PORTSMOUTH — Fixing the broken wind turbine, improving the budget process, helping citizens fix their failed septic systems, getting a municipal court up and running and finalizing a plan for the Elmhurst property were among the issues the Town Council identified as priority items for the next year.
In a rare Saturday morning meeting, the council reviewed goals for itself and Town Administrator John Klimm for 2014, talked about legislative priorities and heard a school budget forecast for the next several years.
The council began the meeting in executive session, where it interviewed three candidates for a new municipal court that will handle mainly zoning violations. Getting the municipal court going was identified as one of the high-priority items for the council going forward.
Council President James Seveney said the council voted to select a judge, but didn’t reveal his or her name because the candidate had not yet been notified.
While discussing 2014 goals for Mr. Klimm — many of them overlapped with the council’s objectives — the establishment of a town recreation program was brought up.
“You know, the town charter calls for this,” said Mr. Seveney, noting that officials looked at the idea years ago but a group of dedicated volunteers ended up running the town’s sports fields. A town the size of Portsmouth, however, deserves a full-fledged recreation program, he said.
The council also discussed its legislative priorities for the coming year. Topping the list is the need to continue the fight against the Sakonnet River Bridge toll and finding an alternative funding source.
Other priorities include:
• reworking the “inequitable funding formula” when it comes to state aid for schools. “We’re losing $250,000 annually, cumulatively to a point where in seven more years we will have lost $2 million a year in state funding and guess who has to pick up the difference?” School Committee Chairman David Croston said. “We have to identify how we can be smarter than the next community.”
• getting state assistance in resolving the wind turbine issue and helping residents comply with the Cesspool Phaseout Act.
• getting the state do complete road work on East Main Road that the town says has been promised since 2005.
• exploring possibilities for a local tax at the Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center, which distributes medicinal marijuana to qualified patients. The council also wants to raise concerns about door-to-door deliveries proposed by Greenleaf. Mr. Seveney, however, acknowledged there may not be much the town can do on this front. “The compassion center stuff is a lightening rod,” he aid. “But this is a state thing; it’s not really a town thing. We really don’t have much say.”
• requiring residents to present identification when voting and eliminating the master lever voting option at the polls.
Looming school deficits
Also at Saturday’s meeting, Finance Director David Faucher presented a school budget forecast he had requested that shows large projected deficits if the town doesn’t increase its appropriation to the schools. According to a five-year forecast prepared by the School Department, with level funding the school budget is expected to run a deficit of over $1.5 million in fiscal year 2016, nearly $3.5 million in 2017 and more than $4.8 million in 2018.
“The purpose of this worksheet is to illustrate the magnitude of possible future School Department deficits for consideration during the next budget process,” Mr. Faucher wrote in a Nov. 20 letter to the council.
Mr. Croston, however, said a level-funded budget wouldn’t allow the district to sustain the same level of excellence that’s come to be expected from Portsmouth schools.
He presented two additional budget scenarios: one with 2.4-percent increases, and another with 3.5-percent increases. Mr. Croston called the budget scenario with the 2.4-percent increases “ideal,” saying it does the best job of balancing the needs of the schools, the town and taxpayers.
Mr. Croston cautioned that it’s difficult for the district to forecast future budgets without knowing the ever-changing educational needs for each school year. “What we can’t afford to do is play politics” with long-term funding scenarios, he said.