Local News, News, Politics, Providence, Top Video

RIDOT to install first truck-toll gantries this week

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Two years after Gov. Gina Raimondo signed her signature RhodeWorks bill into law, her administration will begin constructing toll gantries to collect cash from large commercial trucks that use Rhode Island’s highways.

The first two toll gantries will begin going up on Monday in Hopkinton and Exeter on I-95, according to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. A number of lanes will be closed during the process, and there will be a brief overnight highway closure.

Fourteen total toll locations are planned, as part of the RhodeWorks law that passed in 2016. The 10-year road-and-bridge repair plan calls for collecting truck tolls to pay for the costs of rebuilding and rehabilitating the state’s crumbling infrastructure. Work on many of those projects has already begun.

RIDOT and Raimondo have argued that large tractor-trailer trucks do the most damage to Rhode Island roads, and therefore should contribute to fixing them. The trucking industry has fought back, consistently threatening to sue the state as soon as the first toll is collected.

“Everything up to this point has been conjecture and spin by RIDOT and Governor Raimondo,” said Chris Maxwell, the president of the RI Trucking Association, on Friday. “They now face their biggest challenge in a court of law and we’re ready to roll!!!”

“We have been prepared for three years for any challenges to this,” RIDOT Director Peter Alviti said. “We expect that we will succeed in defending any challenge.”

Alviti says the toll gantries that will go up next week will go through a month of testing before the automated system begins charging trucks that drive under them, either through an EZ Pass transponder or by billing the truck driver by their license plate.

The price for Toll 1 in Hopkinton and Toll 2 in Exeter will be $3.25 and $3.50, respectively. The rest of the tolls gantries are slated to go up gradually over the next 18 months.

Next week, daytime single-lane closures are scheduled on I-95 North and South Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the two tolling locations. The first location is one mile north of Exit 2, and the other is three miles south of Exit 5.

The highway will be temporarily fully closed from approximately 1-3 a.m. Thursday and Friday, while the installation of the actual gantries occurs. RIDOT says “rolling roadblocks” will be used, by lowering the speed limit to 25 mph.

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Local News, News, SE Mass, Top Video

Brayton Point power plant to be sold soon; buyer will determine site’s future use

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SOMERSET, Mass. (WPRI) — The now-shuttered Brayton Point Power Station is close to being sold to another company, a spokesperson for the current owner told Eyewitness News.

David Byford, a spokesperson for Houston-based Dynegy, says the company has selected a bidder and will name the buyer once a contract is signed. The buyer will determine how the 234-acre waterfront site will be redeveloped, Byford said.

The impending sale was first reported by the Fall River Herald News.

The power plant shut down on May 31 after more than 50 years in operation. It was the last coal-burning power plant left in Massachusetts, churning out enough power to fuel 1.5 million homes. In more recent years, enormous twin cooling towers were built on the property. The pair can be seen for miles and have long been considered a eyesore to community members.

The future of the property is still unclear, including whether the towers will be torn down.  A study commissioned by the town of Somerset and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center in 2015 fleshed out three possible scenarios for the site after soliciting input from the public.

The scenarios included a natural gas power plant, a clean energy site with a solar and/or wind farm, or a marine industrial park that could include a cargo port and smaller solar farm. That third industrial park option would net the most jobs, according to the study.

Jobs losses were one the concerns for town officials back when the plant shut down. At the time, Dynegy employed 170 workers there. Now, according to Byford, 15 Dynegy employees work at the site. An additional 50 contractors are working on decommissioning activities.

State Sen. Michael Rodrigues, a Democrat who represents Somerset, confirmed Wednesday the company buying the property is based in St. Louis. He said the buyer plans to clean up the site and prepare it for redevelopment.

Local News, News, Providence, Top Video

RI House, Senate to vote on mandated paid sick leave after committee passage

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A bill to require Rhode Island employers to give workers paid sick leave is scheduled to be voted on by both chambers of the General Assembly during Tuesday’s special legislative session, after being left in limbo during the regular session because of the budget standoff.

The House Labor Committee voted to pass the earned sick time bill Friday, sending it to the House floor for a full vote on Tuesday.

The legislation, championed by progressive advocates and labor groups and introduced in the House by Rep. Aaron Regunberg, had been repeatedly amended throughout the year during negotiations with business leaders, who had concerns about the impact on employers.

The new compromise version released on Friday would apply the mandate to businesses with 18 or more employees, higher than Regunberg’s initial proposal but still below the 50-employee figure some business leaders had requested.

The legislation would allow workers to accrue up to three paid sick days in 2018, four in 2019, and five days every year after that.

