May 2018 - John P. Bohenko
Good morning, and thank you to the Chamber for having me today. I enjoy this opportunity to not only offer updates on City activity, but to better explain challenges we address as well as convey our goals to enhance this community and preserve our culture.
At a quick glance, many residents and visitors appreciate Portsmouth’s character, as demonstrated by ongoing accolades from popular, national publications, as well as the engagement displayed by many citizens. But when examined more closely, there are many interesting initiatives underway that aim to usher in fresh dialogue and protect what makes this community unique. In just this past year, we have witnessed the Chamber of Commerce’s rebirth as the Chamber Collaborative, as well as the launch of the Portsmouth400 Program. Both of these groups help us create a larger, ongoing conversations and call to action in having our residents and businesses find their identity within Portsmouth, and working alongside them to help it grow in a healthy way.
At the City, we aim to do the same. Our current goals have been formalized by way of City Council and through resolutions, committees, internal policies, and/or master plan documentation, which include:
- Promote and support sustainable practices – such as solar projects at our Madbury Treatment Plant and Portsmouth High School, the installation of LED streetlights citywide, the Zagster bike share program, and many more.
- Create a bikeable and walkable community
- Address transportation and parking needs
- Improve public outreach
- Promote a welcoming, safe and active community
- Support a vibrant economic environment for businesses to grow and thrive
- Build and maintain a robust and authentic infrastructure
- Maintain financial stability
- Promote involvement in legislative development to protect City operations and assets
In order to execute any of these goals and initiatives, we must execute smart financial planning that still allows for a stable and predictable tax rate, while maintaining a high level of services to our citizens. Each year, this includes both predictable and new challenges.
The primary challenge facing FY19 comes from the sale of Eversource’s power generation assets including the Schiller Station. Although the City has experienced significant new growth, this growth has been absorbed by the loss of value of the Schiller Station.
There is also the continued absorption of downshifted State and County costs; we are still burdened with the fact the property tax in the state of New Hampshire is the primary funding source for local and county governments, and continue to lose state and federal grants. Although that is the case, this year we are anticipating additional revenues in the area of:
- Special education
- Kindergarten State Aid
- School Tuition
- Investment income due to rising interest rates
- Building permit fees
- Motor vehicle registrations
We are continuing to work with the legislature to continue identifying additional revenue sources for cities and towns.
While managing those factors, the City Council has just received my budget and will be working to reduce budgets where possible without dramatically affecting services. The Council is committed to reducing the proposed tax rates as well. The upcoming budget not only navigates the aforementioned challenges, but also includes additional, City Council-voted initiatives to be accounted for:
- Prescott Park operations, now fully accounted for in the special revenue fund, will require an increase in subsidy from the General Fund.
- Additional staff in the Police Department
- Reduction of transfers from the Parking and Transportation Fund to the General Fund to offset costs for downtown Police services, Fire Services, and costs associated with student transportation will increase costs in these departments
Through financial planning, we are able to manage tens of millions of dollars of projects that will improve our overall infrastructure.
In addition to managing these factors within our budget, there are many long-range issues and plans concerning our infrastructure and environment that are priorities as well.
Last fall the GSA determined that its tenants’ space needs could be better fulfilled by renting space in the Portsmouth area, and that its long term future will not be served by remaining in place at the 107,000 s.f. McIntyre building. Subsequently, the GSA began the disposition process to transfer ownership of the property. This process, determined by federal regulations, involves offering the property to public entities before offering it for sale on the private market. The City responded with a letter of interest in January, and the GSA invited the City to submit an application through the Historic Property Surplus Program to obtain the property. The guidelines to this program allows the City to acquire the site at no cost, provided that the historic character of the property be preserved, and directs that any income-producing activity on the site be allowed to return a “reasonable profit,” but that all excess proceeds be returned to the City for historic preservation, open space, and recreational uses.
The City has been sponsoring a public input process to determine how best to take advantage of this opportunity within the known constraints of the program regulations. The City Council must decide to submit an application to the Historic Monument program. The National Park Service reviews the application and, ultimately, makes a formal recommendation to the GSA. The application has 3 fundamental elements: a preservation plan, a use plan, and a financial plan. Council may also choose to enter into a Development Agreement with a selected private partner at the time of application to the program, to outline the terms of the partnership; the City has now entered an agreement with Redgate/Kane. The GSA then makes a final decision as to whether to proceed with the transfer, and prepares the deed. Once the transfer is made, the NPS is responsible for monitoring the property to ensure its use is in accordance with the program regulations.
