A visit to the APT

Last Wednesday, I attended a meeting of the Association of Portsmouth Taxpayers, at which Matt Murphy of the NH Advantage Coalition outlined what would be involved in a spending cap for Portsmouth.

The group was not eager to publicize the process, fearing to stir up opposition before they even decided whether or not to pursue it, but given the Portsmouth Herald story, I guess I can write freely.

One of the biggest challenges before such a cap is that the Portsmouth city government has actually been reasonably behaved. They are pursuing a zero-growth budget for FY 2010, and the increase in FY 2009 was modest, less than the CPI increase to which a tax cap would have held them. So many voters may ask why a spending cap is necessary, and it may be difficult to get petition collectors fired up.

One can make the case that this is the right time for a spending cap; the city will certainly come back to the residents when the economy is looking better and ask for money for all the projects that were deferred during the time of austerity, and a spending cap would prevent that.

I did not sense a strong will to pursue the project now; a decision will be made at the next meeting, on Wednesday 4 February.

If the spending cap is not pursued, I wonder if energy might be better spent looking for specific waste. I’ve been in San Francisco the past week, which has 1900 uniformed police officers for 750,000 residents (and twice that many people in the city on a weekday). Portsmouth has, I believe, 300 officers for 20,000 residents, about six times as many cops per capita. Do we really need that many? Do they need to spend their time stopping motorists without probable cause, for instance (citing 1% or fewer of those stopped for DUI)? Could the fire department reduce its full-time staff, using a combination of volunteers and part-time staff to make up the difference, especially during peak seasons? I don’t know the answer to these stories, but they seem worth exploring.

The technical details of the proposed cap were also interesting, at least to me. The cap requires the budget planners to essentially assume a growth in revenue no more than the change in the consumer price index. The budget must then be in accordance with those projections. The city could, I suppose, set a wildly high tax rate anyway, but being unable to spend the resulting money, what politician would make that decision? There is also an override clause for emergency cases, which I do wonder if Portsmouth is monolithic enough to exercise (requiring a two-thirds vote as it does).

Stay tuned for more, and as always, if you’re in Portsmouth, drop a line and get involved.

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