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Portsmouth Town Council sets legislative priorities for 2021

Climate change, road safety, health, and tax burden among biggest concerns

By Jim McGaw
Posted 1/11/21

PORTSMOUTH — Protecting Portsmouth from climate change, supporting single-payer health insurance and making our roads safer are among a few of the legislative priorities members of the Town …

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Portsmouth Town Council sets legislative priorities for 2021

Climate change, road safety, health, and tax burden among biggest concerns

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Protecting Portsmouth from climate change, supporting single-payer health insurance and making our roads safer are among a few of the legislative priorities members of the Town Council and town staff are pressing for 2021.

The council will hold a joint meeting with the School Committee on Monday, Jan. 27, along with the local delegation of state legislators to review what bills should be introduced — or re-introduced — in the General Assembly on behalf of the town.

While Council Vice President Linda Ujifusa said the school board has whittled its list down to two or three priorities, the council voted unanimously to forward a longer set of concerns to lawmakers in advance so they could review them to determine which had the best chances of receiving General Assembly approval.

Ms. Ujifusa and council member J. Mark Ryan recommended the following priorities:

• Support legislation to establish a permanent fund to help Rhode Island adapt to the impacts of climate change. 

• Support funding to create a municipal infrastructure grant program. The legislature passed a bill creating the framework for the program — similar to the MassWorks Program in Massachusetts that has stimulated significant private investment in the revitalization of urban and town centers — but without funding in the 2019 state budget to implement it. 

• Help shift the tax burden off Portsmouth homeowners by reversing past failed “trickle-down” tax cuts.

• Protect citizens’ health and welfare by auditing the private insurance companies running Rhode Island’s Medicaid program, and by supporting single-payer “Medicare for all” health insurance.

Council member Keith Hamilton recommended the following legislative priorities:

• In anticipation of Rhode Island legalizing recreational marijuana in an attempt to close budget holes, Portsmouth and other host communities should receive a tax associated from each sale to help offset future expenses. Mr. Hamilton noted the Greenleaf Compassion Center in Portsmouth is one of only three medical marijuana facilities in Rhode Island, and it could start selling recreational marijuana at some point. The Massachusetts statute provides 3-percent payments to communities, plus the ability to apply a local sales tax not to exceed 3 percent, he said. In addition, he’d like to limit the number of marijuana distribution facilities to one per 50,000 residents in a host community — thereby limiting Portsmouth to one.

• Noting that his water bill from the Portsmouth Water and Fire District had risen by more than 9 percent this past year, Mr. Hamilton suggested that R.I. General Law be amended to limit all entities that have the power to levy property taxes — including water and fire districts — to keep within the 4-percent state tax cap.

• Mr. Hamilton also said the state should fund the upcoming special election rather than individual towns.

The council also received some suggestions on legislative priorities from the heads of various town departments: 

• Town Planner Gary Crosby: Promote the state takeover of Defense Highway/Stingham Road from the U.S. Navy; and update the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act to make it easier for municipalities to comply and for others to develop such projects.

• Brian Woodhead, director of Public Works: Seek infrastructure funding to improve safety on state roads as well as the town’s roadway and infrastructure projects; and increase efforts and funding to address the impacts of sea level rise.

• Fire Chief Paul Ford: Seek funding assistance for COVID-19 vaccine distribution. “We don’t have any idea how much further this is going to go, but we’re assuming it will go to the full-blown MEDS-PODs for Portsmouth at some point, and somebody really has to address that funding.” Chief Ford also seeks state advocacy for federal funding for two firefighting grants.

• Tax Assessor/Collector Matt Helfand: Continue support for two bills — H7408 and S2071 — which authorize tax assessors to lock in assessed values based on the date of the last revaluation.

• Human Resources Director Lisa Puglia: Support a pay equity/minimum wage to remain competitive with Massachusetts; and to expand the plastic ban from bags to other consumer products.

• Business Development Director Rich Talipsky: Advocate for improvements to and accessibility of high-speed internet; and for a state office on electronic connectivity, e-commerce and cybersecurity.

DPW contract approved

In other action Monday, the council unanimously approved the ratification of a new three-year contract between the town and members of the Department of Public Works, represented by the National Association of Government Employees Local #280.

Town Administrator Richard Rainer, Jr. said the contract, effective from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2023, calls for 2-percent raises in each year of the pact, which is in line with other local unions.

Under the contract, the town will permit employees to accumulate up to 48 hours of compensation time annually, with no carryover. Employees may use their accrued compensation time — with the approval of the director — only if it does not result in overtime and/or result in any cost to the town. 

The new contract also allows members to donate up to 90 sick days to another employee on a voluntary basis for the purpose and use of a sick day.

Resignations/appointments

The council accepted with regret the resignation of Michael Sheehan from the Prudence Island Planning Commission.

In a strongly worded letter to the town, Mr. Sheehan complained about several procedural issues with the board. He claimed the commission doesn’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order properly and that it lacks a secretary or vice president.

Mr. Sheehan also said the board “does not follow open meetings rules” and that it has not approved any meeting minutes since the current chair has been at the helm.

The council unanimously voted to appoint Conrad Donahue to fill a vacancy on the West Side Development Advisory Committee. There were two applicants for the open seat, the other being Tom Grieb. The council also re-appointed Terri-Denise Cortvriend and Edward T Lopes, Jr. to the committee.

Joe Forgione was appointed to the Economic Development Committee. There are still six vacancies on that committee.

The following people were re-appointed: Coleen J. Raposa to the Glen Manor House Authority; Nancy M. Smith and Karen Vebber to the Juvenile Hearing Board; Matthew Ellsworth to the Melville Park Committee; and Leslie S. Costa to the Tree Commission.

Finance director leaving

Mr. Rainer announced that Finance Director Lisa Mills is resigning effective Jan. 29 to take a position elsewhere. She has been working for the town since April 2018.

Mr. Rainer wished Ms. Mills well and thanked her for her service to the town.

Future meetings

The council scheduled the following upcoming virtual meetings, all at 7 p.m. on Monday:

• Jan. 27 (This meeting will include a joint session with the School Committee to focus on legislative and budget priorities.)

• Feb. 8

• Feb. 22

• March 8

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