CITY HALL: Gatsas budget plan now in aldermen’s hands

With such deep cuts in this year’s budget, I was surprised by the subtle response from the aldermen and tried to capture their mild reaction. There was also the small but avid partisan response, which shows party folks are slowly gathering strength for this fall’s city elections. And then there were the horses…

CITY HALL: Gatsas budget plan now in aldermen’s hands

Sunday, March 27, 2011

FOR MORE THAN six months, elected officials have been talking about falling off the budget cliff. Last Tuesday, Mayor Ted Gatsas brought the city’s toes to the edge of the precipice.

Whether to follow through with the mayor’s proposal — which comes with 250 layoffs and an $18.41-per-$1,000 tax rate — is now in the hands of the aldermen.

Since the mayor’s address, the reaction from the aldermen has been muted. There are a few neighborhood interests to push back into the budget, but otherwise the board is waiting for the moving parts — such as city unions, state funding, public support — to lock into place.

“It’s really a crazy budget, devastating I would say in terms of employees and the loss of jobs. That bothers me the most, but I guess it’s a sign of the times,” said Ward 5 Alderman Ed Osborne. Whether the aldermen raise or reduce spending “depends basically on the (health) insurance and what the unions come up with.”

“Coming down from 13 percent to 3.3 percent is good in my eyes, but there are still things we can work on,” said Ward 10 Alderman Phil Greazzo. “You have to look for things that are nice to have but aren’t necessary.”

Greazzo said he’s looking for some of these unnecessary items to get the West Side library branch back in the budget.

At-Large Alderman Dan O’Neil, who has a close relationship with local unions, seemed optimistic city employees would be coming to the negotiation table soon.

“We’ll have to see, in fact, if the employees are willing to help out, and I believe they are,” said O’Neil. “They wanted to see what we put out.”

“I couldn’t begin to say where the aldermen are going to go,” said Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig. “Ideally, I’d like to see more funding for schools and would like to keep the library open and keep bus service open on the North End.”

“I kind of feel his budget is one that is going to make the most sense for the most people,” said Ward 7 Alderman Bill Shea. As far as reducing the tax rate any further, “I don’t think you can reduce it much lower than that. To reduce it any lower would jeopardize city services.”

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THE PRESSURES to raise or lower spending emerged quickly after the address. Tax cap proponent Joe Kelly Levasseur remarked moments after Gatsas finished his speech that the 3.37 percent proposed tax increase was too high. The next day, Manchester City Democratic Chairman Mike Brunelle slammed cuts to firefighters and school paraprofessionals.

“Gatsas’ budget is no better thought out than his snow removal plan was,” said Brunelle. “The mayor is raising property taxes on working families to pay for an increase in his office budget, yet fails to address Manchester’s critical education and public safety crisis.”

Some Democratic insiders have said the budget could have been much worse, that Gatsas could have done what previous Republican mayors have done: craft an unreasonable zero-tax-increase budget and leave the tough decisions up to the aldermen. But Democratic National Committee member and Manchester resident Kathy Sullivan said Gatsas doesn’t get a pass on this one.

“I think some pieces to it are terrible,” said Sullivan. She pointed to closing the West Side library (“The library has never been priority for this mayor”) and cutting school support staff.

“Manchester spends a much smaller percentage of tax dollars on education than other parts of the state,” said Sullivan. “And I am outraged that the superintendent of schools is supporting the mayor’s budget. He should be supporting the schools … He’s supposed to stand up to the mayor on this kind of stuff.”

Depending on what happens in Concord, Gatsas’ budget could become meaningless, said Brunelle.

“The reckless Republicans in Concord are looking to cut tens of millions of dollars from our schools and take our police officers and firefighters off the street,” he said. “The mayor’s budget address should have been directed at the members of his own party who are turning the budgeting process in cities and towns across the state into a complete circus.”

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LESS THAN 24 hours after Mayor Gatsas announced plans to eliminate the Manchester Police Mounted Unit, the city’s two geldings, Shorty and Valor, made a high-profile appearance at the municipal complex ground-breaking ceremony. Was the Mounted Unit there for crowd control or was it reminding the mayor and aldermen of the important safety and public relations role its members serve?

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THERE’S BEEN BOTH good and bad news for the Manchester Transit Authority this month. While a recent report shows that ridership is up city-wide about 2 percent over last year’s tally, Mayor Gatsas is proposing cuts in routes and frequency of service. His plan calls for cutting all Saturday service and eliminating all service to Bedford, Nashua and the North End of Manchester (bus route No. 5).

Alderman Craig is concerned about ending bus service through her ward, but isn’t sure where the aldermen are going to find the funds to continue it.

MTA Director Mike Whitten said he expects ridership to continue to grow this year, especially now that fuel prices are rising and more people need the bus to get to and from work.

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MY FIRST GO-AROUND with the city budget has been a learning process, with a few hits and misses along the way. Probably my biggest oversight was not calling Alderman Osborne before the budget was released for his annual tax rate prediction. He has a solid accuracy record in recent years, which he reminded me of last Wednesday. If I had called, Osborne said, he would have predicted “between 3 and 4 percent.”

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