PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ As the R.I. General Assembly begins to address a more than $600-million deficit in the state’s budget, one lawmaker believes the safety precautions that allowed them to return to the State House cost tax payers more than it should have.
Lawmakers returned to the State House Wednesday for the first time since mid-March. In an effort to try and prevent the spread of the coronavirus among lawmakers and staff, three-sided plexiglass partitions were installed around the House’s 75 desks and the Senate’s 38 desks, as well as around the rostrums where the House Speaker and Senate President preside.
Invoices from the R.I. Department of Administration show the state utilized its existing contract with W.B. Mason to purchase and install the dividers – a project that cost $166,542.
But Rep. Michael Chippendale, who said he had previously owned a similar business, ran the numbers and received quotes from his former associates. He said his math shows the numbers don’t add up, and the project was way too costly.
“It seems like we really tried hard to make this as expensive and as complicated as possible,” Chippendale said.
The state paid, on average, $1,448 per seat, which Chippendale said is nearly four times more than estimates from local businesses.
“I struggled to get the price up to $500 a piece,” Chippendale said.
A spokesperson for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello tells Eyewitness News the DOA handled the pricing with the contractor through an existing “Master Price Agreement,” adding the cost of the dividers and their installation will likely be covered by the federal COVID-19 Relief Fund.
Besides the cost, Chippendale argues that the dividers don’t serve their intended purpose and will only lead to more issues down the road.
“You hear voices bouncing oddly, you don’t know if it’s coming from you, the speaker or somebody sitting next to you,” Chippendale said. “This is going to seriously limit the legitimate legislative process of having a debate and having a dialogue, and asking questions and having them answered.”
John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island tells Eyewitness News both Massachusetts and other public agencies in Rhode Island have been using Zoom to meet remotely at a much lower cost than the dividers.
He said in Rhode Island specifically, the state purchased Zoom accounts that are being used daily by 39 cities and towns for roughly $13,000.