Rep. Robert Lancia, a Cranston Republican, who points to the savings right next door. “Ultimately, the pros outweigh the cons,” Lancia said. “I think we’ve seen Massachusetts and other states, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been saved.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello told us he is still studying the issue. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio was non-committal, and Governor Raimondo said she is, “open to examining this concept more closely.”

IG pic 2-shotBerberick said a Rhode Island inspector general could start with something as simple as looking at the state fleet of cars, as he did when he was in Oklahoma. “We found out there were a lot of extra military vehicles that were being licensed and insured, but not used. And we saved the post a couple of hundred thousand dollars.”

Berberick is already looking to the 2018 session. He created a website, Facebook page and Twitter account. And he’s determined to convince those in leadership this could help them in the long run. “It will help protect the governor, it will help protect the five elected senior officers of the state. Give it a shot for five or 10 or 15 years. If it doesn’t work, can it? And I think everybody would be pleasantly surprised. And the leadership that has the courage to put this in place will be heroes.”

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation, go to www.HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org.




The Hummel Report: Age Is Just a Number … ‘Til it Isn’t

Barros
Barros

Jean Philippe Barros is in his second term as a state representative, after serving three terms on the Pawtucket City Council and three years on the city’s Juvenile Hearing Board. On July 17, Barros planned to take the first step toward adding another title to his lengthy resume: police officer, starting the municipal training academy at the age of 53.

Pawtucket Public Safety Director Antonio Pires tells The Hummel Report that Barros, who is Cape Verdean, was chosen from an initial applicant pool of 700; 80 of those got an interview, and a final pool of 50 was chosen to go to the state’s Municipal Police Training Academy in Lincoln.

Pires
Pires

“We don’t have age limitations, most departments don’t,” Pires said. “I think (the Rhode Island) State Police has; I know Warwick has. We’ve talked about that internally. The thinking was, listen, if someone is qualified they have to go through a fitness (test), whether it be police or fire. If they are able to pass the written test and if they are able to pass backgrounds and psychological, we’re not going to exclude them.”

Barros was selected to begin the academy’s 129th class in mid-July. He told The Hummel Report why he wanted to become an officer. “In my way of thinking … it was certainly a way of continuing my public service and also to be like a role model to some of the younger men and women of color, who may at some point potentially consider joining the police force as a career.”

And, why he believed the issue of his age, was a non-issue.

“I never really thought my age would be an issue. Never really gave it (a thought), other than when the people in the process, in the know, started questioning my motives, my age.”

Mid-way through our conversation Barros dropped this bombshell: He sent a letter two days before he was to begin to Pawtucket’s chief of police saying he was withdrawing from the academy “because of all the constant questions regarding my motives for the change in careers at this late stage in my life.”

Barros added that he didn’t want to be a distraction for other recruits and the city. Pires said Pawtucket police officers have to retire at age 65 so Barros would have had a maximum of 11 or 12 years on the job had he joined the force.

Hummel: What about the argument of somebody who would say the city is investing in this person? You’re sending them to the academy, you’re bringing them on. What if you only get 10 years out of them? Does that shortchange the city on its investment?

Pires: I don’t think so because what’s actually happening today with the younger generation, especially on the police side, a lot of these youngsters are very well-educated; they come to the job not with the necessary belief that they’re going to stay on the job for 35 years. So today there’s no guarantee that if we invest in a 25-year-old that that 25-year-old is going to be here for the next 30 years.

Barros told us he heard the chatter coming out of the Police Department, and comparisons to a North Providence firefighter who joined the department at age 52, only to experience a series of injuries and retire on a full disability pension.

“I’m trying to be a service to my community and I’ve been doing it in a different capacity. This is just an extension of what I’ve already been doing. You’ve got 23 weeks of the academy that you have to go through. If I don’t make it, well okay, yeah he’s not cut out for it. That’s okay, but before I even get started I’m already being vilified as if I’m doing something nefarious.”

Then there’s the issue of a city politician getting onto the local police department. Did Barros pull some strings?

“Well, it’s a vigorous, vigorous effort for any individual to go through and to qualify from a physical standpoint,” Pires said. “Whether you’re a state representative, whether you’re a minister or whether you’re a television commentator, sitting down and taking an exam and getting X amount of score on the exam doesn’t matter; it matters what you know and how you apply the answers to it.”

Barros stands by his decision, but is frustrated and disappointed.

“I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong, but because I don’t want to be a distraction to the police department to the city and to my other colleagues I’m stepping out. But I’m not happy about it.”

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation. go to www.HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can contact Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org.