“It’s a compromise,” said Regunberg, D-Providence, whose original bill called for seven days of paid sick leave per year. “We wanted to make sure that businesses and employers, and especially small businesses, had protections.”

Regunberg said the amended legislation makes it clear that while businesses with fewer than 18 employees won’t have to provide paid sick time, they’ll still have to provide unpaid, job-protected sick time.

“We’re going to guarantee for over 100,000 Rhode Islanders that that awful choice between your family’s health and your paycheck … that could be a thing of the past, and folks can breathe a sigh of relief,” Regunberg said.

John Simmons of the Rhode Island Business Coalition said while his group does not support mandatory sick leave, he found the compromise version to be “respectful.”

“If it’s going to happen, this is a way that was respectful of business,” Simmons said. “The implications, the consequences for business, we feel this is respectful of that.”

Simmons was particularly satisfied that employers who already choose to provide paid sick leave would not be subjected to the requirements under the bill.

The Senate had passed its own version of the bill back in June, which would have applied the mandate to businesses with 11 or more employees. The Senate sponsor of the bill, Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, said Friday she was “very pleased” that a compromise was reached, even if the bill was not as robust as should would have liked.

“While the compromise legislation doesn’t help as many workers as I had initially hoped, it will provide paid sick leave to 100,000 Rhode Islanders who don’t have it now,” she said in a statement.

A spokesperson said the Senate would vote on the House version of the bill on Tuesday.

Local News, News, Politics, Providence, Top Video, Video

Students prepare for free community college to be a reality

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Kelly Slader is one of many rising high school seniors who will be weighing their options for college over the next year, including whether to take advantage of a new free tuition program at CCRI that is expected to pass the General Assembly by the end of the month.

“Everybody’s thinking about scholarships or thinking about financial aid, worrying about how they’re going to pay for it,” Slader said. The 17-year-old will be entering her senior year at Beacon Charter High School for the Arts in Woonsocket this fall.

“I’ve been considering colleges in New York with musical theater,” Slader told Eyewitness News. “But if I have free college right here, it seems like a waste to not do that.”

The Rhode Island Promise program has been scaled back from Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposal at the beginning of the year, which would have included CCRI, URI and RIC in the two-year free tuition scholarship. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who opposed the plan, struck a compromise with the governor and other legislative leaders to apply the program just to CCRI.

“Our community college is our institution that does a lot of job training,” Mattiello said in a budget briefing to House members on Tuesday. “So that is the appropriate place to do that program.”

As it’s written in the budget approved by the House Finance Committee, the scholarship would be granted after other financial aid options are exhausted to Rhode Island residents who graduate from high school starting in 2017. Students who would otherwise be eligible for in-state tuition would be eligible for two free years at CCRI. They can earn an associate degree in those two years or continue their educations at CCRI or another college.

There are strings attached: the bill says students will have to maintain a 2.5 GPA, be “on track” to graduate on time and pledge to remain in Rhode Island for two years after graduation. (A proposal to also require community service has since been dropped.)

It’s unclear so far how that pledge will be enforced; the bill leaves it up to CCRI to form a policy regarding the pledge. CCRI spokesman Patrick Stone said college officials are “thrilled” about the proposal and are still reviewing it.

“We are in the process of reviewing the details of the program and we are prepared to aggressively promote the RI Promise to our state’s new high school graduates in accordance with the program’s requirements, upon approval by the General Assembly,” Stone said.

Kelly Slader said she wasn’t sure how she feels about the requirement to stay in the state, but understands why it was added to the bill.

“I don’t love it, but I think it makes sense,” Slader said. “You can’t just give people free college and expect nothing in return.”

The program is also only a pilot; the bill says the scholarship will be offered to high school graduates for the next four years, and then will be re-evaluated.

“We’ll take a look and see what benefit that brings to us,” Mattiello said at Tuesday’s briefing. “The postsecondary education commissioner will do an evaluation at that time.”

The legislature would need to re-approve the program or pass a different program in order for it to continue to be offered beyond the high school class of 2020. The presidents of the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College are hoping the state would include their institutions in the program in the future.

“We are hopeful the Council on Postsecondary Education, the governor and the General Assembly will re-assess RI Promise next year and consider increasing their investments in URI,” President David Dooley said in a statement.

Rhode Island College President Frank Sanchez called the proposal a “great first step,” but expressed concerns about his own college.

“There is potential for RIC to see a drop in enrollments if the Promise only includes the community college,” Sanchez said. “We need to improve access to an affordable four-year degree in Rhode Island; there is still some work needed in order to get this done.”

