The B word

I wanted to die when the I heard budget talks were starting so early. The daily grind of keeping up with the fights and the financials wore me down. I had to get it in here somehow. Wordies will like the involuntary resignation bit too. I know I did.

Gatsas wants early budget review, says its no election ploy

It may seem painfully early to start talking about the 2013 budget cycle, but Mayor Ted Gatsas recently told city department heads to have next year’s budget projections to him in the next few weeks. The mayor will bring the budget drafts to the aldermen as soon as he gets them, Gatsas said Thursday.

“The earlier we get the chance to start looking at this, the more we’re going to understand where we’re at,” said Gatsas. “I’d rather have eight months to try to resolve the problem than three.”

Early projections have pointed to a $22 million budget increase next year if all services and programs remain the same. This situation could worsen in light of hospital funding cuts that are expected to drive up medical costs and changes to the New Hampshire Retirement System enacted by the Legislature.

This early budget request happens to come during a city election year, and although Gatsas denies it’s a political move, the mayor is already practicing his budget talking points.

“Are we going to raise taxes by 14 percent or lay off police and firefighters?” Gatsas asked. The answer lies in the city unions’ willingness to open their contracts and offer concessions, he said.

“This is not something I haven’t been saying,” said Gatsas. “We need to start the discussion because I think people need to know how their elected officials are going to take care of it.”

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The missed opportunity of the WT comment

So many things to say about this column. First, it is tagged under “War on Terror” on the Union Leader website. Wha? Then there are the accusations that I’m too liberal because I raised the point that Manchester has a lot of poor people and perhaps people should pay more attention to who gets the Welfare Commissioner job. And there’s this whole white trash comment. I really wanted this controversy to be an opportunity to discuss the WT term. I know people who refer to themselves as WT, who call others WT, but I wonder how different it is when the term is used against you, or against someone close to you. Does the term have the same sting and cause offense like other terms that call people out for being poor?

Race for welfare commissioner should focus on those served

NOW THAT Joe Briggs is out of the alderman at-large race, it looks like the most exciting contest on the city primary ballot is for welfare commissioner.

Seriously.

Former Alderman Peter Sullivan came out swinging early in the race when he accused current Commissioner Paul Martineau of treating the poor with scorn. Martineau came right back at Sullivan, dismissing outright Sullivan’s claims and pointing to his own record of keeping down costs.

Then Martineau’s former employee, Diane Guimond, entered the race.

Guimond began working at the Welfare Department under the previous commissioner, Susan Lafond. She served as deputy welfare commissioner under Martineau until she left the post on less-than-agreeable terms. She said she understood his efforts to control costs, “but I thought he could have been nicer about it.”

That’s about as harsh as Guimond will get when it comes to criticizing her previous boss. She’d rather focus on how to do things better. The Welfare Department needs to better communicate with state and federal leaders, she said, and talk to the public about the work the office does and who uses its services.

“It’s not just immigrants. It’s the working poor getting poorer and the middle class afraid of becoming working poor,” said Guimond. “We need to show some compassion and respect to the people walking through the door.”

It was compassion and respect that drove the race’s fourth candidate, Jean Davis, to run.

Davis, who has worked in the social services both professionally and as a volunteer, said that on her first trip into the office, she was taken aback.

“I’d never ever seen such mean-spiritedness and lack of professionalism,” she said, referring to the way the clients were treated. If elected, Davis said, she would foster a culture of compassion in the office, work to create partnerships with local businesses and try to instill an attitude of self-reliance among the clients.

While it’s clear these three challengers intend to run a tough campaign and Martineau will not shy away from defending himself, this race should be about more than just slinging barbs and which party lands the win on Election Day.

In a city where nearly 40 percent of students participate in free- or reduced-price lunch programs because their parents make only slightly more than the poverty level; and where low-income housing is controversial; and where the strain on local social services and a lack of clean, inexpensive housing has in part led the aldermen to request a moratorium on refugees resettlement, it’s time the people have a conversation about the poor.

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Leaving a mark

Yikes! It didn’t take long for things to get back to their normal, ankle-biting ways here in Manchester. Even the candidates that decide to leave town are coming out swinging. I’ll just let this week’s speak for itself.

School board member Joe Briggs may be leaving, but he’s left his mark

In his nearly two years as a public official, Joe Briggs has made a name for himself. Now this outspoken and sometimes controversial school board member is leaving Manchester and taking a job in Georgia.