The Hummel Report: Mid-Year Update

Editor’s note: Jim Hummel has a mid-year update with new information on a handful of his investigations.

update pond picOffice with a View: Plans to build a $7.2 million state-owned ‘natural resources and visitors center’ in Exeter have ground to a halt. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s plans ran into a buzz saw of local opposition from residents and others who use Browning Mill Pond in the Arcadia Management Area.

Many felt the 13,000-square-foot facility was inappropriate for the location — so close to the pond and poorly advertised by state officials. Work on the center, which was supposed to have begun already, has been delayed because of several setbacks. They include a lawsuit filed by the local towns insisting that the state has to get clearance from local planning and zoning boards for the project, which it didn’t do.

More problematic, though, is a sudden lack of funding. The General Assembly last month pulled back millions of dollars budgeted for this year, the first year of construction. DEM is also conducting traffic and archeological studies, but a spokeswoman declined to tell The Hummel Report if — or when — the project was going forward.

update ferry picA Big Hit: Last summer’s popular Providence-to-Newport ferry is back with a longer season. But it got off to a bumpy start — literally — right after it launched earlier last month. More than 33,000 people took advantage of the taxpayer-subsidized service last summer, which featured $10 one-way adult tickets from India Point Park in Providence to downtown Newport.

The lower prices are made possible by a half million dollar federal grant, aimed at relieving traffic congestion. Last fall, DOT Director Peter Alviti said he’d like to see the service expanded and this year the state followed through, beginning the service in mid-June and running it through October 1 — 41 days longer than last year. But a day after launching on June 16, the ferry collided with a buoy in the Providence River when trying to avoid a sudden change in direction of another boat near it — and that forced the suspension of the service for 10 days.

All Aboard?: Wickford Junction has never lived up to the state’s commuter rail ridership projections and is costing taxpayers millions of dollars in maintenance and lost revenue. The DOT, which charged $4 a day for parking when the $44 million complex opened in 2012, abandoned that fee years ago. Even still, only a couple of hundred people use the 1,110-car white elephant garage adjacent to the MBTA commuter train stop on any given day.

Beginning July 3, the state began offering free fares for riders travelling to Warwick or Providence. The free fares promotion runs until the end of the year.

update iway picTaking the Hit: The contractor that installed defective guardrails on the IWay bridge in Providence has agreed to pay back half a million dollars, but still insists the state is partially at fault. For years Jersey barriers covered the defective guardrails on the Route 195 relocation project’s signature bridge while the DOT and Cardi Corporation, which installed them nearly a decade ago, wrangled over who was responsible.

Cardi is paying $500,000 to settle claims with the federal government, which paid for the vast majority of the Iway project, according to The Providence Journal. The company still points the finger at the state DOT, saying that its inspectors signed off on the guardrail installation. It is not ruling out making a legal claim against the state.

Clean Enough?: State officials have now acknowledged what we reported in April: Narragansett Bay hasn’t been this clean in more than a century and a half. And that means good news for Rhode Island’s shell fishermen. The Department of Environment Management in May reopened large portions of Upper Narragansett Bay to shell fishing, some of which had not been opened for more than 70 years. A total of more the 3,700 acres has been reopened, officially acknowledging what scientists and users of Rhode Island’s waters have known for years: The bay is in significantly better shape than it was even five years ago.

update GA picThe Cost of Doing Business: In June we reported several areas the General Assembly might consider trimming from its own budget as leaders tried to bridge a $134 million budget gap. The House did, in fact, look in the mirror when it was searching for cuts by announcing two weeks later that it will reduce its own proposed spending by $2 million next year. That still leaves it with more than $40 million to run a part-time legislature that has dozens of people receiving full-time benefits for only working 20 hours a week. A spokesmen tells us it is still unclear what specifically will be cut from next year’s General Assembly budget.

The Hummel Report is already gearing up for second half of 2017. If you have tips or story suggestions send it directly to Jim@HummelReport.org




Rhode Island Spotlight: The CVS Health Charity Classic

Crave golferIt is the golf, of course, that has been the draw for the better part of the past two decades. Big-name professional golfers from the PGA, the LPGA and the Champions Tour converge on the picturesque Rhode Island Country Club every June.

Just as the name has changed since it began in 1999 — it is now called The CVS Health Charity Classic — so has the event itself. But one thing remains constant: the stream of money generated from the weekend that every year is critical to the mission of dozens of charities throughout Rhode Island; a total of $20 million since the tournament began.

CVS president and CEO Larry Merlo said that to keep the tournament fresh, organizers changed the format this year, putting together the 18 players in teams of three and shortening the tournament to two days instead of three.

