March 27. 2013 11:28PM

Manchester residents slam pay hikes proposed by charter commission

New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER - The Charter Commission might want to think again about big pay raises for the mayor and members of the school and aldermanic boards, based on the outcry at a public hearing Wednesday.

About a dozen residents turned out for the meeting, which was designated to give the public a chance to respond to the dozens of measures the commission has debated and voted on over the past months.

While several of the speakers slammed the proposed pay hikes, there was less consensus on other issues, including changes to the tax cap and whether the mayor should be removed from the school board.

The nine-member commission has voted in favor of proposals to raise the mayor's pay from $68,000 to $108,000, a 59 percent increase. Last week, it voted 5-4 to back a proposal to eliminate the health and dental coverage for the aldermen and the school board, while increasing their stipends to $15,000, around a four-fold increase.

"Our elected officials keep letting us know we're broke, and yet we're raising salaries," an incredulous Glenn Ouellette told the panel.

Several speakers said they believed the mayor's pay was too low, but they argued that a 59 percent increase was too steep. The proposal to eliminate the health benefits for the aldermen and school board while raising their stipends was roundly criticized.

"I can't comprehend why part-time employees get benefits to begin with or are allowed to pay into the system. Paraprofessionals can't, part-time librarians can't," Ian Poirier said.

Others at Wednesday's hearing urged the commission to avoid any changes to the tax cap, which so far have not been advanced by the panel.

"The tax and spending cap, we voted for it, we went out in the cold," Patrice Benard said. "Just try to mess with that and you'll be sorry."

Albert Jernigan urged the panel to work together, rather than try to advance individual or group agendas.

"You guys are a team, not nine separate individuals," he said. "I'm just a regular citizen who has high taxes and wants to see them reduced. There are over 100,000 people in this city, and your motions, at the end, should say this is to benefit the city of Manchester and nothing else."

The commission must submit a preliminary list of charter changes to state election officials next month.

Several of the speakers were affiliated with the group Citizens for Manchester Schools, which has pushed for greater school funding.

One of its members, Nick Want, made a "compromise" proposal, after a vote to remove the mayor from the school board failed. "Perhaps the mayor can contribute, but not at the chairman level," Want said. "The process we have today is clearly not working ... You guys have the opportunity to nudge us onto a slightly different path."

However, Keith Hirschmann, the former alderman and a member of the last charter commission 10 years ago, told the panel that he believed the mayor should remain on the board.

"We have a weak mayor form of government. He can be overridden," he said. "I think most would choose to have the mayor be a part of the school system."

A different but familiar issue was raised by Howard McCarthy, a frequent contributor during the public comment periods at meetings. He again urged the panel to extend the time each person is allotted to speak from three minutes to five, at the least.

He posed the rhetorical question to the commission: "Your words may be majestic and grandiose, and my words only pathetic?" Underscoring his point, he spoke for nearly six minutes before concluding his remarks.