June 16. 2018 9:00PM

Paul Feely's City Hall: Cataldo's decision to bust the city's tax cap drew plenty of heat


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It's ironic someone who promised his "over arching theme as alderman will be unity" would cause such a division.

Few budget votes in recent memory have ignited a firestorm like the one sparked by Ward 8 Alderman John Cataldo last week, who sided with 10 other aldermen in busting the tax cap for a $342 million Fiscal Year 2019 budget.

Ward 12 Alderman Keith Hirschmann said he was confident his own alternative budget - a tax cap budget, with no override for revenue and a lower tax rate for residents - had Cataldo's backing as of last Sunday night. Then he received a call the next day from the freshman alderman, saying he would instead back Board Chairman Dan O'Neil's cap-busting version.

Word of Cataldo's change of heart spread on social media ahead of last Tuesday's vote, leading to a flurry of calls from current and former city officials and residents reminding him - some not so politely - of his campaign pledge to support the tax cap.

During his campaign for alderman last fall, Cataldo responded to a question about the tax cap posed by the Union Leader by saying, "I do not support overriding the tax cap to fund salary increases. Overriding the tax cap outside of reasons of public safety breaks faith with Manchester taxpayers and voters who voted for it. I fully support our school and city employees and believe they deserve raises, but we must do it responsibly."

As Cataldo headed for his seat in the aldermanic chambers at City Hall last Tuesday, waiting for him was a stack of his own campaign literature from last fall, touting his support for the cap.

On top? A hand-written note asking, "What promises are you going to keep?"

Late last week, when asked about the vote by a Union Leader reporter, Cataldo expressed no regrets.

"My involvement in the budget and the resulting motions approved with bipartisan support is an example of real fundamental progress," said Cataldo in a statement. "Positive change is what we can achieve when we work together. My hope is that my colleagues and I are ultimately judged by what we are able to accomplish."

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During his campaign, Cataldo was endorsed by the group Concerned Taxpayers of Manchester (CTM) as a tax-cap supporter.

Late last week, CTM cut ties with the alderman from Ward 8.

"It is unfortunate that Ward 8 Alderman John Cataldo turned out to be different than candidate John Cataldo for Ward 8 Alderman on the question of the tax cap," reads a statement issued by the group. "Not only did he violate his pledge to uphold the tax cap, in making the motion to reinstate step and longevity raises for the non-affiliated and union employees working under expired contracts, he did the very thing he said would be wrong. Our disappointment in Alderman Cataldo's vote cannot be adequately expressed."

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Late Tuesday night, aldermen approved what the mayor's office termed "systemic change" to the Yager-Decker pay scale for new non-affiliated employees. The policy change - approved on a motion by Cataldo - states any new, non-affiliated employee are no longer eligible for longevity steps while they are still on the Yager-Decker scale and receiving annual step increases. For most new employees, this will mean they won't receive a longevity step in their 5th and 10th years of service.

Aldermen also approved a policy change requiring that only one health plan be offered to new, non-affiliated employees - the HSA high deductible plan. Prior to Tuesday's vote, any new, non-affiliated employee could choose between three plan options.

The mayor's office also said O'Neil's budget contains funding for the potential reinstatement of step and longevity raises for non-affiliated employees through the contingency line item. Cataldo also made a motion to reinstate these raises for non-affiliated employees, but the issue was sent to the Human Resources Committee to debate and bring back to the full board in July for a vote.

"While we appreciate his desire to cut a deal in the hopes of changing the city's awful Yager-Decker pay scale, we do not appreciate his vote to flush $1.3 million on pay raises for employees who will now have much less reason to bargain over cost items in their contracts," said CTM in a statement. "Fortunately, confusion over the wording of his pre-written motion caused the board to send it to the Committee on Human Resources to be worked out. That said, don't believe for one minute that the fix isn't in for those pay raises to be given."

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If recent stories in this newspaper about cities and towns across the state putting the brakes on recycling glass has you worried about the possibility of the Queen City following suit, Manchester Environmental Programs Manager Mark Gomez says there are no plans to do so.

At least, not yet.

Gomez admits that "pieces of glass mixed in with other recyclables diminish the value of those materials," but reports the city's agreement with its recycling collection contractor, Pinard Waste Systems, provides financial protections to the city that mitigate the impact of China's announcement it will no longer accept the quality of recycled materials the U.S. was sending there.

According to Gomez, the city currently picks up about 7,000 tons of recyclables per year.

Gomez said Manchester's current contract with Pinard runs through the end of 2020. Over the next year or so, his department will closely monitor the situation with recycling and determine whether the current model is financially sustainable for the city and its contractor.

"Based on our assessment over that period, we will put forth recommendations as to what Manchester's future recycling program should look like," said Gomez. "I'm not sure anyone knows exactly how this will play out. There's always a chance that a new sorting technology will be the silver bullet. More likely - at least in the near term - is that municipal programs will need to be designed in a way that is more responsive to market forces. Whatever happens, there needs to be dialogue between the public and private sectors to find a sustainable model."

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Remember that downtown construction camera this space wrote about a while back?

Peter Flotz of the Florida-based Lansing Melbourne Group received permission from city aldermen to temporarily mount a solar powered, wireless web cam on the pedestrian bridge over the Merrimack River to monitor construction of the six-story, 1,700 spot garage his firm is putting up on South Commercial Street.

The camera is now active, and images can be viewed at the following link:


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