Crave beerAnd that was the inspiration behind Crave RI, which debuted this year — a two-day culinary display on the floor of the Dunkin Donuts Center leading up to the golf tournament. More than 4,000 people sampled signature dishes from local restaurants on Thursday and Friday nights, with the entry price going toward the money raised for the CVS charities.

“Think about Rhode Island, think about the great restaurants we have. What an opportunity not just to showcase what exists here in Rhode Island, but to open it up for the public,” Merlo said. “And the crowds were just terrific.”

Claire Walker is the grants project manager for The Autism Project in Johnston, one of the charities the tournament has helped over the years. She was at the Dunk Thursday and Friday night helping check people in at Crave. “CVS has been very generous to The Autism Project and really a great supporter for a long time, for a lot of years,’’ she said, adding that the charity classic funds go to help run a summer camp for autistic children.

“Not only does it help with what we have for materials and support staff, but it’s also about scholarship funds that allow the kids to be able to attend the camp,” she said. “No one is turned away because of their needs.”

Crave JenniferRight in the middle of it all on both nights was Jennifer Behm-Lazzarini, owner of RED FIN Crudo + Kitchen in Providence. She is a “MasterChef” winner who gave her own cooking demonstration on Friday. We spoke with her right after the demonstration.

“Last night we served 1,500 dishes. I nearly fell over,” she said. “And at a event usually they’re like,’Oh, be prepared for X,’ and you’re like, ‘Okay.’ This event held true. People came out with their families, they had their children, they had their grandchildren and it was so nice to really see them. Everybody was in that community aspect.”

Crossroads Rhode Island is another beneficiary of the money raised. “The area of biggest need from Crossroads is in our shelter programs and our ability to stay open 24 hours a day/7 days a week,” said Crossroads CEO Karen Santilli. “The funding we receive through the CVS Charity Classic allows us to balance that portion of the budget. When people are homeless and they have nowhere to go and it’s midnight, where are they going to go? Crossroads is open.”

This year, tournament co-host Billy Andrade’s team won; it was Andrade’s first victory at the Charity Classic in 19 tries. And it was a Rhode Island exclamation point on another successful tournament weekend.

Behm-Lazzarini said the Crave RI event was a win-win. “You know, I had so many people come up to me last night and say, ‘Oh my gosh this is on my bucket list to eat at and now I can try it and now I have to come.’ It really is nice that you get this huge opening to people you wouldn’t necessarily have — especially those who live outside the city — they may not feel comfortable coming to downtown Providence.”

If you want to see the video version of this story, go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to Jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org




The Hummel Report: Budget Decisions for RI

GA pic docHeading into the homestretch of this year’s session, the general assembly has some particularly tough budget decisions to make after tax revenues came in under expectation. While some other areas of state government are holding the line, Rhode Island’s part-time legislature is seeking $44.5 million to spend on itself next year, up 3% from what was budgeted this year and more than 20% from what the assembly actually spent four years ago.

GA pic 2 shot“And the trend is that it’s becoming more and more full-time as time goes on,” House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said in a wide-ranging interview with The Hummel Report. “We’re very, very connected with our constituents and we have to provide them services, and I believe that the public’s expectation of government services, especially from their legislation, has increased considerably in the past few years.”

So what do you get for $44 million?

The legislators themselves account for just shy of $4 million in salary and benefits. And the auditor general’s office also accounts for just under $4 million. Capitol TV, which now televises many hearings in addition to house and senate sessions, has a budget of more than $1.6 million. And the legislative council — the research and legal arm of the assembly — accounts for about $5.1 million.

But it is the cost of those who work in these divisions and the rest of the assembly’s 278 employees that accounts for $17.5 million in salary and benefits alone. The workforce includes 219 full-time employees and 59 part-timers.

GA pic NHHow does Rhode Island compare to other states?

We went to Concord last month to take a closer look at New Hampshire’s General Court, as it’s called. While not an apples-to-apples comparison, the states are similar in population, and New Hampshire has two-thirds of Rhode Island’s overall budget: $6 billion a year in New Hampshire compared to $9 billion annually in Rhode Island.

But spending on the legislature differs greatly. At $18 million a year, the New Hampshire General Court’s entire annual budget is about 40% of what Rhode Island’s General Assembly spends on itself.

We found that the Rhode Island General Assembly has 13 full-time and 38 part-time attorneys. Part-time legal counsel work primarily during the session, and many got their jobs through political connections. New Hampshire has eight full-time attorneys and no part-timers, even during its six-month session.