CCRI junior Rain Jolicoeur said the new scholarship has been the talk of campus, although current students would not be eligible. “Just the fact that people are going to be able to have the opportunity to be more educated, it really brings out the best in Rhode Island,” she said.

Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell said the GOP opposes the free tuition program, calling the budget as a whole “bloated” and “bogus.”

“We don’t need a new spending plan when we have such a huge structural deficit,” Bell said.

The compromise tuition plan is expected to cost the state $3 million in the first year. The governor’s expanded proposal would have cost $10 million.

House lawmakers are slated to vote on the budget on Thursday.

Local News, News, Politics, Providence

Lawmakers consider dropping sales tax on beer

[anvplayer video=”1359761″] PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island brewers say a proposal to repeal the sales tax on beer would help grow their businesses and put them on even footing with wine sellers and with Massachusetts.

New Shoreham Republican Rep. Blake Filippi introduced the bill, which received a hearing in the House Finance Committee Wednesday night. The bill would repeal the 7% sales tax currently levied on retail beer and malt beverage sales.

Wine and spirits are already exempt from the sales tax in Rhode Island, and all alcoholic beverages are exempt from the sales tax in Massachusetts.

“Our legislation is in the best interest of Rhode Island merchants – who are losing business to customers who don’t mind traveling a few miles across the border to save money,” Rep. Filippi said.

Consumers bought $141 million worth of beer and malt beverages in Rhode Island in 2016, according to the annual tax administrator’s report. It amounts to nearly $10 million in sales tax revenue.

Rep. Filippi said he expects the excise tax on beer paid by wholesalers and distributors to make up the lost revenue, assuming sales of beer in Rhode Island increases as a result of the sales tax repeal. He said the state had a 15.2% increase in the excise tax on wine and spirits after eliminating the sales tax on those beverages.

Nick Garrison, the founder of Pawtucket-based Foolproof Brewing Company, said customers are crossing the border to buy tax-free beer in Massachusetts.

“We want to have the same tax rates here in Rhode Island, otherwise we’re going to lose business to our neighbors,” he said in an interview with Eyewitness News.

“This is a growth industry for Rhode Island,” Garrison said. “Removing that tax is really going to help our business grow, it’s going to allow us to brew more beer, sell more beer and hire more people.”

Mark Hellendrung, the president of Narragansett Beer, also said he was supportive of the legislation, which he said would put beer companies on even ground with wine sellers.

Local News, News, Politics, Providence

Former inmates ask Housing Authority to soften rules

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Convicted felons and community activists pleaded with the Providence Housing Authority on Thursday to allow people previously convicted of violent crimes and drug-related offenses to qualify for public housing.

The Providence Housing Authority, or PHA, is already considering changing the rules to eliminate automatic denials of people with criminal records and shorten the criminal look-back period, among other changes.

The PHA owns 2,600 apartments in Providence in which low-income families or individuals can be placed. Rent is paid partially by the tenant and subsidized with federal funds from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD).

At the public hearing Thursday, former inmates argued that they’d served their time as required under the law, and should be treated fairly when applying to live in the apartments.

“It seems like folks who go to prison, we are misfits,” said John Prince, who said he was homeless after being released from prison. “We don’t belong…put them in a box, get them out of the way.” He described eating tuna fish out of a can with his hands while he lived on the streets and was denied housing.

“I’m asking this panel to have a heart,” Prince said. “Open your hearts. Give somebody a second chance.”

Edwin Rivera from Providence said he felt the government was “giving up on us.”

“If you people really care, go downtown,” he told the panel. “You’ll see young kids, young people who don’t have nothing, they live under the bridge, in the park…I thought we were supposed to help each other.”

Several dozen people in the audience held signs with phrases like “Fill homes, not shelters & prisons,” and “Stop separating families.” Part of the complaint by the group trying to change the policy, led by the Behind the Walls Committee at Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), is that families are forced to separate when one member of the family has a criminal record and can’t move in to the public housing unit.

Naomi Chasek-Macfoy testified on behalf of DARE, asking the PHA to change its current rules about people who have been convicted of crimes.

“Formerly incarcerated people already served their time,” Chasek-Macfoy said. “And the PHA should not continue to punish people with records by removing them from their families, one of the most valuable support systems for people with criminal records.”

The PHA is already proposing to change its policy, which currently automatically denies any housing applicant who has a history of violent or drug-related criminal activity within the past ten years. The new proposed policy would consider applicants on a case-by-case basis, and change the look-back period for criminal records to five years. It would also completely stop denying applicants based on misdemeanor crimes, and would soften the policy that bans current drug users from living in the housing. The current rule denies housing to people who have used illegal drugs in the past two years; the new policy would limit it to six months.

