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October 06. 2012 8:02PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Martineau in hot seat until Gatsas throws on cold water


 

By the time Board of Mayor and Aldermen meetings enter their third hour, the department heads and their deputies compelled to attend resemble a class of slouching high school students, hoping they don’t get called to the front of the class. It was no such luck on Tuesday for Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau, who doesn’t typically attend the meetings and had reason to rue testifying more than anyone.

Martineau was summoned by Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur, who has been railing against his six-figure salary and the fact that it’s swelled in the decade he’s headed the welfare agency, while the assistance it pays out has dropped to the point that it makes up less than 40 percent of his budget.

But Levasseur had another line of questioning he wanted to pursue at Tuesday’s meeting. As this paper reported last week, the state’s highest court rejected the welfare department’s policy of suspending for six months the benefits of applicants who are caught misrepresenting their financial situation.

The court ruled that the guidelines for eligibility employed by the agency violate the state welfare statute, which limits the penalty for not disclosing information to a seven- to 14-day suspension of benefits.

Levasseur, a lawyer by trade, questioned whether Martineau was using such stringent guidelines to limit the number of people it assisted in order to keep the department’s budget in check. Martineau has boasted of the money he’s saved the city over his tenure. Under state statute, municipal welfare offices must assist all of those deemed eligible for help.

“Have you ever made any decisions (on assistance) based on your budget?” Levasseur asked, sounding every bit like a cross-examining attorney.

“No, of course not,” replied Martineau.

“So you never came to the board to ask for one dollar more than you were budgeted?”

“That’s correct.”

“And miraculously you’re able to give out assistance equal to the exact amount in your budget?”

“It’s not miraculous,” Martineau said. “I have no reason to deny anyone who qualifies. If I run a deficit, you people have to make it up.”

It could have been the late hour, but Levasseur’s colleagues didn’t seem to share his sense of outrage, including Mayor Ted Gatsas, who cut off Levasseur’s questioning just as he appeared to be getting warmed up.

But Gatsas was troubled by the fact that a lawsuit against the city, in this case brought by a low-income legal advocacy group, made it all the way to the state Supreme Court and he didn’t know anything about it until he saw the news in the paper.

So the aldermen approved a motion requiring the solicitor’s office, which handled the welfare case, to keep them apprised of any and all lawsuits.

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This may seem like old news, but the city’s downtown police station is going on the market.

In August, when the aldermen voted to put the Chestnut Street station up for sale, the mayor mentioned intriguingly that he was already talking to some prospective buyers.

Those talks fell through, Gatsas told the aldermen on Tuesday, and at this point it would be best to let the city’s economic development department handle listing and marketing the building, he said. Just to remind you, we’re talking 46,000 square feet, complete with holding cells and a firing range. (Could make for an interesting nightclub theme.)

Gatsas said the people he was speaking to felt the price was too high, given how much it would cost to renovate the structure. The aldermen had agreed that the asking price should be $2.1 million.

“Maybe in a few months, when they have another opportunity to look at it, they’ll make another offer,” Gatsas told me. “But there’s no sense in waiting. Let’s get it on the market.”

In the meantime, in order to maintain the building, which the police are expected to completely vacate for the new municipal complex in December, the city will continue paying utilities through the winter.

When the issue last came up, in August, Alderman Patrick Arnold referred dubiously to the people Gatsas was speaking to as “mystery buyers.”

Arnold was among the aldermen who preferred to keep the building in city hands, and he wasn’t exactly upset that no offer was forthcoming.

Better this, he said, than “another sweetheart deal for a developer in the city.”

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When it comes to city-owned real estate, Arnold and the mayor just don’t see eye to eye.

Arnold was one of the few dissenters when the aldermen voted last week to approve spending an additional $1.1 million in federal bond and grant money to complete the renovation of the Odd Fellows building on Lake Avenue.

In this case, the plan is not to sell the building, located in one of the central city’s grittier quarters, but to turn it into a community resource center, particularly for the many refugees who live in the neighborhood.

“The main benefit is the stabilizing influence renovating this building will have on this neighborhood,” Planning Director Leon LaFreniere told the aldermen.

“We anticipate by combining these nonprofits in this facility, it will allow for cost-saving measures and therefore reduce their need to rely on the revenue streams of our CDBG funding sources,” LaFreniere said, referring to federal block grants.

According to LaFreniere, if the city didn’t move forward quickly on the project, it could have to pay back the more than $1 million in federal money it’s already spent to rehab the building.

“The bottom line is we can spend $1 million and have a finished project, or we can send $1 million back to the feds and have an empty building,” said Alderman Jim Roy.

“I understand the project has merit,” said Arnold. “I’m just looking at it in terms of cost-benefit. It just seems we’re rubber-stamping money away for infrastructure, for any capital needs we may have.”

Gatsas emphasized that he envisioned the building serving a range of purposes for all residents of the area, not just refugees, and he said tenants there would be paying rent. “Getting the building up and running may change the complexion of the neighborhood,” he told me.

Speaking of refugees, the mayor reported that 115 refugees have arrived in Manchester this year, as of Oct. 1. That’s quite a bit fewer than the 200 who were anticipated. This was good news for Gatsas, who has called for a moratorium on refugee arrivals.

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


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