PROVIDENCE — Mayor Brett Smiley’s agreements for the city to receive payments from tax-exempt universities will be voted on as soon as next week, after the Council Finance Committee voted to send the deals to the floor without making a recommendation.
The unusual move not to outright approve or reject the agreements came after the three members in attendance Thursday night were split on whether to approve the two deals, which call for more than $200 million in payments from four private universities in Providence: Brown University, Providence College, Johnson & Wales University, and the Rhode Island School of Design.
Smiley struck the two deals with the four colleges earlier this month. The first agreement calls for $177 million from the four colleges over 20 years, while a second deal with only Brown University would bring in an additional $46 million over 10 years in exchange for a series of benefits for the university, including giving Brown several city blocks.
The separate deal with Brown was amended prior to Thursday night’s vote.
Councilor James Taylor, who acted as chair in the absence of Councilor Helen Anthony, was in favor of both deals, while Councilor Miguel Sanchez was against the agreements. Councilor Sue AnderBois, the swing vote on the committee, said she had concerns about the deals but was in favor of allowing the full council to vote on them.
The panel voted 2 to 1 to send the agreements to the full council without a recommendation. (Sanchez voted against the motion.)
The amended deal with Brown released Thursday night would give the university four city blocks instead of five, removing Cushing Street on College Hill from the agreement. The Smiley administration will support giving the university two blocks of Richmond Street and two blocks of Elm Street in the Jewelry District, which must go through the City Planning Commission for approval.
The updated agreement also changes a section that would give Brown up to a 100 percent credit on its annual payment to the city if the university directly invests in development projects such as workforce housing, child care, and public parks. Now, the deal adds a requirement that such a project would need to be done in consultation with the city councilor for the ward where the project is located.
AnderBois said she agreed to move the deals to the floor to allow other councilors to vote on them, but lamented the fact that the council could only take an up-or-down vote on the agreement negotiated by Smiley.
“It was brought to us for approval, and we are in the position to approve or deny without any real opportunity for input,” AnderBois said.
She noted the Brown students who spoke out against the deal earlier this week, slamming the university for having a $6.5 billion endowment but not paying more toward the city of Providence, which is struggling financially.
“Universities will always do what’s in their own best interest,” AnderBois said, also noting that the payments are completely voluntary, even after the deal is finalized. “In the same way the universities can pull out, so can we,” she said.
Council President Rachel Miller, who supports the agreements, said that if state or federal law changes regarding the universities’ tax-exempt status, she would be the first to seek to make the agreement “null and void.”
Providence has routinely sought voluntary payments from large, tax-exempt nonprofits such as universities and hospitals that occupy a large portion of city land but don’t have to pay taxes. The new collaborative agreement with the four colleges is more than double what they paid over the previous 20 years, not accounting for inflation.
It is not yet clear if both agreements have the votes to pass on the council floor next week. Smiley’s office has said passing one without the other “puts the city at risk of losing this historic agreement.” Brown has echoed the sentiment.
“I am thankful for action from the members of the Providence City Council Finance Committee,” Smiley said in a statement, “and I am pleased with the progress we have made in developing an agreement that is a significantly better deal for Providence.”
Asked about the students who are demanding the university pay more, Brown spokesperson Brian Clark pointed to the Ivy League university’s overall contribution to the city under the deal, including so-called community contributions that are not direct payments, but in-kind contributions to the city such as support for public schools or snow removal.
“Over the life of these agreements, the combined financial impact of voluntary payments and contributions from Brown will total $303.3 million in benefits to the city,” Clark said. “The agreements would make Providence a national model, both for how universities can provide generous direct financial support to host cities as well as partner more broadly on issues of importance to local communities and residents.”