Briggs is a Republican but bucks traditional party ideology by fighting for more spending on schools and the tax increases to pay for it. He has butted heads with Mayor Ted Gatsas many times and is one of the few people Gatsas has publicly acknowledged gets under his skin. Briggs has pushed for bringing sports to the middle schools, improving student access to technology and reducing classroom sizes. But Briggs has also drawn criticism for speaking his mind — sometimes a little too freely.

While announcing his move on the MPTV “Will & Joe Show” on Wednesday, Briggs used the term “white trash” to refer to some of Manchester’s residents. The term came up while discussing low-income housing, the city resources the tenants use and the immigrants and refugees who live there. Briggs argued there were other people besides the refugees who relied on low-income housing and services.

In an interview Thursday for this column, he elaborated: “Part of the problem — and I used the term ‘white trash’ — is they have a cycle of dependency. They use having babies as a way to stay on services. We all see it in Manchester. We have to recognize that’s an issue, and we have to deal with that.

“Some people just focused on the term ‘white trash,’ and people called me an elitist, but the people who called me an elitist are the ones who own these (low-income) properties” and are contributing to the problem.

Mayor Gatsas focused on the term in an interview on Thursday and said a lot of people called his office about it.

“After the comment he made last night about people in Manchester, the departure could not be soon enough,” said Gatsas. “Calling people in Manchester white trash is wrong … He should resign from the school board. That’s an absolutely wrong attitude to have in this city.” Continue reading

Cruel summer

Unlike last summer, when I was bogged down every week with a ridiculous amount of news, this summer proved to be a little boring. Not too much excitement here, except perhaps for the Free Staters. I like to think of Free Staters as the great uncle of the Tea Party. There’s a lot of overlap in philosophy, but Free Staters are a little more libertarian and a little more into conspiracy theories. I think it’s more than fair to let readers know where politicians stand in a city race and an allegiance to a political movement is rightly in that realm. After this ran, there were a few aldermen who thanked me for the mention, though I think they said that purely for selfish reasons.

Aldermen expected to propose changes in city tax cap

After three meeting-free weeks, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen is jumping right back to business by tackling the city’s tax cap.

When the aldermen meet on Tuesday, they are expected to review proposed changes to the tax cap that would give them a little breathing room when putting together the fiscal year 2013 budget. The cap was passed in 2009, but the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled it illegal. Legislation passed during the recent session at the State House put Manchester’s tax cap back on the books. The timing couldn’t be better — or worse depending on your position — as Manchester is looking toward a budget year that is expected to be even rougher than the last.

The proposal would exempt agencies that operate with enterprise funds, such as the Airport Division, Parks and Recreation, Environmental Protection Division and Parking, so that money spent on a new parking garage or a major sewer project wouldn’t count toward the cap. The proposal would also exclude money spent on bonds for projects such as the baseball stadium and the municipal complex.

Under the current tax cap, the limit on the property tax increase is tied to the Consumer Price Index, but that’s assuming the index goes up. Deputy City Solicitor Tom Arnold said it’s unclear what would happen if the index went down. The same goes for property values in a revaluation year, such as the one the city is in now whose initial findings show property values down between 15 percent and 20 percent city-wide.

“Yes, there’s some ambiguity,” said Arnold. “We’re not really sure how it would work in that type of scenario. At least some of the suggested changes are to bring some clarity to that situation, particularly where we have decreased property values.”

Under the proposal, if either goes down, the tax rate’s rate of change would be zero and the budget would be flat-funded.

The aldermen are expected to work quickly on the changes in hopes of getting a charter amendment on the November ballot. Continue reading

Refugees, absentee reps and voter rolls

Refugee issues dominated the week’s news and got the commenters’ fingers wagging.

Gatsas stands firm on refugee moratorium

Mayor Ted Gatsas has declared war on the International Institute of New England.

The refugee resettlement agency has long been criticized by city officials for a lack of communication as to when and how many refugees are headed to Manchester each year. The aldermen asked for a moratorium last week, and Gatsas said on Friday he would not meet with International Institute officials until after they have withdrawn their application to bring more refugees to the city.

The moratorium comes on the heels of a tough and contentious budget year in which city social service agencies were staring down deep cuts. This strain on services seemed like a reason to slow the influx of people who are most likely to need them, but it’s not just new refugees who would need these services, it’s the ones who are already here. Twenty-six refugee families were in the city welfare office two weeks ago looking for help after their state rental assistance was cut off.

But Gatsas said the moratorium was not about the money, “it’s about the people and the refugees themselves.” Continue reading

It’s a race

Someone today mentioned to me that the 2011 city elections were going to be the most boring in history. Despite this, I remain optimistic.

