Portsmouth City Manager Derek K. Allen found himself the target of several accusations by members of the Portsmouth City Council Monday night. One accused him of making excuses while another said he was bordering on insubordination.
Allen said he has had people coming into his office and emailing him, complaining about code enforcement, high weeds and buildings that are in bad shape.
“If the county gets the Land Bank established and we apply for the funding that is just sitting there waiting for people to get, there should be well over a million dollars for houses to be torn down that are burned – that are abandoned – that are in terrible shape,” Allen said. “So hopefully the county acts on that and we’re able to receive that money. Absent that money, we don’t have money to tear down houses.”
Allen said the city had received a grant of approximately $250,000 several years ago and that money, along with some of the city’s Capital Improvement funds, were used to tear down houses. He said the same goes for questions about why the city does not mow the grass of houses that have been abandoned or neglected.
“The reason why we aren’t mowing, we don’t have the money to mow all the properties that have high weeds. We recognize that they have high weeds,” Allen said. “We can send notices out, if there’s somebody that’s living there, and they do it – great. But a lot of these houses are abandoned. You pull it up on the Auditor’s website and they’ll have delinquent taxes. Some of them are over five years delinquent. We don’t have the staff to go out and mow properties. I hate to remind everybody, but we are still under fiscal watch.”
Allen said the city once had 10 employees in the Street Department. That number now is seven – one works with the street sweeper at night and one employee has just been lost to extended medical leave.
“So they’re supposed to fix the roads. They’re supposed to mow all the parks, mow the right-of-way, and now we say, let’s have them mow houses with high weeds,” Allen said. “We aren’t prepared to do that yet. It’s all we can do to maintain what we’re doing.”
That led to a reaction by Third Ward Councilman Kevin E. Johnson.
“With all due respect to what you were just saying – and I want to say this respectively – it just sounds like a bunch of excuses,” Johnson said. “We say we can’t cut grass on properties, that we don’t have the money. We just asked the taxpayers to pay more money. It’s a mower. It’s a weedeater. It’s some bushhogs. Don’t we have jail programs where people have to pay off their fines? Can’t they work? I’m asking.”
Allen said people who are on probation pick up trash, do custodial work in the city building and mow the grass around the city building and the City Health Department.
“I can’t put somebody that is on probation on a tractor,” Allen said.
He said it is difficult just to keep the city’s own property mowed with six people in the Street Department.
Later in the meeting, Allen talked about his fiscal planning.
“I’ve asked people for patience. I’ve told people that I took this job thinking, well, three-four years things will be going good – five years it will be fixed,” Allen said. “If things get fixed in 10 years, it’ll be a miracle. If that’s unacceptable speed then I’m not the right guy for the job.”
During the segment in which each member of City Council gives remarks, Sixth Ward Councilman Tom Lowe challenged Allen.
“I do have a communication issue with Mr. city manager,” Lowe said. “The people elected me to that ward and I don’t care what happens in it, I want to know about it and that’s not being done. I’ve requested on numerous occasions for you to keep me posted on things in the Sixth Ward and that’s not happening, and the way I look at that is that’s kind of insubordination and I’m not going to tolerate it. So I would like to be kept abreast of everything that happens in my ward.”