City Hall Feb. 20

This week’s City Hall earned quite a few comments, which I expected considering School Committee member Joe Briggs’ controversial position on low-income housing and the cost to the city. Also included update on the Superintendent/Assistant Superintendent of Schools contracts, fireworks at Fisher Cats stadium and redistricting information.

Statistically speaking, Manchester is a poor city. More than half the elementary students are enrolled in the federal Free and Reduced Lunch program. In the city’s poorer neighborhoods, the numbers exceed 80 percent, and at Beech Street Elementary School, 94 percent of students in 2010 were enrolled in the program.

Manchester also has a high proportion of rental housing; about 54 percent of homes in the city are rentals, compared with 44 percent nationally. Board of School Committee member Joe Briggs has pointed to these statistics as part of the reason behind Manchester’s escalating educational costs.

“It’s really a city planning issue that’s allowed Manchester to have a majority of rental housing, most of it low-income or qualifies for low-income,” said Briggs. “If you look at it statistically, single family properties are paying a disproportionate amount in taxes for services that are overwhelmingly delivered to rental housing residents . . . The amount of services rental housing uses is really driving up the cost of education.”

Briggs has asked the school board and Board of Mayor and Aldermen to examine how much rental property owners pay in taxes. While the city cannot change the tax structure to charge one kind of property more than another, Briggs wants the city to evaluate rental properties to reflect the cost of services.

There’s been some heat aimed at Briggs for his comments, and some aldermen have questioned whether he’s unfairly targeting poorer residents.

“Briggs made a few comments at public participation, and I wasn’t clear what his intent was,” said Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long. “I’m getting the sense that the people who live in apartment buildings are a burden to our school system. If that’s what he’s getting to, I don’t see how he plans to address that.”

“I can tell you there is a misconception renters don’t pay property taxes. Let’s be clear on that,” said Ward 11 Alderman Russ Ouellette, who grew up in rental housing. Raising taxes on rental units would result in raised rents across the city, Ouellette added.

“I think students around Bell Street and Grove Street are just as important as students on Currier Hill,” said Mayor Ted Gatsas. “I don’t think they are an additional burden. We have to do everything we can to support them and give them every opportunity.”

Briggs balked at the idea he’s attacking the poor.

“It’s a cheap trick and a cheap response. I’m not blaming people who live there. I blame the handful of property managers and property companies that make a business model out of low-income housing and pack the city with low-income housing, not the people who live there.”

This position fits into Briggs’ call for higher taxes to pay for city schools, which he’s received criticism for as well. Briggs has defended the need for higher taxes at city meetings, in op-eds in this newspaper and most recently in a letter to a concerned constituent you can read online at unionleader.com.

The school board has thus far been silent on Briggs’ ideas regarding city rental properties and their effects on school funding, but the committee will have a chance to discuss it on Feb. 28, when it votes on a school budget.

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Usually, employers are happy when an employee agrees to cuts in benefits and wages, but when the contracts for the Superintendent of Schools Thomas Brennan and Assistant Superintendent Karen Burkush came before the Board of School Committee on Monday, one member felt the cuts didn’t go far enough.

Burkush and Brennan agreed to forgo raises during the next two years and contribute 20 percent to their health care premium costs in each of their proposed two-year contracts. School committee member Debra Gagnon Langton opposed the two contracts, she said, because the salaries were too high and neither had elementary education experience. The contracts passed with Langton as the one opposing vote.

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If you live along the West Side of the Merrimack, you probably noticed fireworks during some of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats games last summer. West Side resident Bob Katchen sure noticed, calling the police and several aldermen about the noise. Katchen told the Committee on Administration and Information Systems on Tuesday that even inside his home, with the air conditioning on, the fireworks were loud enough to wake him. A police decibel test also showed the fireworks noise exceeded levels allowed in the city ordinance.

Fisher Cats President and General Manager Rick Brenner said he and Katchen met about the noise and agreed to keep shows limited to Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and on special occasions, such as the 4th of July. Brenner also talked to Atlas Fireworks about using a different grade of fireworks that isn’t as loud.

The one catch was the ordinance, which according to City Clerk Matt Normand prohibits noisy fireworks. With 29 fireworks shows scheduled for 2011, the aldermen agreed to change the ordinance to exempt city-authorized fireworks shows. If they didn’t, the Fisher Cats would have had to come before the aldermen for a variance and pay for a $200 noise permit each time they wanted to host a show.

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The 2010 U.S. Census redistricting data will be released next month, putting in motion the legislative redistricting process across the state. Mayor Gatsas announced on Tuesday the formation of the city’s redistricting committee, which will use Manchester Highway Department and U.S. Census data to ensure all wards have an equal number of voters. The committee will also redraw district lines if necessary. Gatsas appointed New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner and former Aldermen David Wihby, Robert Rivard and Bill Cashin.

Alderman Betsi DeVries raised some objection to the list, questioning whether it was politically balanced, but Gatsas reminded DeVries the mayor has sole discretion over whom to nominate. He said on Thursday he didn’t plan to make any changes.

The committee’s redistricting recommendations will come to the Board of Aldermen for review and, if approved, will then be sent to Concord.

Read Beth LaMontagne Hall’s coverage of Manchester City Hall during the week in the New Hampshire Union Leader. E-mail her at bhall@unionleader.com.

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