GA pic SenateBut here’s what you might not know: Every one of those part-time attorneys receives the same medical benefits as a full-time employee. Of the 38 lawyers, 27 are taking full family plans at an average cost of more than $20,000 a year with varying co-pays; 8 have individual plans at a cost of more than $7,000/year and three take a waiver, meaning the state gives them $1,000 for not taking medical benefits.

That means some part-time legal counsel are receiving almost as much in medical benefits as they are in salary. But Mattiello points out that state law allows them to do it, as it does all state employees: full-time benefits for a 20-hour-or-more work week.

House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan says the legislature needs to reel in its spending. “What we do in this building is serious work, and we need staff to support it. We can’t do it all ourselves; it’s a part-time legislature,” she said. “On the other hand, when we spend money wastefully, it’s not there to repair schools, it’s not there to maybe do some technology upgrade in another department. It’s not there to stop tolls.”

And while the next couple of weeks will be a busy time for everyone working at the state house, what about the off-season, where part-time employees are supposed to be working at least 20 hours a week to be entitled to those medical benefits?

GA pic House“Clearly there’s a lot more work going on while we’re in session, that’s just the reality of the situation,” Mattiello said. “But a lot of those employees are really called upon and they end up doing a lot more work during our busy season than their 21 hours per week, so they accumulate comp time. So in the summers they lay foundations for January, they do a lot of the prep work, they do whatever else is asked for them, and there’s always projects going on here and they take their comp and vacation time.”

Morgan countered: “Once you have somebody on board you like them, they’re nice people, you don’t want to get rid of them. And yet, that’s not our job to bring our friends in here, right? It really is to make sure every person in this building is fulfilling their job. That’s important to the people of Rhode Island. That they do something that adds value to our job here, that they’re not just here because of who they know.”

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation, go to www.HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org.




Rhode Island Spotlight: Stadium Theatre Expands

Stadium interiorsOn the third weekend in May, The Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket was a busy place, as it is most weekends these days. Friday night, it was an Everly Brothers tribute band on a national tour making its only stop in Rhode Island. Saturday night, country music singer Sara Evans played to a packed house — all 1,088 seats in what is both a spacious and intimate setting.

The Stadium — as most call it — will hold 175 events this year alone, up from 100 annually just five years ago. They range from concerts to community theater productions to children’s theater camps.

Stadium Cathy“Our shows are constantly changing, our expansion is constantly changing and if you are not changing you will die,’’ said Cathy Levesque, the CEO and executive director of the Stadium Theatre Performing Arts Center. She has seen a total transformation of the 91-year-old building, which, when it opened in 1926, had three shows a day — every day. But when the multiplex cinemas came, the crowds disappeared and the building fell into disrepair.

Stadium marqueeIn the 1990s, a group wanting to resurrect the building held a marathon fundraiser under the familiar marquee, hoping to raise $1,380 — the call letters of a local radio station. It netted $25,000 and the renovation began. Over the next decade, dozens of volunteers pitched in to restore the historic building. And it’s those volunteers who today are an indispensable part of the Stadium’s operations.

When the renovations were completed in 2001, the public got to see a stunning building, true to its original architecture, but with some modern touches. Performers and patrons alike have the same reaction.

Stadium vounteer“They always say ‘wow’ — they always do, from the murals, the fountains, the seating style, the curtains … you feel it, it’s like a pulse. It’s not empty,” Levesque said. “When you’re standing on the stage, when you’re standing in the theater, there’s something that you feel is alive.”

Now the theater is embarking on a new project: Three years ago the non-profit Stadium Theater Foundation bought a vacant building adjacent to the main theater. They are in the middle of a $4 million renovation of the five-floor, 30,000-square-foot Stadium Theater Conservatory. The foundation is about halfway to the fundraising goal.

Already the conservatory building allows the theater to store costumes in a massive room on the basement floor instead of off-site. They are sorted and carefully cataloged, readily accessible when needed. After the renovations are complete, the costumes will move up to the third floor and the space will be converted to a 150-seat theater for smaller shows. There will also be room to build and store sets and for much-needed administrative offices.

“(The Conservatory) will allow us to be more efficient,” Levesque said. “Right now we’re building sets, we’re building costumes here, there and everywhere. The bulk of it’s being done on the first floor, but it’s tough when you don’t have rehearsal space. Every single individual who has a job here and those who will be hired will have an office and have space to do what they do best and have space for volunteers to come in and sew, and come in and help build sets.”

Stadium kids stageAnd it’s not just the performances. The Stadium began offering educational programs about a decade ago. Over April vacation we watched children rehearsing on the grand stage, in a recently converted marquee room where smaller shows and events are held, and even out in the lobby because space is tight.

