PORTSMOUTH — Attendance was sparse Wednesday night at the town’s fiscal 2019 budget public hearing, one of the last steps before the Town Council adopts a spending plan for the budget year starts July 1.
About 10 residents attended the meeting in the Portsmouth Middle School auditorium, while the Town Council, School Committee and other town officials numbered about 30.
The provisional budget totals roughly $63,250,000, a more than 2 percent increase over the current budget. Under the proposal, the tax rate for business and residential real estate is $15.97 for every $1,000 of assessed value, while the current rate is $15.42.
The town’s property tax levy is about $52,300,000 in the budget, an increase that measures about 3.96 percent.
If the increase hit 4 percent, six of the seven town councilors would have to approve the budget for it to take effect, according to Larry Fitzmorris, the head of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens.
“This is a very high level,” he said. “We in the Portsmouth Concerned Citizens don’t think it’s an appropriate thing to do.”
Town Council President Keith Hamilton said even if the town did not increase its expenditures, a tax increase would still be necessary “because of the money we lose from the state. Unfortunately, we’re stuck in a rut.”
He called the state’s school funding formula, which has resulted in the Portsmouth district receiving less state money in recent years, the “inequitable funding formula.”
The School Department is anticipating a state funding drop of nearly $300,000 this year.
Resident John F. Davis said the tax bill has gone up too much and senior citizens are “being hit with taxes they can’t afford in their declining years.”
School Committee member Allen Shers said he appreciated Davis’ comment, adding the tax burden might decrease a bit as new buildings currently under construction hit the tax rolls.
Fitzmorris asked the council why the $10 million bond for the construction of a new police station does not include funding to furnish the building. He read the bond question that voters were asked on the ballot in November 2016 and said, in part, that the bond would pay to “equip” and “furnish” the building.
“I would submit that you’re obligated to follow that promise you made to the people of the town,” Fitzmorris said. “No one said additional funding would be necessary. I certainly thought the furnishing was going to be in it, and I thought the equipment would certainly be in it.”
The bond proceeds cover the equipment, but not the furniture, according to Hamilton. “It was an oversight,” he said.
Town Administrator Richard Rainer said the term "furnishing" in the bond question pertains to aspects in the building, such as the detention cells and lightbulb sockets.
“My view of bonds, when you tell me in the voting booth it’s $10 million, that’s what it should be,” Fitzmorris said.
He also asked about cutting $100,000 from the School Department budget.
The School Committee approved roughly $38 million for fiscal 2019, of which more than $32 million would come from town appropriations.
Councilor Linda Ujifusa lauded the department’s budgeting process under Superintendent Ana Riley.
The budget is expected to be adopted at the Town Council meeting on Monday, June 25.