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Portsmouth council shifts money around for civic support

Citing Covid-19, grants for library, senior center reduced

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PORTSMOUTH — The Covid-19 pandemic once again played a factor in some budgetary decision-making by the Town Council on Wednesday, April 22. This time it came while parsing out funds to organizations seeking civic support from the town. 

During a budget workshop Tuesday, April 21, the council voted to provisionally approve a 2021-21 budget for the School Department, which included Town Administrator Richard Rainer Jr.’s recommendation to lop $40,000 from the district’s capital improvement request as a precautionary measure against the pandemic’s potential financial impact.

When the annual civic support requests were reviewed at a remote budget workshop Wednesday, the health crisis again came into play — good news for some groups, bad news for others.

After a contentious budget session over civic support items last year, the council vowed to make the process go smoother this time around. Groups seeking funds were asked to get their requests in earlier than ever, before, and the council prioritized a list back on Feb. 10.

The council received 15 requests ranging from $1,000 for Meals on Wheels and the Eastern R.I. Conservation District, to $532,753 for the Portsmouth Free Public Library. The library’s request was $7,873 more (1.5 percent) than its current allocation. The senior center asked for $80,000, the same amount it was granted last year. 

But because both organizations have had to close its buildings due to COVID-19, some council members argued they could do with slightly less money due to savings in operational costs, which could then be granted to other groups.

In the end, the council voted unanimously to provisionally approve the reduce the library’s request by $4,000 and the senior center’s by $6,000, and spread that $10,000 out among these four groups:

• CFP Center for Arts, Wellness, and Community ($5,000)

• Clean Ocean Access ($2,000)

• Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center ($2,000)

• Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District ($1,000)

‘Behind the 8 ball’

An earlier motion by council member J. Mark Ryan would have level-funded the library, but Michael Mello, president of the library’s board of trustees, argued against that. He said the library needs to raise $70,000 on its own just to meet its budget for next year, and the pandemic is making that difficult.

“We haven’t been able to have these events. We’re really behind the 8 ball,” said Mr. Mello, adding that full-time employees are still working and the building’s heating and electricity are still on. “I really think the savings aren’t going to be that great.”

Dr. Ryan withdrew his motion.

In addition, the council voted to reinstate $3,000 to Newport County Mental Health, which had been mistakenly left off the list of grantees originally approved back in February. The money was deducted from the Prudence Volunteer Fire Department’s request, leaving the department with $184,302, so the bottom line was not changed.

In total, the council provisionally approved $1.03 million in civic support for next fiscal year, which is $125,212 more (6.35 percent) than the current amount.

Bad precedent?

Larry Fitzmorris of the taxpayer group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens, as he has in the past, argued against using taxpayer dollars to fund nonprofit organizations such as Clean Ocean Access, the CFP center and Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District. That sets a bad precedent, he said, and could lead to many more nonprofits flooding the council with requests.

Council Vice President Linda Ujifusa, however, said even a small amount of civic support can give the town “a lot of bang for our buck.” 

It’s “penny-wise and pound-foolish” not to support organizations that help bring grants to the town, Ms. Ujifusa said. “Common Fence Point basically gave us a community center, and to not give them any sort of support really cuts them off at the knees.”

Council President Kevin Aguiar said he’d like to see the council revise its policy on how civic supports are doled out. Under Covid-19, he said, some organization’s operations may remain diminished, so they may not be in need of the full allotment.

“The council should have a little more discretion moving forward on how that money is released. If the library is closed down, there could be some additional savings there. That being said, any surplus money should be going back into our general fund,” Mr. Aguiar said.

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