PORTSMOUTH — They usually make decisions independent of one another, but now members of the Town Council and School Committee are sitting down together in hopes of finding common ground, saving taxpayers money and making local government run more efficiently.
“We can be a better ‘company’ through this efficiency review,” said School Committee Chairman David Croston, one of the six members of The Portsmouth Task Force on Efficiency in Town Government, which held its first meeting Monday night at Town Hall. No members of the public attended the meeting, which lasted just over an hour.
Besides Mr. Croston, the task force is made up of Thomas Vadney and Frederick Faerber from the School Committee; and James Seveney, John Blaess and Keith Hamilton from the council.
The panel is needed, members said, to improve communications between the town and school sides of government so there’s more collaboration and possible consolidation of services and resources. This could include things such as informational technology (IT) services, building maintenance and human resources. With projected budget shortfalls facing the town in the coming years, the need for collaborative efforts is more critical then ever, members said.
Mr. Seveney declined to mention specific resources or services that could be shared between the two sides, noting that the task force has just gotten underway. “You’ve got to wait until the movie comes out,” he said after the meeting.
However, Mr. Hamilton said the meeting was a good first step. “Just having the ability to keep the lines of communication open and sit down and discuss things whether it be building and grounds, or finance or other options. Without having that discussion, it continues to leave a wall between here and the school department,” he said.
While the town already collaborates with other municipalities on certain services — the director of IT in Middletown provides Portsmouth some expertise, for example — some task force members said there needs to more sharing internally between town departments.
Town Administrator John Klimm, however, said he hopes the town will keep the door open to explore “the next frontier” at some point. “We’re going to have to keep looking at ways to save money,” he said. “Is there anyone who doesn’t think there couldn’t be one IT department for the whole island?”
Mr. Croston said he wouldn’t want that to happen because a regional IT department wouldn’t be as responsive to the town’s needs. Portsmouth could, however, look to other towns to consolidate some of IT services, he said.
Monday’s meeting concerned itself mainly with drafting a charter for the tax force and developing a preliminary plan of actions and priorities.
The panel set three areas of focus and assigned two members to study each: finances/human resources (Mr. Blaess and Mr. Faerber), IT (Mr. Croston and Mr. Seveney) and maintenance (Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Vadney). Members agreed to report back with preliminary recommendations within 60 days, and final recommended courses of action in 90 days.
“We’ve got a three-pronged plan of attack,” said Mr. Seveney, adding that he hopes the task force’s recommendations can impact the budget for next fiscal year.
Mr. Croston pointed out that the full Town Council and School Committee will still have the final say on their respective budgets, despite what the task force recommends. “We need to go at this looking for efficiencies that everybody can embrace. I don’t want it to look like this subcommittee is assuming anything,” he said.
The panel will meet at 7 p.m. on the first and third Mondays of the month at Town Hall. The next meeting is set for Feb. 17.