Paul Feely's City Hall: Gatsas reflects on his time in corner officeBy PAUL FEELY
December 31. 2017 12:32AM
Ted Gatsas has held one elected office or another in Manchester every year since 2000. Five terms as an alderman. State senator for District 16 from 2000 to 2009. Four terms as mayor of the Queen City.
That all changes this week, when he and his staff clear out of the corner office at City Hall ahead of Mayor-elect Joyce Craig taking the oath of office on Tuesday (10 a.m., Radisson Hotel).
Are any secrets of City Hall passed down from mayor to mayor? Words of wisdom shared in an envelope tucked away in a desk drawer?
"All I got was a note that said, 'Good luck,'" chuckled Gatsas, recalling what former mayor Frank Guinta left for him on his first day. "I will leave a note in the middle of the desk that says, 'Good luck.'"
Gatsas said a lot has changed in the state's largest city since he was elected as Manchester's 47th mayor on Nov. 3, 2009.
"But I can tell you the view looking up Hanover Street hasn't changed much, other than the store fronts being filled," said Gatsas. "A lot of great things have happened in this city. Elm Street is looking wonderful. The LED lighting, when you are out traveling at night, it certainly brightens up the city. The last time there was this much excitement and this many people around was probably in the '60s and '70s, when there was a lot of retail development and a lot of people in the stores."
Gatsas said he learned early on the title of mayor carries duties not included in the job description.
"There have been many Fridays somebody would come in here with their three kids and say, 'Mayor, we don't have a place to live,'?" said Gatsas. "It's usually in January or February, and I'd make the phone calls - I've got the direct cellphones to a lot of people - and when it has to do with kids, let's extend the good will and get them someplace to stay. I had a family of eight come in here once because they had bed bugs and they were refugees, and we found them a place to stay. It's important that you understand that you are helping people."
"It's a job that you've got to put your time in," added Gatsas. "I don't think we ever said no to anyone that asked us to do something, if we had time on the schedule to do it. I can't remember an event at a school that we were asked to go to that we said no. It's a time-consuming job. Your family doesn't see you much, but you've got to make the commitment. It's all about the commitment."
Gatsas said one of the initiatives achieved during his time in office that he is most proud of is the Safe Station program, launched in May 2016. Safe Station transformed the Queen City's 10 fire stations into intake centers where addicts can head for help without fear of being arrested. (See related story, Page A1)
"Across the country, people are talking about it," said Gatsas. "It's saved many lives. I applaud the fire department for all the great work they have done. Chris Hickey came forward with an idea and I applaud him for that. I think there's probably over 3,000 people that have come through Safe Station now, and it's only 2 years old. There will be bumps in the road when there will be spikes with the number of calls that they get, and the number of deaths, but certainly it looks like the trend is down, which is a good thing. We've got to just keep it up. We're not going to win this battle in one month or one year. It's going to be a long-term thing."
Gatsas also noted improvements in the city's school district as a highlight of his administration.
"The first thing we did was City Year," said Gatsas. "We put that in place 7½ years ago. I raised over $1.5 million dollars to make sure that the four schools that we brought it into were successful. It didn't make sense when I saw City Year in the seventh grade, trying to save kids that late in their education. I said it would make more sense in the program that I've seen to meet with kids at a younger age, third or fourth grade, and help them so that when they reach seventh grade, we're not trying to pull them up off the cliff."
Gatsas partnered with entrepreneur Dean Kamen, and the FIRST organization, to bring the FIRST Jr. STEAM Ahead program to Manchester's elementary schools. Students learn by building robots with Legos and are introduced to the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) program.
"Every fourth-grader in the city of Manchester now has the opportunity to go to the SEE Science Center at no cost," said Gatsas. "That was never available before, and the kids love it. We were the first community in the country to pay a stipend to our robotics coaches. We were the first community in the country to make credits available for students that were on the FIRST Robotics team."
Gatsas says the thing he will miss most about being mayor is "signing those 4,000 honor roll letters."
"When you look at those numbers, that's a pretty big percentage of students in the sixth through the 12th grades making the honor roll," said Gatsas. "When we started this 7½ years ago, there were 3,000 students making the honor roll. I sign every one of those letters. Kids compare the signatures, and they or their parents save them. It means something."
Gatsas said he's proud of what he and members of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen have accomplished over the last eight years.
"The LED lighting certainly saved over $600,000 a year for the taxpayers," said Gatsas. "We were told the municipal complex couldn't happen, and we went out and found every fund we could. There are things we looked at and achieved that people thought we couldn't do. You can't do it alone - you need eight votes - but we got an awful lot done in this community because we put our minds together and worked together to get it done."
"I wish people would have understood the complexity of the teacher contract and the police contract, and what they meant to the city," said Gatsas. "There's no question they all do great jobs, and certainly I applaud them. Every day their lives are on the line. But I think life would have been a lot easier during the budget cycle if you had kept everybody at the place that they were in for raises and contracts. The police contract cost us $2.5 million in the first year. It's going to be another $1.8 million in the next year, and you've got an awful lot of other people who haven't seen a raise who are wondering, 'What about me?' So I think that's not going to be an easy task for the next administration, because there's been a lot of promises made."
Ward 12 Alderman Keith Hirschmann thanks Gatsas for putting the phrase "Where is the money coming from?" in his head whenever a proposal comes forward. Gatsas consistently vetoed contracts he felt were bad for the city, or the taxpayers.
"I don't look at vetoes just to veto things," said Gatsas. "I want to make sure if we're going to veto something it's for the best interests of the community and the city and the taxpayers. This new board, it's going to be a little different. The numbers have changed and I think this new board is going to listen and pay attention and respect the tax cap, so I think that it's going to be interesting. It's easy enough to come into office and say that you'll present a budget under the tax cap because that's what the charter says, and you don't have much of a choice. But after that it's a whole new day when you have to put a budget together and take a look at what it says."
Asked what the future holds, Gatsas said he and his wife, Cassandra, are looking forward to helping nonprofits and to their annual trip to Aruba in February. "I get to stay two extra days this year, before I have to come home and take care of the cats," he joked.
He also referenced a letter he kept on his desk in the mayor's office the last few years, a letter he cites as "the reason I run" for office. The letter is from the daughter of a man Gatsas helped find employment in 2014, after receiving a call from someone at McDonough School about a homeless family.
"It was from the man's daughter," said Gatsas. "It says, 'My father told me to call you your honor. He said that's how I should address you. He is smiling, and that's the first time he's been smiling in a long time, and I want to thank you for that.' That's why I do this job. The moments when you help people."
Might he run for mayor again? Gatsas simply smiled.
"I never say never, and I always pay attention to what's happening."
Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.