State of the City 2017 Address
Good morning. Thank you again to the Chamber for hosting me today. It is a pleasure to discuss the state of our City with you today. There is no question that this is an interesting time for Portsmouth. In many ways, we are at a crossroads in our City’s history as we navigate various efforts - improving infrastructure, enhancing cultural planning, stimulating economic development and improving the delivery and quality of general government services, education and public safety - while not diluting Portsmouth’s distinct character.
As expected, Portsmouth continues to maintain a certain charm in the eyes of its residents and visitors. This past year has seen similar, reoccurring accolades in popular publications such as The Boston Globe, USA Today, Paste Magazine and many more.
While there have been many developments over time in the City of Portsmouth, one theme remains constant: our ability to instill a stable and predictable tax rate with a high level of services to residents, despite the continued downshifting of State and County costs. This ongoing trend of downshifted costs reflects the necessity of smart planning by the City and connecting with the community and local businesses as well.
The economic outlook of the Seacoast area remains strong, as tourism continues to provide further support to the development of our City. The success of this is a result of the many local amenities that are able to continue their own growth in order to sustain our influx of visitors and create a more vibrant community. While the historical nature of our City is one to be well-looked-after, it is also important to continuously evolve according to changes in economic climate and needs of our residents. Now with 7 million visitors to seacoast annually, and hosting over 50 non-profit arts and cultural organizations, over 307 food establishments and almost 2000 hotel rooms, it is necessary to have a reliable infrastructure and implement plans that support smart growth. Many current projects that will be touched upon today focus on increasing sustainability, accessibility and connectivity across all areas of the City.
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 is currently overseeing 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.
Activity within the New Hampshire government continues to cause a trickle-down effect of the City having to absorb and plan for added costs. The diminishing State assistance of shared revenues, state aid grants, retirement contributions and return on the Meals and Rooms Tax over the past decade have led the City to create alternative funding sources and additional strategic planning.
Additionally, there is now financial pressure from Rockingham County, who proposed a bill to change its annual budget year from a calendar year to a July 1 to June 30th fiscal year. If approved, the bill would become law effective January 1, 2018 and Rockingham County would prepare an 18 month budget for the transitional fiscal period. This change most likely will have some financial impact to Portsmouth in fiscal year 2020 as well as the other communities of the County.
Actions by the State and County have placed added financial burdens onto our taxpayers - in addition to costs associated with pensions, healthcare, other inflationary increases, and continued investments in the City’s infrastructure - requiring the City to be at the forefront of strategic financial planning and enabling legislation by implementing long-term financial planning and efforts of the City’s Legislative Subcommittee to secure predictable tax rates for the community.
We’re proud to say that despite certain challenges, Portsmouth ranks #39 as having the lowest equalized tax rate out of all 234 taxable communities as compared to the previous year when we ranked #42.
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.
The City Council began the FY18 budget process by again reinstating the Joint Budget Committee (JBC), which was charged with recommending to the City Manager and the City Council guidelines for the preparation of the proposed FY18 Operating Budget. The Committee was made up of the Mayor, two members of the City Council, two members of the School Board, and one member from each the Police and Fire Commissions.
The JBC was provided a preliminary FY18 proposed budget which was prepared with continuing services and upholding the City’s infrastructure goals and needs. Focusing on increases such as cost-of-living adjustments (COLA), retirement, and health insurance premiums, the JBC voted in favor of a recommendation to the City Council to set a goal of no more than a 4% increase for the overall Operating Budget. The consensus of the City Council was in favor of the JBC recommendation.
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 - most recently 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 overreliance on our City’s property tax.
In addition to financial planning, the recruitment and development of essential City staff has resulted in many successful programs and projects. Most recently, Nancy Colbert Puff took over Dave Allen’s position as Deputy City Manager after previously serving as Kittery’s Town Manager. Due to his engineering expertise, Dave Allen continues to have a role within the City in managing the development of Portsmouth’s second parking garage downtown. Meanwhile, Juliet Walker, having already worked for the City’s planning department for several years, has recently been appointed the City’s new Planning Director.
I’d like to first touch upon some popular topics. The Peirce Island Wastewater Treatment Facility construction is underway, with staff working to mitigate the impacts of construction on nearby residents and businesses throughout this process. Although this project has been a point of concern for many, it is the best plan in leading to a healthier Piscataqua River and water system for our community in the years to come. During construction, recreation impacts have been minimal - with alternative dog parks added to accommodate residents - and designated haul routes during construction have minimized the commuting and economic impacts on the Downtown and the South End. Thus far, construction traffic has not resulted in significant impacts.
Water quality and supply have been popular not only in local news but across the state. Since the detection of PFCs in Pease Tradeport’s Haven Well in 2015, City officials have been working vigorously with State, EPA and Army officials to advocate for upgraded water treatment. Currently, the City and the United States Air Force are working together to continue the design of a treatment system for the removal of PFC llevels below the EPA health advisory, from water supplied by the Smith, Harrison and Haven Wells at the Pease Tradeport. This latest agreement will provide the City with reimbursement for engineering work to further determine the parameters and location of the final water treatment system. Additionally, the City’s engineering consultant is performing an analysis of other existing municipal treatment plants currently treating PFCs to better define operating parameters. I am proud of our staff for advocating for the community during this process, and being active in creating improvements to ensure healthy water quality for many future years.
The City also managed a severe drought throughout most of 2016. Precipitation events in late-2016 and early-2017 have helped to recharge the Bellamy Reservoir, increase stream flows and cause groundwater levels to rise to conditions typical for this time of year. Water operations staff continue to assess the supply conditions and will provide updates at least monthly to the public. Proper management, water restrictions and consistent outreach assisted in enduring this extended drought.
