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Ted Siefer's City Hall: Levasseur votes swing grant to police, leaves firefighters cold

September 23. 2012 12:06AM

When the dust settled on Tuesday's epic Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, it was police 1, firefighters 0.

By a vote of 10-3, the aldermen authorized the police department to accept a $625,000 COPS grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund five additional officers over two years.

However, the vote was 9-4 for a $1.36 million, two-year SAFER grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for nine firefighters, allowing Mayor Ted Gatsas to successfully veto the measure; 10 votes are necessary to override the mayor.

It was at-large Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur who was the swing vote.

Levasseur said he has nothing against firefighters, but he believed there was a greater need for police officers.

'I think our two main priorities right now are keeping kids in school and punks out of our homes, with all the break-ins we've had,' he said, adding that he liked the fact that new police officers would have to be military veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

The last time the grants came up for a vote, in July, Levasseur sided with the mayor in opposing them. What was it he said? 'I don't know why people think taking money from Washington is free money. Washington is so broke it makes us in Manchester look like financial geniuses.'

Several aldermen who supported both public safety grants were surprised that it was the COPS grant that prevailed since, unlike the SAFER grant, it requires the city to fully fund the officer positions for a third year.

Levasseur, a Republican, suggested that between his vote for the police grant and another to send the school district $200,000 in contingency funds to hire more teachers, the aldermen, who comprise the majority bloc on the board, would take notice.

'I'm going to start looking for more cuts, where the Democrats don't seem to want to go.'

That may start with Levasseur's favorite whipping boy, Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau. He wants to slash Martineau's six-figure salary and have the agency spend more on assistance than it does on staffing.

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Any day now, it seems Manchester's elected officials could march on Concord armed with pitchforks.

The mayor and aldermen learned last week that the New Hampshire Retirement System slapped the city and school district with pension bills for the next fiscal year that are nearly $4 million higher than this year's.

The spike in pension costs, together with other fixed employee obligations, already puts the city and school district over the projected tax cap, before the aldermen have had a chance to even contemplate their priorities for the next year's budget.

Much of the consternation at Tuesday's meeting was directed at the Legislature for retirement system changes it authorized.

'Communities have to stand together on this,' at-large Alderman Dan O'Neil said. 'They're not living up to their obligations when this system was created. They wiped their hands clean and said, 'We'll let you guys raise your taxes.''

In a rare moment of common cause with O'Neil, Mayor Gatsas said all of the aldermen should appear before the Legislature when it reconvenes.

'We need to go as a united front in front of these committees so we're talking with one voice,' he said. 'We should get our entire legislative delegation here on a monthly basis.'

House Speaker William O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, only added fuel to the fire later in the week when he accused city officials of 'upshifting' an estimated $13,000 in legal costs to the state by continuing to fight a state Supreme Court ruling upholding the House redistricting plan.

'I have no problem reimbursing him $13,000 for upshifting costs if he'd like to send me a check for $4 million in downshifting to us,' Gatsas said.

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Chickens make good neighbors. That's the message Tim Soucy had for the Committee on Administration/Information Systems last week.

Soucy wants to be allowed to raise chickens in his back yard - and the committee is willing to look at tweaking city zoning laws to allow him and other like-minded residents to do just that.

Just to be clear, this is not the Tim Soucy who heads the city's public health department, a fact that caused confusion when the man in a T-shirt and jeans was called to testify before the committee on Tuesday.

This is the Tim Soucy who lives on Wells Street on the east side and who wants to be able to again have chickens in his back yard. It's really for his young son, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

'His counselor suggested this as a way to address his problems, as therapy,' he said. 'This helped him. These are pets to him, they're not livestock. And we enjoy their eggs. And we share them with our neighbors. As my son says, 'Chickens are our friends, not food.''

The zoning board already rejected Soucy's request for a variance that would have allowed him to have livestock in a residential district.

Planning Department Director Leon LaFreniere said he believes it's worth coming up with a new zoning ordinance that would allow for chickens, as several municipalities around the country have, including Concord, in response to the growing popularity of homegrown fresh eggs.

'This would be on a trial basis,' he said. 'Our primary concern is constructing an ordinance that protects neighbors as much as possible.'

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Plans and paid consultants have come and gone, but the knotty issue of redistricting is expected to return to the Board of School Committee when it meets on Monday.

Redrawing the lines that determine which school a student attends has been a priority for Mayor Gatsas since he took office. In light of classroom crowding at several schools since the start of the school year, it makes more sense than ever, he says.

Past plans have foundered on their complexity and parents' resistance. This time, Gatsas says, he wants to stick to the elementary schools.

'I think redistricting from K to 5 should be a little easier,' he said. 'There are some schools that have no problems, while the neighboring school has some overcrowding.'

He said it's one of several new ideas he plans to bring up with the school board on Monday. Could be a long night.

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With Nov. 6 only weeks away, there's election fever out there. Maybe this is why Mayor Gatsas keeps getting asked whether he will be running for reelection.

Last week, he revealed he has an answer for them, more than a year before city elections: Yes, he will be running for a third term.

'People are constantly asking me on the streets, and I want to be able to express myself as clear as I can,' he said.

It's a more emphatic declaration of intentions than we heard a year ago, when the announcement that Gov. John Lynch would not seek reelection triggered months of speculation that Gatsas would run for the corner office in Concord.

Alderman Garth Corriveau, the young Democrat who explored a run for mayor in 2011, said he'd wait until next year to make any decisions about the 2013 election.

'Right now, I figure I have other candidates I want to see get elected,' he said. 'I'll wait until after the holidays. I know it's a very weighty decision to make. It's not one I'd make lightly.'

As for the prospect of Gatsas seeking another office in the future: 'I would never rule anything out,' he said.

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Ted Siefer may be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @tbsreporter.

City Hall Manchester

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