Three phases of public input sessions have just concluded, and the concept plan outlined by Redgate/Kane representatives includes turning the federal building into office space and building four new mixed-use buildings. The plan, as it stands now, also calls for creating an indoor “public realm” atrium, three outdoor community spaces, which includes a proposal for an indoor/outdoor market with artists’ stalls along Linden Way. Thus far, developers captured a lot of what came through the public input process. The amount of input we have received thus far has been very encouraging.
As I alluded to earlier, overall sustainability and environmentally-conscious operations are a huge priority for the City, one which we are continuing to navigate. One long-term project that has been under scrutiny is the monitoring of the Coakley Landfill. Contrary to many narratives, the City of Portsmouth – as a member of the Coakley Landfill Group (CLG) – has successfully monitored the Coakley Landfill site since it was capped almost thirty years ago. While it is our duty to always act in the best interest of our City and taxpayers, as part of the CLG we ultimately follow the direction set forth by those who have the responsibility to lead and establish remediation efforts: the Department of Environmental Services (DES) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It is important to note that knowledge on emerging contaminants is continuously evolving; we do not have all the answers, but DES and EPA follow any new guidelines – such as deep bedrock testing and fish tissue sampling – set forth by scientific evidence that emerges. With that said, concrete, scientific data resulting from extensive annual testing and monitoring has regularly determined that measures taken to remediate the site have been “adequately protective of public health.” Most recently, members of DES have testified that there are no imminent threats to residents surrounding the Landfill. The CLG and Portsmouth, through its membership, has taken full responsibility to ensure that the groundwater migrating off site is safe for all residents in proximity to the landfill, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future until the EPA certifies closure. The City is also continuing to keep the public informed through a public meeting that we will host at the Community Campus on June 7th at 7 p.m.
Another sustainable plan that the City has embarked on is the Historic Resources Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Plan. On the heels of a Coastal Resilience Initiative in which the City mapped areas most vulnerable to sea level rise and severe coastal storms, this study is incorporating results of the newly adopted 2016 Downtown Historic Register District on the Federal Register with the City’s a 3-D Massing Model and the City’s property valuation database to develop an economic and cultural valuation of its historic properties. The valuation methodology uses economic, historic, cultural and flood water vulnerability measurements to characterize, risk-assessments and prioritize key historic assets in the City. The project integrates the quantitative data (e.g., flood elevation, topography, structure-type, and economic value) with the qualitative data (e.g., historic survey forms, National Park Service designations) to develop a Historic Resource Valuation and Risk Assessment Map.
The project also focused on four target areas to evaluate the economic impact of flooding and sea-level rise in a variety of land uses and settings. Strawbery Banke, a national historic monument representing early colonial settlement in northern New England, is being carefully evaluated for both sea-level change and rising groundwater towards the historic structures. An older section of the South End neighborhood is also being assessed and includes private, historically significant homes; a historic cemetery; and the culturally significant Prescott Park. In the downtown, the study is evaluating impacts of sea-level rise for the working waterfront, where both commercial and industrial uses continue to operate and depend on land-side, support services. An area of historically significant homes and cemeteries along the North Mill Pond is additionally being studied with the notion that adaption strategies will have broad applicability to the larger Mill Pond areas in downtown Portsmouth.
A strong parking and transportation network continues to be a huge priority for the City as well. The new Foundry Place Garage, which is expected to be complete in the fall, will help alleviate the ongoing frustrations of parking availability but also serve as a connector towards the North and West ends by offering the opportunity for new businesses and public spaces for residents to enjoy. From an economic standpoint, this opportunity brings aesthetic and cultural improvements to the North End and West End areas of the City. Plans are being reviewed to install more electric vehicle charging stations at Foundry Place as well.
The City presently offers EV Charging Stations, at the Hanover Parking Garage and at the City Hall Lower Lot, located at the corner of Junkins Avenue and South Street.
