On Oct. 18, Cliff took part in the Candidate Forum hosted by Citizens for Voter Education at Portsmouth City Hall. His remarks and responses to audience questions can be seen here:
PortsmouthNH.com Candidate Survey
PortsmouthNH.com sent a questionnaire to all 18 candidates. Some questions were suggested by readers, others were generated by the PortsmouthNH team.
Q & A with the Portsmouth Herald
The Portsmouth Herald sent the following ten questions to all candidates in the 2017 City Council election. Below are the responses that Cliff submitted, included in this candidate profile.
Portsmouth Herald: Given the outcry from many city residents about their revaluations and property taxes, do you think next year’s fiscal budget should be cut, why or why not. If you do, where specifically should those cuts come from?
Cliff: Every year the budget needs scrutiny and should include only items that are necessary and justified. We should always look for ways to eliminate redundant or wasteful expenses while not negatively impacting essential safety and emergency services, infrastructure and quality of schools.
The active response to property valuations brings up a healthy reminder about how citizen engagement can result in a budget that is less wasteful and ultimately best reflects citizen priorities for spending. Engage in the budget process! Read the documents, attend hearings, communicate with those making the budget.
We should also fight for a ‘Homestead Exemption’ for longtime residents and doggedly pursue changes at the State level that would retain more of the Rooms/Meals tax that our businesses collect. Regarding valuations, the City needs to improve how and when they communicate the important details.
Portsmouth Herald: Do you support efforts to create or promote more affordable and work-force housing in the city and if yes what specific steps would you call for to create this type of housing?
Cliff: Housing affordability is a major problem that we face -- for workforce of any age, for older residents with limited income who want to remain, for younger residents starting out. Businesses wanting to grow in or locate to Portsmouth are already looking elsewhere because employees cannot afford to live here.
We should carefully pursue density incentives to encourage development that results in better diversity of housing stock. I support the recently proposed zoning changes to provide ‘Gateway Districts’ that allow increased density in currently under-utilized commercial zones like the Kmart Plaza or Frank Jones Center. Density bonuses in a development like Chinburg at Brewery Lane can provide real potential for affordable rents.
Our options are limited, however, and the success of the density-incentive approach is unsure at best. If we are serious about pursuing diverse housing affordability, we may also need to investigate expansion of inventory through the Portsmouth Housing Authority.
Portsmouth Herald: With work underway on the city’s new parking garage, do you think the city should begin looking for a location for a third garage, or do you think the city should consider other alternatives like increased shuttle services?
Cliff: First of all, we need to address how our current parking policies impact residents and neighborhoods. We should consider an updated Resident Parking Discount program. While limited parking supply exists, raising parking fees and increasing hours is the most effective way to provide inventory turnover so that customers can find spots available. This approach as well as the Foundry Place garage will be a great help to businesses. A discount program allows residents to share in that benefit, while visitors happy to find a spot can bear more of the burden.
As the Foundry Place garage is completed we should also consider Neighborhood Parking programs for neighborhoods near downtown. And we should certainly leverage public transportation options like shuttles whenever possible.
Portsmouth Herald: The City Council recently voted to approve a change in how it interacts with the public. Instead of holding a public comment session at every meeting, it will now alternate public comment sessions with public dialogues. Do you support those changes?
Cliff: The more that citizens engage with community and government leaders, the better our institutions can represent the will of the people. The recent changes to add public dialogue are a positive step to add constructive participation from residents. If citizens prefer less-involved input methods like letters, email or simple public comment, those remain as well.
Beginning in 2016, I proposed that the Citywide Neighborhood Committee introduce ‘Neighborhood Outreach Forums’ in each of the five Portsmouth Wards. These forums have provided opportunities for residents to meet with leaders like the Mayor, City Manager, Fire & Police Chiefs and Public Works Director and discuss their needs in more detail.
While there is always room for improvement, a key reason the forums have been successful is because of dialogue. Residents can have productive conversations in a setting less intimidating than the podium at City Hall, while government leaders gain valuable insight into resident priorities.
Portsmouth Herald: Are you concerned that Portsmouth’s city government caters too much to tourists and downtown businesses and not enough to the neighborhoods outside of the downtown?
Cliff: The Portsmouth government has put significant emphasis on capital improvements related to neighborhoods and businesses closer to downtown. In recent years City Staff have taken measures to improve investment balance across all wards of Portsmouth.