In order to get federal funding, HUD requires housing authorities to deny applicants who are lifetime registrants of the sex offender registry and people who have previously been convicted of making methamphetamine in federally assisted housing.

The new proposal still needs to be approved by the full PHA board, and then ultimately by HUD. Even if it passes, Chasek-Macfoy said it doesn’t do enough. The proposed policy would place a deferral on applications from people who have been arrested but not convicted of a crime; the DARE group says that would be akin to denying them housing, and ignoring the fact that arrestees in the U.S. are innocent until proven guilty.

“The PHA is not a court judge,” Chasek-Macfoy said. Her group is also asking for the look-back period to be reduced to three years.

Paul Tavares, the Executive Director of the Providence Housing Authority, said he found the testimony to be compelling and emotional. He acknowledged that the current admissions policy is “archaic” and was formed based on anti-crime sentiment decades ago.

“We’re trying to be progressive,” Tavares said. “We’re also trying to balance the security needs and safety needs of our residents.” He said the comments from the public hearing will be sent to the PHA board, which will vote on the proposed plan. Three of the 11 board members attended the meeting Thursday night.

“At the end of the day, we recognize that housing is important to people who are formerly incarcerated,” Tavares said.

Local News, News, Providence

Finance committee approves body cameras for Providence Police

PROVIDENCE, R.I (WPRI) — A city council panel has approved a contract with TASER International to outfit the Providence Police Department with 250 body cameras.

The Finance Committee voted 3-0 in favor of the body-worn camera contract on Wednesday night, sending the proposal to the full council for a vote in April.

The cameras and unlimited video storage will cost approximately $292,000 in the first year of the program, and gives Providence the option to extend for 4 additional years or cancel the contract at any time, according to finance chairman John Igliozzi. Providence won a $375,000 federal grant to implement body cameras last year. The total cost of the 5-year contract is $1.37 million. Igliozzi said there would be no penalty for cancelling the contract if the city decides the cameras aren’t working out.

Providence Police implemented an 10-officer pilot program with body cameras last year, which the police chief touted as a success.

The ACLU of Rhode Island has opposed the body-worn cameras, previously expressing concerns about the Police Department’s policy allowing officers to manually turn the cameras on before an encounter with a member of the public. But Col. Hugh Clements has said the cameras will improve community policing and could reduce crime.

Providence offered the contract to TASER over VIEVU, another company that makes body-worn cameras. Police said the officers that participated in the pilot program preferred the TASER cameras.

Chairman Igliozzi said TASER also offered to throw in 500 extra cartridges for the stun guns the company provides the Providence Police.

If approved by the full council, the program is expected to roll out at the police department in a few months.

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Local News, News, Politics, Providence

Here’s how Rhode Island hopes to tax online purchases

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As consumers move further away from retail stores and toward online sellers, Gov. Gina Raimondo is making a move to ensure the state doesn’t lose out on the sales tax revenue that would’ve been paid on products if purchased in stores.

Many online retailers, including Amazon.com, don’t currently collect any sales tax on purchases made in Rhode Island. In the governor’s budget plan unveiled Thursday, she includes a provision that would help the state collect the 7% tax on goods bought online.

“This is already a law that you have to pay this,” said Director of Revenue Robert Hull, referring to the seldom-followed law that requires Rhode Islanders to pay a use tax on their online purchases each year. “This puts the Internet retailers in the position to actually step up and do the right thing.”

The tax would result in about $35 million in revenue for the state in fiscal year 2017-18, which begins July 1. Hull said the online sales tax is expected to generate even more revenue in future years, rising to $47 million by 2021-22.

That additional money would help offset some new spending in the budget, including Raimondo’s free college tuition plan that would cost $10 million in its first year, eventually reaching $30 million in 2020-21.

Amazon has already said it will begin collecting sales tax on Rhode Island sales beginning Feb. 1. Hull said he hopes other retailers follow suit.

“Amazon’s doing the right thing,” he said. “They’re an $85-billion revenue machine … making sales historically into Rhode Island and not paying the 7% sales tax.”

Hull said the problem would just continue as more retail stores close and consumer habits move to the internet.

The legislation asks retailers to collect the 7% sales tax and remit payments to the state. But if companies choose not to collect the tax, it doesn’t mean Rhode Islanders are off the hook. Raimondo wants to require companies to send a notice to customers at tax time with information on how much they owe the state of Rhode Island.

