The Town Council on Monday unanimously approved a 20-year tax agreement with Citizens Bank in connection with the company’s March announcement of plans to build a new corporate campus on the west side of Route 295 on Greenville Avenue.
The agreement, negotiated between the town and Citizens, phases in a $5 million property tax payment for the new development in $250,000 annual increments.
“First, let me say that this is truly a great time for the town to have Citizens Bank choose Johnston as their new home and become part of Johnston’s business community and business family,” Mayor Joseph Polisena told the council. “As you all know, Citizens could have picked several other communities who were offering much more, but decided to choose Johnston.”
Polisena said the deal was the first tax stabilization agreement reached under his administration. He outlined infrastructure upgrades to be completed in conjunction with the project, including new extended sewer lines that will also allow residential hookups to replace outdated cesspools and septic systems; an extended water line to replace residential wells; road improvements; new on and off ramps to the Route 295 overpass; and recreational facilities that will be open to the public.
“The traffic flow from Citizens will be basically imperceptible. With the red light for the exiting of the Citizens employees and turning lanes to allow direct access into the Citizens complex, this will be a positive step moving the flow of traffic,” Polisena said in response to neighborhood concerns over traffic. “Citizens also has three staggered shifts. Not all of their employees will be arriving and leaving at the same time.
Polisena contrasted the Citizens proposal with the potential for future residential developments in the area.
“Now there will be no use of town services, such as plowing and sanding of the [campus] roads, trash pickup, street lighting, or constant use of our police department, as Citizens will have their own 24-hour, seven-day-a-week security on scene. [There will be] minimal use of our fire and rescue, basically not having to worry about maintaining the roads, and not having to worry about maintaining sewer lines as well as other town infrastructure that would go along with a big housing development,” the mayor said. “The overall costs [of residential development] would be financially devastating for our tax base and guarantee a huge tax raise yearly, if not every other year.”
Other positive factors summarized by Polisena included an increase in property values by 12 to 15 percent; hundreds of new construction jobs; the potential creation of new bank positions; a costumer base increase for town businesses; and the “clear signal that Johnston is the place to invest with your business and with your money.”
Additionally, the mayor said there is an environmental cleanup site on the proposed property, and the costs associated range between $3 million and $6 million. That project will be part of the development at no cost to the town. There is also a historic cemetery on site, and as part of the development it will be protected and incorporated into a park area of the campus.
Currently, the 109-acre plot chosen for the 420,000-square-foot Citizens facility is in an area zoned residential. Polisena presented the council with various scenarios for residential development for the same property, from a 50-lot subdivision up to the residential limit of 890 units of apartment housing that could be developed under current zoning conditions. He said that such residential developments would strain town services, such as schools, and would “devastate our town financially.
Under the terms of the deal, transfer of the rights and benefits, as well as the burdens, of the tax agreement to successors is allowed for affiliated Citizens entities. Any transfer to a non-affiliated entity is essentially a violation of the terms and would subject the new occupant to full tax rates at that time.
Any further developments on the property – a daycare facility, for example – would require planning and zoning approval.
When asked by Council President Robert Russo if the proposal was good for Johnston, Town Solicitor William Conley replied: “Yes, absolutely.”
The council referred additional petitions from Citizens for zoning changes to the Zoning Board of Review.
In other business, the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting including two residents speaking out regarding a recent report questioning Councilwoman Stephanie Manzi’s claiming of the Homestead Exemption on her property taxes.
The Hummel Report first reported that Manzi’s children are attending school in Narragansett, where her husband claims primary residency. Manzi, meanwhile, continues to claim a home in Johnston as her primary residence.
Manzi had voted in favor of a re-certification process for the Homestead Exemption, which Polisena presented as a way to prevent the improper use of Johnston addresses to sent students from outside the community to the town’s schools. The exemption allows qualified homeowners to be taxed on 80 percent of their property value, rather than the full 100 percent.
Manzi signed a form associated with the re-certification process indicating neither she nor her spouse claimed a home other than the Johnston address as their primary residence.
Lorraine Natale, a longtime educator in Johnston’s schools, asked what the process is if someone is found to have improperly claimed or received the Homestead Exemption.
“What happens now? Is there accountability for someone who violates it?” she said.
Jeanette Scarcella, who ran against Manzi for the District 5 council seat in 2014, was sharply critical of the councilwoman.
“She has either lost or misplaced her ethical compass,” Scarcella said, going so far as to call for Manzi to resign.
Manzi did not publicly address the comments during the forum. As of Wednesday, the mayor’s office indicated the town solicitor’s review of Manzi’s Homestead Exemption continues.