To help alleviate downtown parking and traffic in the meantime, the free Portsmouth Parking Shuttle bus will run for an extended season this summer beginning next weekend through Labor Day; this is paid through the parking revenue fund, NOT local taxes.
The Zagster bike share program has also just started its second season. This year brings an increase of stations throughout the downtown area, thanks to a sponsorship by Portwalk Place, to help encourage alternative modes of transportation and reduce emissions. The City and Zagster are welcoming inquiries of sponsorship interest to continue expanding the network of bike stations through all of Portsmouth, not just the downtown.
To complement all of these transportation efforts, upgrading key corridors – Maplewood Avenue, Islington Street and Market Street – to complete streets will be essential to our infrastructure, future safety and promoting alternative forms of transportation.
Two key plans have also come to fruition this past year included the Business Retention program as well as the Vaughan-Worth-Bridge concept plan.
Portsmouth is an economic hub, attracting many employers over a large scope of focus. In order to continue business development as well as help sustain current businesses, the Economic Development Department oversaw the City’s Business Retention Program, surveying a very large portion of our local businesses to get a pulse on their past, present, and future to ensure proper City planning.
The Vaughan-Worth-Bridge Committee developed options for future use of City-owned property in these areas and reported back to the City Council with strategic recommendations as to how the City can best use its property in service to the community. Topics covered addressed land use, urban design, public infrastructure, and timing. Moving forward, these recommendations will be further assessed and ultimately budgeted in revitalizing this area, forging a better connection between different areas of the City for businesses and residents.
Despite managing fiscal challenges and juggling large projects, the City upholds lowered tax rates compared to other New Hampshire communities. Among the thirteen cities, Portsmouth has the lowest equalized tax rate. We’re proud to say that despite certain challenges, Portsmouth ranks #37 as having the lowest equalized tax rate out of all 230 taxable communities.
Our fiscal management, staff and programs continue to be recognized as well.
The City has been able to maintain a strong fund balance evident by its “AAA” bond rating from Standard & Poor’s rating agency and avoid large spikes in any given year while still providing the highest level of services to our citizens. The main driver in these efforts is due to a number of long-term financial policies. These policies include, but are not limited to the creation of an Unassigned Fund Balance Ordinance, a Leave at Termination Stabilization Fund, a Debt Service planning Policy, a Capital Improvement Plan, a Rolling Stock Replacement program, and a Rate Stabilization Policy for Water and Sewer Funds.
In addition, the City’s Legislative Subcommittee continues to work with Legislative Delegates in an attempt to create enabling legislation to allow for added local revenue sources. In meeting regularly with various House members and our State Senator, City staff can better explore the intentions behind proposed and emerging bills – such as those concerning meals and rooms taxes and hotel occupancy, accessory dwelling units, etc. – and the consequences or benefits they could have for Portsmouth citizens. The work of this group and City staff continues discussions for alternatives to help offset the over reliance on our City’s property tax.
We have received additional accomplishments this past year, including high recognition for our experienced City staff. One example is Brian Goetz, Portsmouth’s Deputy Director of Public Works, received the 2017 Award of Merit from the New England Water Works Association (NEWWA), the region’s largest and oldest not-for-profit organization of water works professionals. The Award of Merit is bestowed yearly to an individual who has been a member of the Association for a minimum of the past five years and who has demonstrated, in the opinion of the Award of Merit Committee, the highest level of outstanding service to NEWWA, a water utility, the water works practice in general, or a combination of the aforementioned.
Portsmouth is currently a Bronze Level Bike Friendly Community according to The League of American Cyclists. For the past decade, Portsmouth has implemented a number of policies and in-depth plans to grow the City’s biking initiatives and infrastructure. The City will be reapplying for higher accreditation this year as we continue to usher more bike-friendly initiatives such as the bike share program and increased bike lanes throughout the City.
I have attempted today to outline some of the ongoing and upcoming City initiatives. As I mentioned before, this City is very fortunate to have excellent community values that helps develop our future and connects our businesses. Moving forward, I am confident that our City plans will improve the day-to-day lives of residents, forge better connections between neighborhoods, allow our local businesses to thrive and grow the Portsmouth economy in the process.