In 2015 on the Neighborhood Committee, I analyzed 15 years of CIPs and found that more than 90% of funds for neighborhood improvements were invested in the three downtown wards (1, 2, 5). Year after year, projects in the outer wards (3, 4) were not given CIP priority. Since then, City staff have added CIP features to give visibility to geographical distribution. Soon, a project like sidewalks on Peverly Hill Road, which straddles wards 3 and 4, will be undertaken.
In the last eight years, Portsmouth has had only one City Councilor elected from outside of the downtown wards. As a resident of Ward 4, I would bring valuable perspective from outside of downtown.
Portsmouth Herald: Do you support the city’s decision to upgrade the city’s wastewater treatment plant at Peirce Island? Why or why not?
Cliff: Yes, Portsmouth was overdue to discontinue pollution of the Piscataqua River and avoid major financial penalties for failing to act. While nobody ‘likes’ housing a wastewater treatment plant at Peirce Island, City leaders and residents had spent years publically researching alternative locations, and determined there were no other viable options.
As it stands, a number of surrounding neighborhoods are making a significant sacrifice during this upgrade project. Our city needs to be mindful of minimizing impact wherever possible.
I do think that looking back at the Wastewater Project process offers opportunity to identify improvements in terms of citizen engagement. While our government did offer numerous public
Portsmouth Herald: Do you think the city has a moral responsibility to pay for at least 50 percent of the cost to run municipal water to homes located around the Coakley landfill in Greenland and North Hampton?
Cliff: The City of Portsmouth has a responsibility to engage in an open and rigorous pursuit of the truth about water contamination near the Coakley landfill. In its role on the Coakley Landfill Group, Portsmouth needs to help surrounding communities understand the extent of the contamination levels and to pursue updated scientific methods for mitigating risks. With the longer-term trends showing further spread of contamination and raising serious questions about cancer and other related health effects, Portsmouth should push forward that the CLG take substantial steps to protect residents. The CLG should be publically forthright with impacted communities, and the City of Portsmouth should be transparent with its own taxpayers about not only moral responsibility but significant legal and financial risk.
Portsmouth Herald: Do the most recent changes to zoning in the downtown create a proper guide for future developments or are more changes necessary?
Cliff: Our current zoning guidelines comprise input from years of careful examination and deliberation by members of the Portsmouth community. Like any set of master guidelines, our Zoning Ordinance is a living, breathing document. It contains relevant guidance for the near future not only for downtown but for all of Portsmouth. As the world around us evolves we must be vigilant to update zoning to best reflect the will of the community. A proper guide should continue to review best practices for ecologically sound development and smart, thoughtful growth. Respect should be given to private property rights while including reasonable restriction to allow for public safety while maintaining the historic and cultural strengths of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Herald: Past City Councils have each given City Manager John Bohenko positive reviews of his job performance. Do you agree that the city manager is doing a good job?
Cliff: John Bohenko has worked hard for the City of Portsmouth and continually overseen strong fiscal health. Residents benefit from having the second-highest commercial tax base of any municipality in New Hampshire, and the City regularly has access to low-cost financing for capital projects.
Mr. Bohenko works effectively with the City Council and staff to plan for projects and quickly respond to issues that arise. There have been times in the past where he could have been more engaged with citizen and neighborhood groups, particularly with those outside of downtown.
However, on numerous occasions I have seen him make efforts to factor in constructive input to improve the work of the City. After my 2015 study of distribution of Capital Improvements across City Wards, he instituted improvements to the CIP process that help residents and neighborhoods. He has also participated in the Neighborhood Forums to engage on resident issues.
Portsmouth Herald: Do you think the City Council should instruct City Manager John Bohenko to reach a deal with the Prescott Park Arts Festival to limit the number of nights it can hold concerts or plays at the park?
Cliff: We should continue to carefully monitor the impact of the PPAF on neighborhoods nearby Prescott Park. Efforts this past season to monitor and enforce sound limits are helpful and should continue.
Based on detailed analysis and recommendations from the 2017 Prescott Park Master Plan process, I do not see justification for reducing programming nights of the Arts Festival. A Blue Ribbon Committee spent more than a year gathering input from residents and leaders in the community. The resulting Prescott Park Master Plan contained many thoughtful and specific recommendations related to Prescott Park. It did not recommend reducing programming nights for the PPAF.
The Master Plan process is a valuable and balanced method for gathering and reporting the will of the community. With the 2017 Prescott Park Master Plan, the City Manager has been given clear and valuable direction on many helpful priorities.