Public Works & Infrastructure

Where strong leadership focuses on long-term community benefits, not short-term political gain

While education and public safety typically receive more attention during the budget process, the impact of modernizing Portsmouth’s infrastructure in a fiscally responsible, methodical way over the past 15+ years has been critically important to the continued growth of our economy, attractiveness, and quality of life. If Portsmouth is to keep moving forward, it will require our elected officials to understand and communicate key information:

State and Federal Infrastructure Support

The high amount of road and bridge work being done in Portsmouth is largely being paid for by state and federal dollars – not local property tax dollars — but local property taxpayers will be the primary beneficiaries.

Virtually every Portsmouth resident has been impacted by the repairs or replacements of eight of the area’s bridges. It is inconvenient in the short-term, to be sure. In fact, there were residents in the last local election who said they voted to “send a message” that Portsmouth needed to slow down such construction. This piece from 2014 by Portsmouth’s Public Works Director reminded readers of a very important fact: Those bridge and other road projects represent nearly half a billion dollars of investment in our community, and are almost entirely not being paid by local property taxes. Despite the fact that there are over 400 “red-listed” bridges in New Hampshire, Portsmouth had the opportunity to have eight of our bridges replaced or repaired using state or federal dollars if we acted promptly.

The benefits for local taxpayers are enormous. Most of these structures would have to be replaced in the near future for safety reasons, anyway — and by waiting, local taxpayers would have been on the hook. In addition to the structures and roads themselves, pedestrian and bike pathways have been improved, as well. These infrastructure improvements have meaningfully added to the property values of commercial and residential properties around them, taking additional pressure off the residential tax base in the process.

We did not pay for most of this work – but we will be the beneficiaries of these projects for generations to come.

Consistent Fiscal Track Record

Portsmouth has made substantial infrastructure improvements over the past 20 years, while being fiscally responsible, by keeping our eye on the long-term.

By most accounts, from sidewalks, to sewer separation, to recreational space, to seawalls, Portsmouth has significantly addressed infrastructure needs that, prior to the mid-1990s, reflected decades of underinvestment. In addition to the downtown, entire neighborhoods, such as Atlantic Heights, have been transformed and modernized. At the same time, the city has avoided relying on overborrowing or overtaxing to fund these improvements:

  • In the last 20 years, the City of Portsmouth has seen its bond rating from Moody’s improve five times, and is now one of only two communities in the entire state with a AAA rating.
  • The city has an extremely stable undesignated fund balance that has consistently exceeded 10% of the prior year’s appropriation. (Think of this is a sort of emergency savings fund.)
  • When Moody’s gave Portsmouth the outstanding credit rating, they specifically noted the diversity and growth of our property tax base, the strength of our local economy, and our low-to-moderate debt burden as characteristics that make us a very stable, safe community for granting bonds. That is why we can borrow money at incredibly low interest rates, saving taxpayers money.

It is critical that future city councilors embrace the same adherence to long-term stability and credit-worthiness.

Long-Term Vision

Portsmouth city councilors must continue to resist the temptation for short-term political gain in exchange for long-term capital plan pain.

Every year, the City Council is urged to allocate roughly one million dollars in operating funds to pay for capital projects scheduled to occur in the next fiscal year. It is easy, in the name of reducing tax increases, to significantly reduce this appropriation. After all, the nature of most capital projects means that residents would not likely immediately notice the delay in the project. However, the long-term costs of such behavior would be very high, and in most of the last decade, most city councilors have resisted this myopic temptation. It is critical that future City Councils avoid dodging difficult decisions in other parts of the operating budget by deferring necessary capital expenditures to some future council.

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This is a critical time for Portsmouth’s future. Those that get involved determine our future. Will you be a part of building a stronger Portsmouth?

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