Portsmouth OKs provisional budget with 2.4% hike

The "T3 Project" athletic field upgrades at Portsmouth High School were questioned by council member Elizabeth Pedro at Tuesday's budget meeting. The "T3 Project" athletic field upgrades at Portsmouth High School were questioned by council member Elizabeth Pedro at Tuesday's budget meeting.

PORTSMOUTH — The Town Council Tuesday night voted 6-1 to give provisional approval to a $57.88 million budget for fiscal year 2015, which represents a 2.4 percent tax increase over the current spending plan.

The "T3 Project" athletic field upgrades at Portsmouth High School were questioned by council member Elizabeth Pedro at Tuesday's budget meeting.

The “T3 Project” athletic field upgrades at Portsmouth High School were questioned by council member Elizabeth Pedro at Tuesday’s budget meeting.

For the owner of an average-priced single-family home in town ($377,142), the budget as it stands would add $52.70 more to 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 pointed out that a property revaluation was carried out this year, so comparing that to the current tax rate is misleading.

Taxpayers will have their say on the budget at a public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 10, at Portsmouth Middle School. After that, the council will approve a final budget.

In approving the provisional budget, the council left the door open to find revenue to fund requests from the fire and police departments, the library, the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition and for school capital improvement items.

Town Administrator John Klimm told the council that he and Finance Director James Lathrop would come up with a plan to find additional revenue through mooring fees, auto excise taxes, field usage fees, beach parking fees and other sources. He said they’d report back to the council by July 31.

“I’m not talking generic recommendations. I’m talking very specific recommendations,” Mr. Klimm said.

Council member James Sevenery urged Mr. Klimm and Mr. Lathrop to try to present their ideas before the June 10 public hearing. “I’m not at all comfortable with any changes after the hearing,” said Mr. Seveney, adding the council needs “to keep faith with the public.”

Two council meetings are scheduled before the hearing: Tuesday, May 27, and Monday, June 9. Both begin at 7 p.m.

The Department of Public Works (DPW) and the Portsmouth Free Public Library have both already benefited from additional revenue found in the budget.

The provisional budget includes about $137,000 to restore two DPW positions, said Mr. Lathrop. The finance director said he found money in other accounts — including $90,000 savings in insurance programs — to not only cover those positions but to add more than $2,000 to the fund balance.

He cautioned, however, that these are “one-time” fixes to the budget. “This gets you through ’15, but you are going to have problems in ’16 and on and that’s what we really need to address,” said Mr. Lathrop.

On a motion by council member Keith Hamilton, the council then voted to add $2,300 — representing the approximate addition to the fund balance — to the town’s appropriation for the library.

School budget questioned

Elizabeth Pedro was the sole council member who voted against the provisional budget, saying it amounted to buying a “hot tub” for a house without a foundation.

Her main issue was with the School Department’s $600,000 budget increase. She said the department has a “multi-million dollar surplus,” yet is spending $1.2 million on improvements to athletic fields while laying off 12 staff members.

“Some of that was spent on a new turf field, which I consider a luxury item,” said Ms. Pedro, who suggested reducing the school budget to help fund other line items. “Every time the school department gets an increase, that takes away money from other departments in the town,” she said. “The police station is over 40 years old and it’s been waiting a long time for renovations. They’re down four officers.”

Larry Fitzmorris of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens said the school department’s surplus is about $4 million, even after the expenditure on the “T3 Project” athletic field upgrades.

He and Ms. Pedro also questioned press reports that the school department has laid off 12 teachers. Actually, they said, the equivalent of only 2.1 teachers were laid off, the others being staff members.

Reached Wednesday for comment, School Committee Chairman David Croston said, “These are all certified employees, meaning they’re technically teachers whether they be special ed or interventionists.”

As for the school department’s surplus, “We’ve been in front of the council a number of times expressing how we are going to be using our surplus to basically cover the loss of educational aid and the need for gap funding in every operational year from now until 2017,” Mr. Croston said.

He also contended that the investment in the “T3 Project” is essential in maintaining Portsmouth’s high educational standards. “We cannot stop making capital investments that improve our educational plans,” he said.

Pension reform gap

Besides the school budget, said Ms. Pedro, another “elephant in the room” is the police pension reform gap. In a written provisional budget message to the council, Mr. Klimm said the “police arbitration decision not to support pension reform has left a huge gap in our budget that must be addressed over the next year.”

He added that he’s “seriously underfunded many departments to recover the $1.2 million shortfall that cannot continue past this year without causing serious consequences to the stability of this organization.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Klimm told the council, “We’ve got to come to grip with the fact that we have a budget gap that we need to address.”

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