The Mayor’s Budget

The unveiling of the “The Mayor’s Budget” is a big event in Manchester. About 70 people showed up to the event, most of them union reps and city department heads. It is also televised on the local cable access station. The mayor prepares a formal speech, the aldermen listen and then everyone goes home. It’s has sort of a State of the City kind of feel.

With the help of an advance meeting with Mayor Ted Gatsas that day, I was able to do a straight story on what was in the budget and then a reax piece on the major cuts all by deadline. Both are below, which garnered about 150 total comments in the days after.

Mayor says budget brings pains and gains

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

MANCHESTER — Whether you live in the city, work in the city or go to school in the city, Mayor Ted Gatsas made clear on Tuesday night that pain from Manchester’s budget will be felt by everyone.

Gatsas presented a $180 million budget for fiscal year 2012 that calls for laying off 50 city employees, 200 school district support staff and leaving 81 city positions unfilled. It also calls for laying off eight library staffers and closing the West Side Library Branch to save $250,000. (See story, Page B1.)

The taxpayers will in turn see a 3.37 percent tax hike. If no cuts are made, Gatsas said, taxes will go up 12.75 percent.

“There is not a realistic scenario that doesn’t come with significant sacrifice,” said Gatsas. “Sacrifice, that while very painful for most, is required to avoid bankrupting this city and driving taxpayers out.”

The mayor had warned of deep cuts for months and was urging city unions to open their contracts to negotiate medical benefit concessions to prevent layoffs. Although the unions refused to open their contracts, Gatsas said on Tuesday he doesn’t blame the unions.

“At the end of the day, assigning blame at this stage will not yield results,” he said. “It will only prolong the process.”

Gatsas touted a projected $500,000 surplus for this year, saying the money will go to retirement costs, the rainy-day fund and reducing the tax rate. But next year, the city is facing a projected $20 million shortfall. Much of this is the result of increases in salaries and benefits. On the city side, salaries, benefits and retirement are expected to rise $8.1 million and the same school district costs are anticipated to rise $6.4 million.

The deepest cuts are in the Fire, Police and Highway Departments. Gatsas proposed laying off 22 firefighters and leaving 14 positions vacant. This would reduce the number of minimum on-duty firefighters from 50 to 44 and at times the number of available ladder trucks from five to two.

Gatsas also proposed laying off one police officer and leaving up to 25 sworn officer positions and four civilian positions vacant. While the number of patrol officers would remain the same, all other police divisions would see cuts. The Highway Department is facing seven layoffs and will keep 13 positions unfilled next year.

The City Clerk’s office will undergo a reorganization that cuts one job and leaves two positions vacant. This puts a burden on the clerk’s office during a year in which two city elections, a Charter Commission vote and a presidential primary fall.

Those earning top salaries will also be asked to contribute more. Department heads and non-unionized staff making more than $90,000 per year will be asked to contribute 20 percent of their health care costs, up from 5 percent, and contribute more in physician co-payments.

On the school side, 200 paraprofessionals will get pink slips. To make up for their loss and reduce classroom size, Gatsas has proposed hiring 36 teachers. Gatsas said he would not consider reductions in kindergarten, pay-to-play activities, cutting arts and athletics or removing school resource officers.

“Eliminating any of those items is simply unfair and will only harm the students,” said Gatsas.

The public will have a chance to speak on the mayor’s budget during a public hearing at Memorial High School on April 6. The aldermen will deliberate amendments in the next few weeks and must adopt a budget by mid-June or the mayor’s budget will go into effect.

 

Budget would close West Side library

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

MANCHESTER — West Side residents may soon have to trek across the Merrimack River to visit the library.

If Mayor Ted Gatsas’ $180 million budget proposal unveiled Tuesday night is enacted, the West Side library branch would close and eight library staffers would lose their jobs.

The cuts are part of a proposed 50 city employees and 200 school district support staff layoffs included in the mayor’s budget that would be effective June 30. Gatsas has called for layoffs and city service cuts to defray an expected $20 million budget shortfall next year.

While the West Side Aldermen said they understand the tough budget outlook, none wanted the library branch closed.

“I will not support a budget that closes the West Side library,” said Ward 11 Alderman Russ Ouellette. “I am sympathetic to the mayor and his position, I understand he’s got to do what he’s go to, but I’m committed to keeping that library open. The location it’s in, it’s import to the resident in my ward.”

“I’m not a big fan of closing down a library where people learn,” said Ward 10 Alderman Phil Greazzo. “It’s going to be a tough budget, so I’m open to seeing every thing (Gatsas) has and finding ways to keep it open or finding money somewhere else.”

Ward 12 Alderman Patrick Arnold said he received calls from residents throughout the West Side after the aldermen recently discussed reducing hours at the West Side branch to save money.

“It might not mean much that it’s just a few call, but it’s enough for me to take a look at it and see if there is an alternative,” said Arnold.

Gatsas said on Tuesday the move does not mean the city doesn’t support of the library’s services. He pointed to $300,000 the board recently allocated for improvements to the main library.

“I sympathize with the citizens of the West Side for wanting services on that side of the river and with the West Side alderman who have championed their cause,” said Gatsas. “I firmly believe, and I repeat it today, we are a city of one and no river will ever divide us, unless we let it.”

The library is not the only city department facing drastic change under Gatsas’ budget.

The fire department faces 22 layoffs and leaving 14 jobs unfilled next year. This will reduce the minimum staffing levels from 50 to 44 fire fighters on duty and possibly the number of ladder trucks available from five to two. Fire Chief James Burkush said the city is now working under these reduced minimum staffing levels after the aldermen requested a halt on non-emergency overtime. This will not reduce response time for initial calls, said Burkush, but it could mean longer drive times for back-up ladder trucks. He didn’t think this plan would jeopardize public safety, but hopes it will only be temporary.

“We’re doing the best we can under budget situation,” said Burkush. “Of course we’d like to have all the trucks in service and all fire fighters on duty.”

Burkush said his budget does not call for closing any fire stations, but Manchester Professional Firefighters Association President Ryan Cashin said he believes the cuts will reduce response time and questioned whether there will be enough staff to keep all stations open.

“(Burkush’s) plan is to not close stations but the plan they have in place, that’s not counting guys going on vacation or a guy hurting his knee or guys getting the flu,” said Cashin. “There’s little room for error when those things happen. … It’s going to be tough to keep that staffing with all those fire fighters missing.”

Police Chief David Mara also pledged that police would maintain public safety and response time despite laying off one police officer and leaving 25 sworn officers and four civilian positions vacant.

“Our main priority is to have enough officers on the streets,” said Mara. Patrol officers will remain at full levels, but Mara said these cuts could mean higher case loads for detectives and scaling back programs like community policing.

“When you have dwindling resources and you really have to direct what you have, community policing becomes even more important,” said Mara. “It’s all about getting the public to partner with you to fight crime. In my opinion, community policing in this new budget is going to be even more important.”

Gatsas has also proposed laying off seven highway department employees and leaving 13 jobs vacant.

Don Boucher, president of the AFSCME Local 298, which represents the highway department staff, said covering for these losses will be tough.

“We’re already shorthanded down here now,” said Boucher.

The city has approached the unions to begin informal talks with the goal of opening their contracts and getting concessions.

Cashin and Boucher both said their unions stand by their positions not to open their contracts.

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