Political death and taxes

There’s nothing more satisfying that correctly crunching some numbers and bringing them into a hard news story. (Whoa, that’s a nerdy thing to say.) But seriously I loved working on this column and figuring out what the ramifications of an impending policy would bring. Plus there was the stuff about the Board of Registrars, city health care benes (HOT issue) and the announcement of my one-year anniversary. It’s nice when everything comes together.

Aldermen keeping close eye on tax cap talks in Concord

WHILE MANCHESTER continues to wrangle with its budget, city officials are keeping a cautious eye turned toward Concord. Everybody knows about retirement legislation and school funding adding more to the city’s bottom line, but few aldermen are talking about the problems they would face if the Legislature resurrected the city’s tax cap.

State lawmakers are debating a provision that would put tax caps into play across the state in 2012 and a law that would allow these tax caps immediately. Both would bring back the tax cap Manchester voters enacted in 2009, which would limit annual budget spending increases to the annual percentage change in the Consumer Price Index. (The courts ruled that cap illegal.)

The provision in Senate Bill 2 has more support and would postpone the cap from going into effect until next year’s budget cycle. But if the House bill passed and survived a veto, the aldermen would have to break out the budget ax.

Under Manchester’s tax cap, total expenditures and the city’s property tax rate could not increase more than 1.6 percent — last year’s CPI. Mayor Ted Gatsas has proposed raising spending by $6.3 million, which comes out to a 3.4 percent tax increase. If the aldermen wanted to pass a budget that complied with the cap, they would have to cut $3.3 million more from the budget.

Of course, the aldermen could always override the tax cap with a two-thirds vote.

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WHETHER YOU CALL it guilt by association or eliminating a conflict, the aldermen have dismissed Edward Mosca from his post on the Board of Registrars. Mosca was nominated by Mayor Gatsas last month for another term, but his confirmation hit a snag on Tuesday when the aldermen voted, 8-6, against reappointment. Although the city solicitor found no conflict, some aldermen took exception to reappointing the legal counsel for Speaker of the House Bill O’Brien to a position of power over city elections.

“I have a problem with that regardless of whether (city officials) said it’s not a conflict of interest,” said Alderman Barbara Shaw.

Alderman Phil Greazzo, the board’s sole Republican, countered the argument by pointing to Colin Manning’s appointment to the Fire Commission moments earlier. Manning is Democratic Gov. John Lynch’s press secretary.

The primary role of the Board of Registrars is to approve new voter registrations and the removal of names of people who have moved or died from the voter checklist. The list is prepared by the City Clerk, and the Registrars approve it at public meetings held two or three times a year.

City Clerk Matt Normand said the vacancy needs to be filled by June to approve the checklist before the filing period.

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THE ALDERMEN CONTINUE to waffle week after week on how much to give the Manchester School District, but they took little time on Tuesday deciding to add $240,000 back into Mayor Gatsas’ budget.

Aldermen Russ Ouellette, Patrick Arnold and Ron Ludwig voted in committee to table a provision that would require all department heads and deputies, all non-union employees making more than $90,000 a year, and the mayor and aldermen — about 60 people total — to contribute 20 percent toward their health insurance premiums.

There has been a push to get as many non-union employees as possible onto a 20-percent plan as a sign of solidarity toward the unions to entice them to the negotiation table. The Board of School Committee agreed to pay 20 percent, but for now it looks like the aldermen will not.

It wasn’t their own plans the aldermen seemed concerned about on Tuesday, but the plans of the highest-paid union workers who do not have to pay 20 percent unless they make contract concessions.

“So the (police) captains who end up making more than the chief, they are getting a better deal. I have a little bit of a problem with that,” said Ouellette.

Because department heads, like the chief of police, are not unionized, the city can change the provisions of their health insurance at will. Department heads are required to live in Manchester, can’t take overtime pay and now may have to pay more for insurance. What incentive does that give people wanting to move up the ranks? Ouellette asked.

“We’re sending I think the wrong message to the wrong group of people,” he said. “We’re making it more and more difficult to find good candidates for these leadership positions.”

Gatsas reminded the aldermen when the issue came before the full board that $240,000 is equivalent to four firefighter jobs or the amount needed to keep the West Library Branch open.

“If we are going to lead, we should lead by example,” said Gatsas. “As the taxpayers who live in this city pay 20, 30, and 40 percent for their health insurance, the aldermen should step up.”

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IT’S BEEN a tough month for Alderman Ed Osborne. First he learns his mandatory vehicle liability insurance bill was killed. Then the aldermen vote 11-3 to kill his mandatory trash toter plan for the city. For years, Osborne has wanted to require all city residents purchase a large, $60 toter for curbside trash pickup. The bins would allow for automated pickup, which Osborne argues would save the city money on labor and injury claims.

Alderman Joyce Craig, who has worked to bring single-stream recycling to the entire city, said mandating large trash toters sends the wrong message to residents when they are trying to reduce what’s headed to local landfills.

“If this board wants to mandate toters, it should be recycling toters,” said Alderman Garth Corriveau. “I think we’re all committed to recycling in this community. Let’s just keep going forward with those efforts.”

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ONE YEAR AGO this week, Scott Brooks handed over the City Hall column and the duty of covering Manchester politics. It was a few months after the mayor and aldermen were sworn in and City Hall had a very cordial feel to it then. The budget was already in the can and eyes were shifting toward the lighter summer scheduled.

AldermanShaw noted then that, “the budget process progressed more smoothly than I would have ever anticipated.”

Alderman Patrick Arnold also marveled at this unusual budget ease.

“I certainly heard horror stories about how difficult the budget process has been,” said Arnold. “I did sort of have an expectation it would be done as it had in past years. I was pleasantly surprised to see it play out the way it did.”

On Tuesday, Shaw wasn’t as positive about the process.

“We have a crisis,” she said. “We have a crisis being dumped down to us from the state and I don’t even know what the final result will be for the citizens in Manchester.”

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