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December 17. 2011 10:32PM

Beth LaMontagne Hall's City Hall: Land sale may be school board's swan song


 

When this Board of Aldermen meets for the last time, on Tuesday, it will close the door on a term that brought the city a municipal complex, a no-cost-to-the-city dog park, a drop in water and sewer rates, a takeover at the city's two former community TV stations, a possible new liquor store on the West Side and — most recently — a potential 60-acre housing project on Wellington Hill.

The city, the Diocese of Manchester and about a dozen private landowners entered into an agreement more than a year ago to sell their plots between Interstate 93, Smyth Road and Rayburn Street to Sterling Realty. The local company has plans to build affordable single-family homes there, but first needs zoning changes that would reduce the amount of land required for each house lot. Currently, a developer needs 12,500 square feet to build a home there. Sterling is asking for a 7,500-square-foot minimum.

The agreement to sell wasn't an easy one for the board. Aldermen Ron Ludwig and Garth Corriveau wanted the city to buy out the other land owners and consider using the 60 acres for a new elementary school to ease crowding at Weston. But with no state school building aid anywhere in sight and a tight city budget on the horizon for 2011, the board decided to sell.

Tuesday's meeting will include a public hearing on the zoning changes, which the aldermen are expected to approve shortly thereafter. And it will likely be the last big decision this board makes together.

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What this board won't be doing Tuesday is closing the door on Hackett Hill business park, which has stumbled along for more than 18 months.

During a quick drive last week through the hill-top parcel purchased by Danais Realty Group, there wasn't much to see. There are abandoned parking lots, giant piles of rock and gravel fill, but little sign of construction. Danais told the aldermen he is still seeking funding to build the $2.4 million fire station down the street from the park — a required part of the deal. Mayor Ted Gatsas and the aldermen talked tough last month about canceling the contract if Danais didn't start moving soon — or at least looking into building the fire station with city funds — but since then, there's been no action.

Alderman Mike Lopez said the board is waiting for a decision on the contract or an update on Danais' financing.

“Until the city solicitor comes back to the aldermen and gives us a final answer, I'm not sure what the aldermen are going to do,” said Lopez.

The continued delays have irked no one more than they've irked Alderman Patrick Arnold, who's Ward 12 fire station is badly in need of replacing.

“I have been very aggressive with discussion with city staff as well as the developer,” said Arnold. The focus he said, is on getting Danais the funding he needs. But if that doesn't work?

“The aldermen are eager to hear if there have been any developments on that front. In the meantime, the aldermen are continuing discussions about any other options available to them to move the deal forward,” said Arnold.

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The IRS doesn't fool around, especially when it's owed money. The Manchester School District recently paid the price — $169,500 to be exact — for an untimely payment this summer to the federal tax agency.

The fine was attributed to a human error, and safeguards have since been set up to avoid another late payment, but Committeeman Arthur Beaudry thought a $169,500 mistake needed a little more investigation.

Further review of the IRS payments shows there were three payments made between 2004 and 2005 that were late by one day. This was due to a miscommunication between the district and the IRS when the agency switched from a wire transfer system to an electronic system. No fine was charged. Another error was made in 2008, when the district did not release the payment. It wasn't discovered until a month later, but no fine was assessed for that mistake either.

When Beaudry pressed the issue at the end of Monday's meeting, Gatsas suggested a letter of reprimand for district Treasurer Freda Hawkinson. Beaudry liked the idea, but it split the board. Seven voted in favor, five voted against and two abstained: Committeemen John Avard and Steve Dolman.

The district will continue fighting the fine through the IRS appeals process.

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The school board on Monday said farewell to seven of its members who will not serve during the next session. The send-offs varied from official to snarky to emotional, all paying tribute to those who collectively have given more than 40 years of service to the board.

Committee Vice Chairman Dave Gelinas gave commendations to Ward 5 member Kathryn Vaughn, who quietly served her term by staying above the fray; Ward 2 member Joe Briggs, who left that day to move to Georgia; and Ward 8 member Tom Katsiantonis, who is moving on to the Board of Aldermen.

Ward 3 member Mike DeBlasi, who has grown more outspoken since his defeat in November, received a send-off from fellow outspoken member Beaudry.

“Those of you who watch the meetings, you can see the passion he brings to the table,” said Beaudry. “I will miss you and will miss the phone calls after the meetings to vent on the hypocrisy that happened during the meetings.”

It wasn't hard for Avard to put together a few words for Ward 11's Dolman, who has given more than four decades of service to the city.

“He was a pleasure to work with, and for the first time, we were able to create a cohesive unit on the West Side and stick up for the West Side schools,” said Avard.

At-Large Committeeman Kathleen Kelley, one of the longest serving members of the board, was once soft-spoken, but has transformed into one of the board's leaders, said fellow member Donna Soucy. Kelley, a little choked up by Soucy's kind words, then took the podium to honor member Chris Herbert, who left the board after seven terms to run for mayor.

“He's the kind of person who fights for what he believes in and to keep this community moving forward,” said Kelley.

Read Beth LaMontagne Hall's coverage of Manchester City Hall in the New Hampshire Union Leader. Email her at bhall@unionleader.com.


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