It has been a long time coming, but the Portsmouth Town Council finally passed a 2010-2011 fiscal year budget with a 4-3 vote Wednesday night.
Councilors Keith Hamilton, James Seveney and Dennis Canario opposed the budget.
The budget has been through numerous revisions, at some points exceeding the tax cap by more than $500,000, but due to considerable concessions by the Portsmouth School Department, the council was able to close the gap and agree on a final proposal.
The School Committee reduced its originally requested budget of $1.2 million down 28 percent to a final $913,345, achieved by reducing salaries, program reductions, laying off teachers and closing the Elmhurst Elementary School. That wasn't enough for some council members though, who slashed an additional $502,131 on top of the $632,000 cut from schools in the provisional budget.
School Committee Chair Richard Carpender addressed the council at the meeting, telling them they were essentially asking the schools to operate on under $200,000.
Also, due to talks with the Local 1949 Union, the town was able to renegotiate its retirement and benefits payouts to the fire department, achieving a two percent reduction over last year's funding, equaling about $82,000 in cuts. The Town Council reduced its own funding as well, down 59 percent to $16,411 from last year's $40, 074.
An earlier version of the budget had the town exceeding the tax cap by $502,000, requiring the average resident to kick in an additional $59 a year in property taxes.
To qualify the excess, the Town Council had to put it to a vote. Exceeding the tax cap normally requires a super majority, but due to a loophole - also considered by many as a misprint - in the state law, the approval to exceed the cap only required a simple majority.
At the provisional budget hearing, the seven-person council voted 4-3 to exceed the cap.
The state soon fixed the misprinted language however, again requiring a super majority.
The final budget proposed at Monday's hearing was still over the cap, so the council voted again to exceed it, this time requiring six of the seven council votes. With Councilor Jeffrey Plumb absent from the meeting, all six members present needed to be in agreement - and that was far from the case.
Only two members voted to exceed it, Councilors Canario and Seveney. This essentially killed the budget and starting an embroiled exchange.
Canario asked fellow Councilor Hamilton, who did note join him in the vote, what more could be cut. "You can't get blood from a stone," Canario said.
"This town doesn't have any more blood," Hamilton said.
Councilor Karen Gleason then turned to Finance Director David Faucher and Town Administrator Robert Driscoll, stating she assumed they had "a plan B."
"We're back on page one ... there's no way forward," Seveney said.
Gleason then motioned for the council to at least agree to close the $502,000 gap, and put it to a vote. The vote was split 3-3, with Gleason, Council President Peter McIntyre and Councilor Hubert Little in agreement. After some advisement from the town counsel, they recessed the meeting until Wednesday.
Since the council approved the budget Wednesday, the School Committee has stated it doesn't have enough money to operate. The independent group, Save Our Schools, is working to collect 1,500 signatures in the next 10 days in order to hold a special election.
If the referendum passes, residents will pay additional property taxes to help fund the town's schools.