Depending on how you look at it, it may be good news for the citizens of Portsmouth that they are not going to be asked to renew a flood defense levy on the November ballot after all.
In a surprise move, Portsmouth City Council saw to that Monday night when they voted not to bring the issue forward, leaving the city without funds for maintaining its flood defense system. The other side of the coin is that previously exempt facilities such as churches, city schools, Shawnee State University and others may have to make up for the levy by paying a utility storm-water fee.
After the meeting, the Daily Times asked Portsmouth City Manager Derek K. Allen what position that vote put the city in.
“I’m not even sure. It hit me as a surprise,” Portsmouth City Manager Derek K. Allen said. “I’m kind of still in shock. They’re going to have to come up with a way of replacing that funding before Jan. 1 or that fund is going to be in trouble.”
Allen said the city is in the process of awaiting the certification by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of the city’s floodwall.
“But that funding is critical for the maintenance and operation of the flood defense and without that, I guess I would have expected to have some alternative plan in place before making the decision not to (bring the renewal forth),” Allen said.
There is a plan in place by several members of city council. The plan is to put on a sewer fee, which would remove from exemption organizations and companies that have not had to pay previously.
“My pastor’s gonna love me for this, but churches, educational facilities, health care facilities — because I believe when we go there we usually don’t get a free ticket,” Third Ward Councilman Kevin E. Johnson said. “I believe they should have to pay as well.”
Not all members of city council agreed with the plan.
“Educational facilities would be really hit hard if we have a fee,” Second Ward Councilwoman Jo Ann Aeh said. “They’re all right there in the downtown area.”
Portsmouth Mayor Jim Kalb put the non-passage of the ballot issue in perspective.
“I think this is so important. I don’t think this is a fund that can sustain itself for very long without this,” Kalb said. “I also think that we would be sending mixed messages to the state (Auditor of State’s Office) who is reviewing our financial status that we are not holding up our end by taking care of the means that we have to see that our budgets are balanced. So, again I say, this is just putting it on the ballot and I think it is important that it is at least on the ballot.”
That prompted Johnson to address a question to Allen.
“In your opinion sir, how is it going to look to the state should we not pass this tonight?” Johnson asked.
“I don’t think it would look very good,” Allen responded. “If this doesn’t go on the ballot, we don’t have this money, you’re going to devastate that fund.”
Portsmouth Solicitor John Haas said the city has to maintain the floodwall, especially since it is still in the process of being certified. Allen agreed and went on to say the city has to repair three more collapsed pipes in the floodwall system just as they did last year near OSCO Industries, when they located a sinkhole.
“So we’re planning on spending $100,000 next year and $100,000 the year after on two more of those pipes,” Allen said.
Sixth Ward Councilman Tom Lowe said – “I just want everybody to know I realize the importance of this levy. I’m not against it, but the people elected me and one of my campaign promises was no new rates, levies, taxes or fees, and I’m going to hold true to that and that’s why I voted no against this ordinance.”
“I would like to remind Mr. Lowe that this is not new tax, it’s the renewal of one that has been on the books for a long time and it’s necessary for the maintenance of the flood defense system in the city of Portsmouth – part of which is covering the Sixth Ward along Walnut Street,” City Solicitor John Haas said.
Allen then brought the conversation full circle and metaphorically washed his hands of the move.
“At some point if four of you want a storm-water utility (fee), I’ll put a plan together for hiring a consultant because that is what you’re going to have to do to calculate everyone’s area,” Allen said. “But I’ll go on the record as saying that I think you’re going to hurt some people that it is going to have unintended consequences. When churches come in upset, I’m going to refer them to council … But if the four of you say, ‘Hey, we want this,’ we want to spend the money, we’ll do it.”
The conversation continued around the table.
“I hear comments about churches, they’re paying for their water. They’re paying for their electric. They’re paying for their gas, if they have gas. They’re paying for their utilities. They’re paying for garbage pickup. We’re not giving those services away,” Fifth Ward Councilman Gene Meadows said. “The second point I want to make is – maybe it would cost too much to do (hire a consultant). But we don’t know until we see. If somebody has done that calculation, I’d like to see it to know how much it would cost to do this.”
In the end, the vote to place the renewal of the flood defense levy on the ballot went – Kevin E. Johnson-aye, Jim Kalb-aye, Gene Meadows-no, Tom Lowe-no, Jo Ann Aeh-aye. Kevin W. Johnson was absent from the meeting and without four votes, the ordinance failed.
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.