Town Council reluctantly slashes civic support

In an unremittingly grim three-hour Portsmouth Town Council meeting this evening, an audience of 35 citizens and stakeholders made desperate pleas for civic organizations that, in most cases, ended up with mere token appropriations. Direct aid for the neediest and most traumatized took the biggest percentage hit, with community aid and mental health programs slashed from a collective $30K last year to tentative appropriations of just $1,500.

"This is heart-rending," said Council President Dennis Canario. Added Councilor Len Katzman, "When people say that they want less government — this is what less government looks like."

It looks, frankly, pretty ugly. Civic organizations had been divided, in the Town Administrator's proposed budget, into three groups: "A" groups that provided quasi-governmental services, like Portsmouth Action For Youth, that runs the Town after School program; "B" groups, like Newport County Community Mental Health, the provider of low-cost care; and finally, the "C" groups like Little League and Soccer.

The "A" groups considered themselves lucky to see 23% cuts from last year's funding. Cybil Pacheco of Portsmouth Action for Youth (PAY) was typical. They serve two thousand Portsmouth kids with afterschool and summer programs, and saw their budget slashed by $16K. But when I caught up with her, she remained upbeat. "We will always find a way to work with what we have," she told me.

The Portsmouth Free Public Library got the best shake, level funding, since any reduction would threaten their state aid. Jim Seveney, considering a motion to meet their increased costs, somewhat desperately asked Town Admin Driscoll, "If we give them this [additional] 6K, we have to take it from somewhere else? Are we in a zero-sum game?"

"Yes," replied Driscoll. Referring to the Paiva-Weed tax cap, he added, "We've been in a zero-sum game since Senate Bill 3050."

Consider another "A"-list group, the Substance Abuse Task Force. Director Bonny Miller hit the Council hard: "The good news: It's been almost 20 years since we lost a child to alcohol or drugs and driving, and Bristol, Tiverton, and Middletown cannot say the same thing." Without additional money, she noted, they risk losing their director — Ms. Miller — and will be forced to scale back programs. Now the following is purely my bias. The cost of safer, drug-smart schools, $10,600, is about what you would pay for a couple of days of intensive care for a critically injured teen, or, to put it in the baldest possible terms, for a respectful but not lavish funeral.

"I want to support you, but I'm voting no," said Karen Gleason. Let's remember that, shall we? That's a comforting thing to say to a bereaved parent.

And while we're filing things away for the future, let's remember why we are in this position: the PCC arbitrarily slashed $600K from the Town budget at the Tent Meeting. Not from the schools; think about them what you will. This was 600K from the Town, and when it comes to providing mandatory services like Police and Fire, or supporting "luxuries" like protecting our kids from the lure of substance abuse, the Council had no leeway left.

PCC, Inc. President Fitzmorris, self-proclaimed master of the tent meeting, and the "tax revolt" he leads put us here. Not fiscal irresponsibility. Not backroom deals. Not union contracts. The PCC cut 600K from the Town Budget. And if one kid is injured as a result, I want it to be on the heads of all those who sat in the Tent and voted for that cut. I'm looking at you when I say that, Larry.

Then came the "B" groups. In what was a purely symbolic gesture, the Council began to systematically reverse the Town Admin's recommendation to cut all funding for these, awarding most a token $500. "I'm proud of everybody for doing that," said Canario after the meeting. "It didn't make me feel good, but it made me feel better."

The odd exception — and I mean, really freaking odd — was the Anthony House Residents Association Bus Trip. They were asking the Council for $3,000 to provide motorcoach transportation to scenic destinations. "This is their major outing of the year," said Anthony House Association Director Tom Ellis. Karen Gleason tried to get the Council to give them $2,100: "I don't want to deny our elderly residents a trip." To the Council's credit, there was no second. Fucking bus trips? When she won't support funding for substance abuse? Could this, conceivably, have something to do with the fact that the PCC holds their monthly meetings at Anthony House? I have asked before on this blog whether we need to register lobbyists at the local level, and this does nothing to convince me otherwise.

You want the grim B-list statistics, watch the meeting on Channel 18. (At least until Larry runs out of tape and leaves. The vaunted technical resources of the PCC couldn't spring for a second VHS for the meeting.) The Coop Extension, which provides instruction to farmers to help keep our food supply safe: cut from $5K to $500. East Bay Community Action (née New Visions) which runs Head Start, provides food and clothing help for 100 households, and 200 residents with subsidized health care: $14K to $500. "If Portsmouth says no," begged their director Dennis Ray, "It sets a precedent." (At this very moment, I watched Larry Fitzmorris yawn and put his glasses in his pocket.)

Take Newport County Community Mental Health, which provides counseling to 300 residents outside the private-pay system. Their spokesperson, Francis Parenzino tried to reach out. "I believe the Council, in your hearts, supports us. We're looking at $1 per capita. [$21k] We implore you to maintain your values." Sorry. $500.

Or the Newport Womens' Resource Center, which shelters victims of domestic violence and provides counseling, safe haven, and therapy, also facing big state cuts and looking for $5K. Decimated to $500.

The Samaritans, whose volunteers deliver over $150K worth of time to the most desperate folks in our communities. Asking a mere $1860. (How much is a life saved worth, Larry?) $500.

By the time the Council got to Group C, even those appearing to speak for their organizations knew what they were in for. Bill Hall, president of the Portsmouth Little League, put it best: "I almost feel embarrassed to talk about Little League after hearing all this." The sports groups were lucky to walk away with their token appropriation.

There's always hope, of course. This is just the provisional appropriation, and there will be further discussion Wednesday evening, and at hearings to be scheduled next month.

But the Council was clearly depressed about the results. When asked how they felt about the evening, one Councilor replied, "It sucked out loud, start to finish."

Comments

I say responsibility, not blame, because I want to state it in neutral terms.

The PCC is indeed responsible for the cut of 633K from the town budget at their legally-convened tent meeting. The presentation by the Finance Director at the beginning of the meeting stated quite clearly that if the 633K had not been cut at the tent meeting, the town would not be in the position it now is in. Members of the PCC, reading this blog, can therefore have one of only two responses, namely, "Yes, I'm responsible and I'm proud of it", or "Yes, I'm responsible and I'm sorry."

There is a position that embraces what has happened and says, "Yes, this is what I want. Government shouldn't be in the business of funding a Substance Abuse Task Force. The free market should take care of that."

I disagree with that philosophy and believe it is nothing more than a utopian vision of a world that does not exist. But, it is at least a consistent philosophy that its adherents can embrace and take "credit" for arbitrarily slashing the town budget.

On the other hand, I some folks who have said they didn't know what they were voting on and didn't realize they were cutting the town budget. They thought they were only cutting the school budget. Others may have known they were cutting the town budget, but maybe they just didn't realize that cutting the town budget would translate into real cuts of things they didn't anticipate. These PCC members should voice their opinion. Larry Fitzmorris needs to know if his members are not uniformly happy with the results.

So which is it, PCC members? What do you have to say?

Sadly, I think none of them read this blog. The criticism they'll find here is too painful.

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