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March 24. 2012 11:37PM

Mayor's budget unveiled, debate hinges on school funds


 

BUDGETS ARE NEVER EASY. There is never enough money to go to the services people want, and the money that is allotted is inevitably questioned by those who think their taxes are too high.

Mayor Ted Gatsas' budget, unveiled Thursday at City Hall before aldermen, the Board of School Committee and the department heads, walks the line between austerity and long-term investment. There are layoffs projected in the Highway Department and the school district, but there are also additional funds proposed to fix crumbling roads and sidewalks and to hire additional police officers.

Where the real fight now lies is over school district funding. The school board this year requested $152 million from the aldermen, the maximum amount allowed under the tax cap according to calculations made by the school district. Gatsas' budget calls for $150 million.

Whether the district can get more money within the confines of the tax cap comes down to a difference in opinion between the city and school accountants — never a good starting point for a debate.

School committee Vice Chairman Dave Gelinas said the board has already voted on the amount it has requested. The difference “is now in the hands of the aldermen.”

“If (the budget) comes in at $150 million, we will have to lay off another 50 people or use the expendable trusts,” said Gelinas. These expendable trusts are one-time funds used to pay for health insurance, special education and building repairs and have been used in the past to free up money in the budget for salaries. The board voted earlier this year not to use expendable trust money this way in next year's budget.

Committeeman Arthur Beaudry said a $150 million allocation would be “devastating to the school district” and force larger class sizes, elimination of full-day kindergarten and other setbacks.

“I hope the aldermen look at that number and give us the requested $152 million,” said Beaudry. “If not, the district will be in dire straits.”

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PROTOCOL IS IMPORTANT when sitting on the Board of Aldermen. Not only are there parliamentary rules to follow, but also unwritten rules that up until last week were thought to be hard and steadfast.

On Tuesday, a faction of aldermen voted to move forward with an ordinance that designates where private prisons and halfway houses may be built. Problem was, Ward 8 Alderman Tom Katsiantonis was absent — out of town to visit family — and would not have a chance to discuss the ordinance he strongly opposed. The aldermen have an unwritten rule that if something affects an alderman's ward — in this case a possible prison — no votes on that issue should be taken if the aldermen is not present unless that alderman gives the OK.

“I thought this was a no-brainer,” said Alderman Barbara Shaw. “Let's table until next time and let the alderman have his say. This is very disrespectful, and I hope we're not setting a precedent.”

But those wanting to move forward noted the charter requires two more votes on the issue, one in committee and another before the full board. What wasn't explicitly said is that the sooner this ordinance passes, the sooner Hackett Hill will be protected from any potential private prison development.

“I'm disappointed this has become a big political issue,” said Alderman At-Large Dan O'Neil. “A lot of you who are saying this is for Katsiantonis, you're the ones who spoke previously (for) a prison on Hackett Hill.”

“Yes, it is political. Don't think it's not,” said Ward 11 Alderman Russ Ouellette. “Just give the guy two weeks to let him have a chance to say what he wants.”

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MANCHESTER DEMOCRATS elected a new slate of officers last week, putting Donald Manning in the chairman post. Manning, former chief of staff to the speaker of the House, has focused on state politics, having worked under three House minority leaders in Concord, but he has followed Manchester politics from the sidelines, too. Diving into the chairmanship in the heat of the budget debate now gives him a front-row seat.

The other officers elected were Patty Cornell, vice chairman; Mike Farley, secretary; and Donna Soucy, treasurer.

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A NEW PRESIDENT of the Manchester Professional Fire Fighters union is set to take over on April 1. Former Vice President Jeff Duval will take over for outgoing President Ryan Cashin.

The change in leadership comes after a tough couple of years for the firefighters, who saw layoffs in 2011 followed by contract concessions that limit overtime and increase health care costs.

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IN RESPONSE TO the shooting of Manchester police Officer Daniel Doherty, Alderman Ouellette will hold a neighborhood meeting on public safety on Monday at Gossler Park Elementary School. The meeting, in the gymnasium, will start at 6 p.m.

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DISCUSSION ABOUT the fire station on Hackett Hill has dragged on for more than two years, but according to City Solicitor Tom Clark, a deal may be close.

Developer Richard Danais of Danais Realty Group had agreed to build a new fire station on Hackett Hill essentially in exchange for a large city-owned parcel in the Northwest Business Park. Clark said the city and Danais are close to an agreement allowing the city to alter the contract and build the fire station itself.

Gatsas said a draft contract will be sent to the aldermen on Monday, and the Committee on Administration should take the first look.

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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