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Manchester mayor: 'It's the tax cap budget'

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 16. 2014 10:44PM

MANCHESTER — Department heads and aldermen are pushing back against the budget proposed by Mayor Ted Gatsas, warning it will likely result in layoffs and undermine public safety.

The heads of the largest city departments — public works, police and fire — have all appeared before the Board of Mayor and Aldermen this week to raise concerns about the budget.

Gatsas has acknowledged that his proposed fiscal year 2015 budget will pose challenges, which is constrained by a 2.13 percent tax cap. The $137.4 million city budget presented by the mayor contains $6 million in unfunded health care and severance costs. And this week, the city's finance director increased his estimate of the budget hole to $8 million.

The main source of concern for the department heads is the expectation that they will have to absorb the unfunded severance costs within their operating budgets. Retirements are expected next year because it's the last year in which a $13,000 incentive will be offered to employees who step down.

For the police department alone, severance costs could top $530,000, Chief David Mara told the aldermen at a hearing on Monday. "Any notion that we can absorb severance in the budget is unrealistic. We'd have to lay off officers," he said.

This conflicts with part of Gatsas' budget speech, in which he declared there would be no layoffs and the size of the police force would be increased to 227 officers.

Similarly, Fire Chief James Burkush estimated his severance costs next year to be close to $500,000. Last year, departments left positions vacant to deal with unfunded severance. But Burkush said leaving fire department jobs vacant could force the closure of fire stations and put trucks out of service.

In his budget, Gatsas proposes reducing from 46 to 42 the size of the complement, the total number of firefighters who must be on shift at any time to respond to emergencies.

"I don't want to go to 42," Burkush told the aldermen.

Gatsas said in an interview Tuesday that he did the best he could with his budget given the limits of the tax cap. "I had a task to do a budget under the tax cap," he said. "I know some aldermen have referred to it as the mayor's budget, but it's the tax cap budget."

Gatsas also said the dire warnings of department heads had to be taken in context.

"The problem is most people, when I listen to the questions, they don't understand the budget process," he said. "Last year Chief Mara came in and said he'd be $100,000 short in the allocation we gave him. He managed his budget, and right now he's showing a surplus. We have him at 227 officers, which is the highest complement he's had."

Several aldermen have pledged to bolster ranks of police officers in particular.

"We're on the cusp right now. It's not going to take much where this city is going to dissolve," Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long said. "With the heroin, the graffiti, we're attracting a bad element, if we don't have officers out there walking the beats; it's critical now they get what they need."

The hearing on Monday also included unwelcome news from Finance Director Bill Sanders, who said the unfunded portion of the budget is closer to $8 million than $6 million.

The budget constraints appear to have some aldermen considering an override of the tax cap, which would require 10 votes on the 14-member board.

"I think there's going to have to be serious consideration for overriding the tax cap, to continue with services and keep the city moving forward," Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig.

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