All week the children practiced for a show on Friday morning that capped a week of theater camp — with friends and family filling the entire lower half of the theater to watch the performance on the big stage. The Stadium will hold three two-week summer sessions during June, July and August.

Jordan Harris became the Stadium’s marketing manager eight years ago. “I think most people, when they come and see the theater for the first time, they say, ‘Wow I have to keep coming back here.'”

Harris says the variety of shows — and prices — appeals to patrons, most of whom come from outside of Woonsocket, many from southern Massachusetts and nearby Connecticut. The Stadium prides itself on providing a venue for local actors and performers. “All of our community theater, those are local people with full-time jobs,” Harris said. “But you wouldn’t know it when you came here and saw them perform. And we’re giving them this awesome venue in which to really take their passion and show it off.”

The Stadium still needs to raise money to complete the conservatory. But making progress and watching the vision turn into reality is helping attract donors. A private foundation wanting to remain anonymous has come on board with support now that the building renovations are turning a corner.

Harris said, “I oftentimes say that we’re not a community theater even though we host community theater shows. We are the community’s theater because everybody who comes here leaves taking a little bit with it, taking a little bit of the theater with them.”

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to Jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org

 




The Hummel Report: How Clean Is Clean Enough?

NBC signThe science tells us that Narragansett Bay has not been this clean in 150 years. The days of floating debris and sometimes raw sewage after heavy rainstorms are squarely in the rearview mirror, largely because of a massive combined sewer overflow project that went online eight years ago. Often called The Biggest Project You’ll Never See, it is an underground holding tank of sorts that allows overflow to be contained, then fully treated, after a heavy rainfall.

“We hear anecdotally from the shellfishermen, from the boaters, that they’ve never seen the Bay this clean in their lifetime,’’ said Ray Marshall, the executive director of the Narragansett Bay Commission, which handles the sewage for a third of the entire state. That includes the communities in metropolitan Providence and the Blackstone Valley — serving a total of 360,000 people.

NBC MarshallBut Marshall has also heard it from a scientist at URI, who is studying the water quality of Narragansett Bay. We first reported six years ago on Phase 1 of the CSO project, mandated by the federal Clean Water Act to achieve better water quality in the Providence River and Narragansett Bay.

That first phase carried a $375 million price tag. Phase 2 was completed at an additional cost of $213 million — a hefty price tag born solely by the 80,000 customers of the Bay Commission. So while customers don’t see where their sewage goes after it leaves their homes or businesses, they do get a monthly reminder of what it costs to treat. The water improvement projects translate into rates that have more than tripled over the past 15 years; from $137 a year in 2001 to $477 a year in 2016 for an average homeowner.

NBC Nayatt Point“The improvements have been dramatic, and there’s still more to do,” Marshall said. “There are other sources of pollution, other than combined sewer overflows and treatment plants, such as storm water. All of these things take time and they cost money.”

On paper, the first two phases were supposed to take care of 60% of the pollution, but many feel it’s done much more than that. A planned Phase 3 would take care of the remaining 40% and will be the costliest segment — with an original estimate of more than $800 million. The commission has been able to make adjustments to reduce the cost to $760 million, but it still has some asking: How clean is clean enough?

The commission has been negotiating with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and by extension the federal Environment Protection Agency, to push back and spread out the construction timetable for Phase 3, which runs up the eastern side of the Seekonk River, into Pawtucket and Central Falls. That means rates should remain stable for at least the next several years.

NBC treatment“So, instead of completing Phase 3 in seven years, which would be approximately 2025, we asked for 13 additional years out to 2038,” Marshall said. “That’s what we submitted to DEM. The thought is we’ll stretch the cost out over a greater period of time.”

Another question is how a new administration in Washington, one that has been critical of the EPA, will affect projects and standards going forward.

Jim Hummel: Has there been any talk about a relaxing or a rolling back of clean water standards that would trickle down to you in terms of Phase 3?

Ray Marshall: That’s unclear at this time. I know that the Trump Administration has basically said for every new regulation that a governmental agency wants to impose, they have to roll back two. So I don’t know how within the EPA umbrella all of that will play out.

JH: It’s never good enough under the Clean Water Act until you reach 100%. Is that what I heard?

RM: That’s correct.

JH: And so that could be an awful lot of money for that last 5 or 10%.

RM: It could be.

JH: It’s the law of diminishing returns isn’t it?

RM: Absolutely, it is. We’re probably three years away from any major construction, so hopefully in that period of time the skies will clear and we’ll all understand what it is we’re supposed to do and then we can move forward — or not — depending on how things tumble into place. But I can’t imagine that we won’t have to do some form of Phase 3.

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation, go to HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org.