July 17 City Hall Column

LAST WEEK was the kickoff of the city election season, giving little time for the bumps and bruises suffered during this year’s budget battle to heal before entering the next fight.

And with an even tougher budget season looming, voters can bet there will be little else discussed during the city campaign season besides spending and taxes.

It’s the first thing Zoning Board Chairman Brian Desfosses mentioned when asked why he had entered the Ward 6 alderman race.

“I’m sort of a conservative, and in the coming few years, the budget is going to get much tighter than it is now,” said Desfosses. “I’m someone out there who’s working, has little kids, who’s very busy, but still trying to take time to make sure my interests are represented on the board … I don’t see a whole lot of that on the board right now.”

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Ode to the school board

Being on the school board is a thankless job. I would argue the most thankless out of all locally elected posts. Sometimes it’s good to acknowledge that.

Board caught between a squawk and a hard-times place

AS DIFFICULT as it is to sit on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, the job of a Manchester Board of School Committee member is unenviable.

Members regularly hear from parents, teachers and students about important programs that can’t possibly be cut and what a struggle it is to muddle through with what little schools have now. Any attempts to fix these problems are limited by the aldermen, who control how much money city schools get year to year. This fiscal arrangement traps every school board member in a tight spot between those asking for more and those reluctant to give it. Continue reading

Under my umbrella-ella-ella

Laying blame. It’s what makes up the bulk of any political debate. I felt Avard did a great job of making a clear and persuasive case that the blame wasn’t just on school staff or the board. And there was the umbrella item, which cannot be beat.

Avard blames officials, not unions, for budget standoff

There’s been a lot of blame levied at the city and school employee unions this budget season, but Board of School Committee member John Avard criticized his fellow officials last week for their support of a contract extension that some claim is far too generous.

In 2009, the city and the school district struck a deal with staff that would delay cost-of-living increases in exchange for a three-year contract extension. The extension promised full cost-of-living raises in the next two years of the contract, which Avard said some school board members “stood firmly against.”

“We said we cannot afford this contract and in future it will result in significant layoffs or asking for concessions,” said Avard. “We were told the money will be there. The aldermen said we won’t let you down. So far, I’m feeling let down.” Continue reading

Best. Meeting. Ever.

Covering meetings is painfully boring. It’s amazing to me how many people choose to take in a meeting via public access TV at home. I watch them because I get paid. There are, however, those few and far between meetings that are non-stop action. This was one. Free staters and police and people angry about the budget. When I woke up the next day brain-fried, I wondered if it all had really happened or if it were merely a dream.

Aldermen lose their wheels; protesters left spinning theirs

It started with a broken-down bus and ended with a stalemate.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s epic, eight-hour meeting on Tuesday had conflict, confrontation and tons of drama — and that was before the board even started talking about the budget.

The aldermen were called to order at 6 p.m. for a hearing related to South Willow Street’s road classification and to tour the pertinent section of roadway. Moments after some of the board members drove off in their bus, a crew of about 20 people upset by the recent arrest of protesters outside the Manchester police station, filled the aldermanic chambers with video cameras and a large yellow banner that read: “Liberty. Too big to fail.”

At 7 p.m., Mayor Ted Gatsas was supposed to call to order the public hearing portion of the meeting; instead, Alderman at-large Mike Lopez took the podium to announce the bus had broken down on the way back to City Hall and the meeting would start a little late.

“I knew when that bus broke down it was not the start of a good night,” said Alderman Garth Corriveau. “Then we got a call that Free-Staters had invaded City Hall , and it just kept going from there.” Continue reading

More budget please

Another process piece. One lesson learned this week, though, was if someone says something controversial about a politician and you want to use it, you better call the insulted party to get a comment.

Aldermen running out of time in budget contest

IF THE ALDERMEN are going to come up with an alternative budget, they better move fast.

Here are their choices: Raise taxes higher than the mayor’s proposed 3.37 percent and face angry constituents at election time, or rely on union concessions for some much-needed fiscal wiggle room.

Talks with the Manchester Professional Fire Fighters Association looked promising earlier this month, but sources on the board say a resulting deal is on life support. On Tuesday, the Manchester Police Patrolman’s Association showed up at a last-minute aldermen meeting, proposal in hand and ready for a discussion, but the aldermen shut the door and met without the police union in non-public, referring the union reps instead to city negotiators: Finance Director Bill Sanders and City Solicitor Tom Clark.

“Some aldermen reached out to us as to what our best and last offer was. We were ready to go, but they didn’t want to hear it in that forum,” said Officer Dave Connare, president of the police union. “So now we’re back to discussions with Bill Sanders and Tom Clark.” Continue reading