As most of you know, our City lost the State Street Saloon to a dangerous fire on April 7th. It goes without saying that the work of our Fire and Police Departments were crucial in limiting the damage of this event. Both the Fire and Inspections departments are currently reviewing how building and fire codes might be changed to help prevent similar hazards. It should also be noted the response of the Public Work’s Water Department to this crisis was essential support in combating this fire. At the peak of the fire, 10,000 gallons per minute was being pumped out to the scene. Throughout the event, roughly 800,000 gallons of water was used without any concerns of water main breaks. This instance is a demonstration of the importance in investing in our infrastructure. Had this fire occurred a decade ago prior to water and sewer improvements made to the downtown area, we could have witnessed an even more tragic devastation.
Parking and transportation is essential in keeping Portsmouth businesses desirable for both locals and visitors. Avenues for biking and walking continue to expand. The design of an on-road bicycle route along Middle Street and Lafayette Road between the High School and Downtown is in development, and the City is also waiting on funding to begin construction that would turn the abandoned Hampton Rail Trail into a dedicated bike and pedestrian path that would eventually run from Portsmouth to Hampton and potentially down to Massachusetts. Beginning in May, residents and commuters will notice several Zagster bike share stations across the City. This bike share program serves like a Zipcar for cyclists, allowing riders to reserve bikes via their mobile phone.
The Wayfinding Program has identified appropriate wayfinding types, messaging and locations in a uniform and recognizable design menu that is unique to the City. The entire wayfinding system includes a combination of citywide signage as well as online and mobile tools to assist pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit users.
The new Foundry Place Garage, which is expected to be complete in about two years once construction begins later this year, 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, inexpensive living spaces and public spaces for residents to enjoy. From an economic standpoint, there will be an increase in jobs and income from construction activity and ongoing operations, as well as business activity of properties included in and around the project.
PassportParking - a "pay by app" system that allows customers to pay for their parking session with their smart phone - will soon be available citywide. With Passport, users can pay for their parking, keep track of remaining time, and even extend their parking session (up to the maximum allotted time) remotely. Besides convenience for city parkers, the new Passport service will provide City officials with detailed data around parking in Portsmouth. Passport’s real-time parking data has helped cities across the country improve operations and increase parking revenue. This tool could ultimately lead to business incentives in partnering with the application to appeal to new and returning customers.
To complement all of these transportation efforts, upgrading these 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.
The City is also achieving several sustainable milestones. Recently, the City has announced the implementations of solar power energy at both Portsmouth High School and the Madbury Water Treatment Plant, as well as the conversion of all of its high pressure sodium street lights to LED lights. These projects, along with a successful recycling rate, has resulted in a significant reduction of carbon emissions.
The combined total size of the solar energy arrays at the High School and Madbury Plant is 578 kilowatts DC, producing more than 700,000 kilowatt hours of renewable electricity annually. The array at the Portsmouth High School is located on the roof of the school and will generate about 11% of the school’s energy needs, while the array at the Water Treatment Plant is ground mounted and will generate about 25% of the plant’s energy needs. The environmental impact of the generation from the two arrays is equivalent to a reduction in 525,000 pounds of coal burned or 55,000 gallons of gasoline consumed each year. By converting 1,610 streetlights to LED equipment, the City will save 494,000 kilowatt-hours of annual electricity consumption.
For over a decade, the City’s annual recovery rate - which combines recycling and composting rates versus landfill and waste-to-energy rates - has averaged 55 percent. In 2016, the City was able to recycle over 4,000 tons and compost over 2,000 tons of its collected waste. By successfully diverting over half of its waste material from the landfill for the past decade, the City also surpasses both national and state averages that struggle to stay above 35 percent. Since adding a food waste drop off at the Recycling Center last year, composting efforts have increased. Compost bins will also be available for purchase for residents at a discounted price of $50 beginning next month at the Department of Public Works, and updated public receptacles will continue to be placed throughout the City to improve ease of recycling in public spaces.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, the combined efforts of the solar array projects, LED lights and recycling results in a reduction of 13,930 metric tons of carbon emissions annually.
Two key plans have come to fruition this past year: the City’s Master Plan and Prescott Park’s Master Plan. The City's Master Plan is a planning document designed to guide land use and development within Portsmouth. Under New Hampshire state law, the Planning board is required to prepare and periodically amend and update the Master Plan. The Master Plan is a great opportunity for the City to reflect on how Portsmouth has changed over the past decade, and think about what we want as a community moving forward. This is a chance for the Planning Board to adopt a comprehensive vision for the future which has been endorsed by the community. Public input for Portsmouth2025 has been in process over the past couple years, and the final plan will be adopted this year.
In similar fashion, public input has been central as consultants and City staff worked together to finalize the Master Plan for Prescott Park and Four Tree Island’s redevelopment. While several significant maintenance and other improvement projects have been carried out in the park in recent years, many features, systems, amenities, surfaces, and structures are in need of replacement, upgrade or other improvement. With the plan finalized, next steps of planning are underway to schedule phased upgrades to this area.
Since mid-2016, the City has also been underway in redesigning its website. By the end of 2017, the public can anticipate a fresh design that addresses various City goals including enhancing user functionality, advancing the City’s brand, strengthening the user experience and creating an engaging, interactive portal for the public, building a larger social media springboard and providing more interactive elements. A new website will help the City expand outreach and receive further input on various City services and upcoming policy issues.
Meanwhile, the City continues to grow other platforms, such as sending emergency snow and water notifications to residents by email and text messages through CodeRED. The Department of Public Works’ Portsmouth Click N’ Fix mobile app has grown in popularity, allowing residents to take pictures of concerns throughout town and make maintenance requests. Additional mobile apps will be introduced to the community through City’s upcoming bike-share reservation program, payment of parking meters and more.
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.
To view the State of the City Presentation, please click here.