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Paul Feely's City Hall: A public hearing where aldermen can't comment

By PAUL FEELY
May 05. 2018 9:28PM
City Solicitor Emily Rice (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE PHOTO)
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If the city holds a public hearing on something that can't be discussed with the public, will anyone show up?

We'll find out tomorrow, when the Board of Mayor and Aldermen holds a public hearing at 5 p.m. in the aldermanic chambers at City Hall on a supplemental appropriation of $1.5. million to the school district - to cover the cost of a legal settlement with the victim of a 2015 rape at Manchester High School West.

As we reported last week, city aldermen voted Tuesday night to authorize the use of $1.5 million in excess revenue from the Manchester school district to cover a supplemental appropriation.

Last week's vote was taken in response to a request from the school board after votes taken April 9, when committee members voted to move around money to fund an unspecified legal settlement.

The school board voted to use $200,000 of the district's anticipated surplus to fund a portion of a legal settlement, with the remainder of the $1.5 million funded by using money set aside for a $1.3 million debt service payment due in June.

Last week's voice vote by aldermen came after a non-public session with City Solicitor Emily Rice, whose office handles claims against the city and school district. Payouts on these claims are funded by taxpayers because both city government and schools are self-insured.

Rice can confirm that Monday's public hearing is being held pursuant to City Charter Sec. 6.04, as required by Sec. 6.05 (a), regarding approval of supplemental appropriations.

But that's all she can confirm.

"I cannot discuss anything that occurred during a consultation with legal counsel," said Rice late last week. "I am confident that both the Board of School Committee and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen have fully adhered to all legal requirements throughout this process."

No lawsuit has officially been filed against the school district regarding the rape, but David Gottesman, the lawyer representing the victim, filed a notice of claim with the city months ago, a step required by state law before a local government can be sued.

Any potential settlement that may be in the works behind closed doors must remain there, at least until the deal receives the final OK from the school board. Once the settlement is approved, the state's Right to Know law makes it a public document.

Changes to school budget appropriations are approved by city aldermen, and then the school board must approve the actual settlement.

Following the public hearing, the board likely will approve the resolution, and it will be sent to the school board for approval at its next session, scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 14 at City Hall.

Until then, public officials must remain silent on what the $1.5 million supplemental appropriation will be used for - even during a public hearing.

"It's absurd we are holding a public hearing granting the school district supplemental monies, totaling $1.5 million, yet the public cannot be told exactly what those monies are for," said Alderman At-large Joseph Kelly Levasseur. "This is taxpayers' money; they should be able to have input on whether or not their money should be spent in the manner intended. Otherwise don't hold a public hearing."

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Discussions on the fiscal 2019 municipal budget will crank into high gear this week, when aldermen hold special sessions on Monday and Tuesday with department heads.

On Monday at 5 p.m., aldermen will discuss non-departmental items, and school district officials will go over their proposed school budget.

"On Monday, we will be making the case to the Board of Aldermen for the support we need from the city to meet the academic, social, emotional and physical needs of our students," Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bolgen Vargas told the school board last week. "For example, we have a significant number of our schools that do not have a social worker. I believe we all agree that we need this in every school to better meet the needs of our students and families."

As previously reported, the school board sent a FY 2019 budget request of $168.1 million, but as Vargas points out, the district faces a $2.2 million structural budget gap.

"If the city is to provide us with additional resources we could specifically allocate to areas that are desperately needed to make sure we are providing similar opportunities to our students that they could receive in the surrounding districts," writes Vargas in a memo to school board members. "In fact, this must be part of the strategy to succeed in attracting and retaining families to our schools."

On Tuesday, May 8 at 5 p.m., department heads from the fire, health, police and public works departments will go before the aldermen to make their pitches for funding.

In memos sent to board members ahead of Tuesday's meeting, each department head raises concerns over covering severance costs for estimated retirements in the coming fiscal year.

Fire Chief Dan Goonan estimates 10 retirements in his department next year, at a cost of $392,077.

"If there are no funds available to cover these additional expenses, I will have no other options but to reduce my manpower per shift and implement rolling station closures," writes Goonan in a memo to aldermen.

Health Director Tim Soucy estimates his department can expect about $50,000 in severance payments in FY'19, "but could be as high as $125,000."

Police Chief Nick Willard writes that while Mayor Joyce Craig's proposed budget includes a 3.13 percent increase from FY 2018 for his department - including $790,210 more in salaries - he also is concerned about his department's ability to cover severance payments.

According to Willard, year to date the police department has paid out $329,865 in severance payments.

"Using five years of historical data, we project 11 retirements at a severance cost of $504,356," writes Willard. He says the biggest impact of covering severance costs will be his department's "ability to hire in a timely fashion."

Public Works Director Kevin Sheppard writes he anticipates between 7 and 10 retirements over the next fiscal year, with an estimated severance cost of $250,000. He also points out the mayor's budget allowance for the Highway Division is $188,000 lower than he forecasts needing for FY'19.

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A reminder: City and state officials have scheduled a meeting this Thursday to detail detours and ramp closures scheduled for next year as part of planned repairs on the Interstate 293 bridges connecting Bedford to Manchester.

The meeting will be held Thursday, May 10, at 6 p.m., at Highland-Goffe's Falls Elementary School, 2021 Goffs Falls Road in Manchester.

The bridges, which carry I-293 and Route 101 over the Merrimack River and Pan Am Railroad tracks, are being restored as part of a new bridge preservation project. The work will begin in April 2019, during which traffic on the three-lane bridges will be condensed into two lanes.

The estimated date of completion is sometime in October 2019.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.


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