Portsmouth council breezes through budget at hearing

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PORTSMOUTH — It took the Town Council only 42 minutes Tuesday night to conduct a public hearing on the proposed $57.88 million budget for fiscal year 2015.

Logo_PortsmouthOnly a handful of people spoke up at the sparsely attended hearing in the middle school’s “Little Theater.” Larry Fitzmorris of the taxpayers watchdog group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens said he counted only “14 civilians” in attendance— the rest being elected officials or people who work for the town.

The spending plan, which Council President James Seveney said can be viewed in its entirety on the town’s website (www.portsmouthri.com), calls for a tax hike of 2.4 percent. The school district’s appropriation is $30.85 million, an increase of about 2 percent over the current budget.

In reviewing some of the key areas of the budget, Mr. Seveney noted that the 53 percent hike in pension costs is a result of a 132 percent increase in the cost of police pensions. “The biggest issue we’ve had is trying to deal with the pension stuff. We’re still working through that,” he said. “That drives a lot of budgetary weight in the coming budgets.”

The town has also budgeted $1 million for road improvements, which he said are sorely needed. “Some of our roads are in really abysmal condition and we’re trying to fix that,” said Mr. Seveney. “Every year we ask the town for a lot of money, but it’s going for real stuff.”

The budget also sets aside $255,840 to add to the town’s fund balance — a “rainy day fund” for emergencies or unanticipated budget shortfalls — which has been inadequately financed in the past, Mr. Seveney said.

“For a long time we have not been able to comply with our own ordinance in maintaining an 8 percent fund balance. We have recently achieved that,” he said, noting that much of that was achieved through a transfer of funds from the School Department.

The budget also includes a transfer from the general fund balance of $275,000 to meet the town’s annual obligations on the wind turbine.

Resident Paul Kesson questioned that figure, noting that the council recently agreed to move forward with a plan to fix the turbine. (If the turbine is ultimately repaired and put back into service, the job would cost an estimated $855,000.) Mr. Kesson asked whether the money for the new work was included in the 2015 budget.

Finance Director James Lathrop said the $275,000 is for existing debt only; if the turbine is repaired, the town will see its first debt service payment on the work in 2016, he said. Mr. Seveney, meanwhile, stressed that the town hasn’t yet formally approved a plan to fix the turbine.

Wastewater plan

Another resident, Phillip Driscoll urged the council to conduct a cost-benefit analysis to make sure that money being spent through the town’s wastewater management plan isn’t being wasted. The town’s municipally funded revolving loan program is the core of the program, which is designed to help residents pay for upgrades to their septic systems to bring them in line with minimum state standards.

“We now have people replacing their cesspools with advanced treatment systems. There is absolutely no demonstration that these replacements are cleaning up the environment at all,” said Mr. Driscoll, who suggested that the money for the cost analysis should be taken from the wastewater management plan’s budget.

‘We need income’

John Vitevich said the town’s biggest problem isn’t its expenses but it’s failure to generate tax revenue.

“We need income,” said Mr. Vitkevich. “We have a residential tax base (and) we spend more to care of the town than we take in.”

The Police Department, in particular, needs more funding for staff positions, he said.

“We have to be aggressive,” said Mr. Vitkevich, who urged the town to promote more light commercial development along East and West Main roads.

Impact on taxpayers

Under the provisional budget, the owner of an average-priced single-family home in town ($377,142) would pay $52.70 more on the annual tax bill, bringing it to $5,531. The average price of a home last year was $377,142, with a tax bill of $5,478.

The provisional budget would result in a tax rate of $15.79 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. However, Tax Assessor Matthew Hefland has pointed out that a property revaluation was carried out this year, so comparing that to the current tax rate is misleading.

The Town Council will make any final changes to the budget at its June 23 meeting, when a final spending plan will be passed.

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