The online sales tax plan, along with the entire budget, will be need to be approved by the General Assembly.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello described the proposal as “just an enforcement mechanism.”

“It’s going to be something that we will have to look at,” Mattiello said Thursday. “But I always think that you have a level playing field for everybody, and that may be good for Main Street so that they can compete more successfully with the Internet sales.”

But Republican House Minority Leader Rep. Patricia Morgan has already opposed the plan.

“It’s just another tax,” Morgan told Eyewitness News. “Another source of revenue, instead of using the money that we already take wisely and well, we’re going out to find another source.”

“All money comes out of the little guy,” she added.

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Local News, National, News, Politics, Providence

Rhode Island congressional delegation will attend Trump’s inauguration

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The four Democrats who represent Rhode Island in Washington, D.C. say they will be attending President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday, choosing not to join a growing number of House Democrats boycotting the event.

Congressman John Lewis, D-Georgia organized the boycott, and more than 20 other House colleagues have signed on to stay home on Friday. In an interview on Meet the Press over the weekend, Lewis said he didn’t see Trump as a “legitimate president.”

“It’s my plan to attend the inaugration,” Congressman David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, said in an interview with Eyewitness News on Sunday. “And not because in any way I support the new President,” he added.

Cicilline said he plans to continue to fight against President-elect Trump, and said he’ll attend his swearing-in as the 45th president in order to show that he will be holding him accountable.

“I choose to be there because I want him to know I’m in this fight, and I’m not going to not be present for one second and sort of give him an open field,” Cicilline said.

Congressman Jim Langevin, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Senator Jack Reed, all Democrats, also said they would attend.

“It’s a rite of the American Democracy,” Sen. Reed said in an interview, giving a more traditional reason for attending the ceremony.

He said he finds it interesting that even Trump’s election rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, plans to attend the inauguration with former President Bill Clinton.

“Because it represents more than just the individual,” Reed said. “It’s the constitution and the country.”

President-elect Trump blasted Congressman Lewis on Twitter for organizing the boycott, writing that Lewis “should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.”

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Local News, News, Providence

Inmates describe solitary confinement to special commission

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Elton Simpson has been out of prison for more than a decade, but he still recalls the 90 days he spent in solitary confinement at the ACI.

“I think solitary confinement is mental torture,” he told a special legislative study commission at a public hearing Wednesday night.

Simpson described spending 23 hours a day in the cell, with a frosted window that doesn’t give natural light, as a “depressing” experience and the worst one of his years behind bars.

“If you’re not a mentally strong person, you’re going to carry that experience with you for a long time after you get out,” Simpson said.

The special commission is studying the repercussions of solitary confinement, also commonly known as segregation; the R.I. Department of Corrections calls it restrictive housing. Lawmakers, corrections officials, community activists and other leaders are members of the commission, which will eventually propose improvements to the solitary confinement system in Rhode Island.

A handful of other former inmates testified before the commission Wednesday night, along with some current inmates who wrote letters from the ACI.

“I’ve witnessed men lose their minds,” wrote Jared Raymond, an inmate who sent in a letter. He said he spent more than a year in restrictive housing.

Richard Ferruccio, president of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers union, jumped in several times to read off lists of disciplinary infractions, commonly known as “bookings,” received by each inmate who testified; swearing, masturbation, fighting and even more serious violence and sexual aggression were on the list.

But multiple commission members chimed in, saying they felt the nature of the infraction was irrelevant to the matter at hand, which was the condition of the restrictive housing units and the treatment of the inmates.

“There are instances to me that certainly sound like torture,” said state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, the chairman of the commission. He has proposed legislation to limit solitary confinement to 15 days or less.

“Ultimately, the goal is to try to get a better understanding of how exactly this disciplinary tool is being used,” Regunberg said. “If there are weaknesses or flaws in the way it’s being used. And if there are … what can we do to make sure that we’re creating a system that is the best that it possibly can be.”

A.T. Wall, director of the Department of Corrections, said while he’s open to criticism, he doesn’t support any legislation on the matter.

“It doesn’t afford us an opportunity for the flexibility we need for situations that are occurring now,” Wall said in an interview after the hearing. He is also a member of the commission.

Instead, Wall said administrative policies could be changed within the DOC. He also isn’t sure that “torture” is the right word to use to describe restrictive housing.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s torture or not torture,” he said. “I think a lot depends on how we manage it … solitary confinement is a term that can encompass an awful lot of variations. In some places, it may look Draconian. In others, it doesn’t.”

The next meeting of the commission is Jan. 5. At that meeting, the group plans to discuss the availability of mental health treatments in restrictive housing.

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