Union drama … again in Manchester.

As someone who belongs to a union and has seen contentious contract negotiations play out in the workplace, I find it fascinating the way public unions and government hash out contract deals so publicly. The media, in this case pretty much just me and the stories I write, can be seen as a problem or a tool by either side in getting what they want. Manchester teachers have long argued they have made concessions more than other city unions. More give-backs is not what the members are looking for. But school and city officials argue that holding out and forcing 160 or more layoffs could not only hurt schools and make teachers’ jobs nearly impossible, but it could also turn public sentiment against those who stand in front of the classroom.

Holding out at this point also puts allies of the teachers on the Board of Aldermen in a tough spot. After promising to give more money to schools if the unions show movement on concessions, it will be hard to convince those aldermen on the fence to shift money from city services to the one group that has decided to stand its ground in this year’s labor dispute.

This week’s column also got to note the work of a behind-the-scenes player in Manchester, Kevin O’Maley. As the overseer of all city buildings, he has worked hard to improve energy efficiency, showing that being environmentally friendly doesn’t have to be this dramatic political fight, but just makes common sense when done right.

 

Vote against school contract sends aldermen wrong signal

SINCE MAYOR Ted Gatsas laid out his budget, aldermen have been looking for more money for the Manchester School District. The amount the city can give schools under the new tax cap is about $12 million below what the district says it needs to keep staffing and services at today’s level. This column reported last month that if school unions signaled they would make concessions to save jobs, the aldermen would consider shifting more city funds over to the school side.

On April 17, the Manchester Education Association’s executive board voted against a tentative agreement reached by school and union leaders.

This was not the signal the aldermen were looking for.
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The Prediction Game

Some good advice I received a few years back about covering politics was that people never hold political journalists accountable for their predictions. If you call the race for one candidate and the other wins, well then you get to write about the upset. If you pick the correct horse, then you’re deemed a savvy political mind for properly crunching the data.

Another way to get in some “analysis” without taking on the prediction yourself is to get others to predict what happened. This week I tried just that by asking all the aldermen I could whether a tax cap override is possible.

 

Aldermen flirt with tax cap override, but refuse to commit

THE ALDERMEN INDICATED on Tuesday there may be enough votes for a tax cap override. They also made clear they don’t want to vote on it right now.

Alderman At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur made a motion at the end of Tuesday’s lengthy school budget discussion to stay within the tax cap as “a test vote.”

“I’m calling our bluff,” he said.

After a quick moment of protest, Alderman Tom Katsiantonis moved to table the item. The tabling motion passed, 10-4, with Aldermen Levasseur, Phil Greazzo, Jim Roy and Bill Shea voting no.

Later that meeting — at 12:30 a.m. — Alderman Patrick Long made a motion to override the tax cap by 1 percent. The aldermen shot each other surprised looks until Alderman Russ Ouellette made a motion to table that proposal, too. It passed, 11-3, with Long, Roy and Levasseur voting no.

The two motions will appear on the board’s agenda again this month.

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Budget season

The longer I do it, the more I realize budget debates are all the same. The only thing that differs is the size of the fight.

The debate over the school budget has become pretty serious, with more than 200 people showing up at a budget hearing this week, followed by a three-hour aldermen hearing about schools. This column, which appeared before those hearings, got 60 comments and drew education advocates, union bashers and simple spendthrifts to the table.

After going through a tough union negotiation battle with my company this fall and winter myself, I understood that such events have an effect on morale and condition of the workplace. When you take that idea and apply it to people who educate children all day, I thought it touched on something interesting … how worrying about your job year after year affects the face you put on for the kids each day. I also wondered is it solely up to the teachers to make their workplace better or do city and school leaders have a responsibility in it too.

Threat of layoffs creates ‘terrible’ morale for school staff

The school board’s decision to pink slip 161 school staffers last week came as a surprise to some board members, who entered the chambers that evening under the assumption that the votes to pass a reduction in force were not there.

Since then, the reality has sunk in, especially for teachers, and the union leadership has met to discuss the ramifications of the layoffs. As of Wednesday, there were no plans to bring the entire union membership together to talk about concessions.

With little movement expected from either side, both school and union top officials said the vote has further chipped away at the staff’s already low morale.

“Right now, people aren’t feeling good, especially after that meeting,” said Manchester Education Association President Ben Dick.

Staff morale is “terrible,” said Superintendent of Schools Thomas Brennan. “People are very anxious and concerned about their livelihood.”

Although the deadline for laying off teachers is not until May, Brennan said his staff will soon determine how to spread the 161 pink slips throughout the district.

“We certainly have the obligation to give all the staff time to get into the job market earlier,” said Brennan.

When those pink slips do come out, they’ll be hand delivered by Brennan, which he sees as his responsibility.

“My name is on the bottom of that page,” he said.

Mayor Ted Gatsas sees the teachers’ down attitude in another light.

“It seems as though the morale in the city (employees) was the same thing,” said Gatsas. “We came to an agreement with the unions on concessions, and it seems the morale has changed 180 degrees.”

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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

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.
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