Officials bring dull knives to their own cost-cutting fight
PRETTY SOON, one might expect members of the Board of School Committee to start looking under the seat cushions for loose change. Every other week, it seems, the board has to scramble to come up with emergency funds. The challenge had been to find more money to hire teachers to bring class sizes down. On Tuesday, it was to restore $109,000 in cuts to extracurricular programs, following the entreaties of earnest kids and angry parents who packed the City Hall chambers.
Tuesday's funding scheme involved raiding the school supplies budget. This prompted board member Debra Gagnon Langton to make a gesture of self-sacrifice: School board members should pay a greater share for the health insurance coverage provided by the district. She may have lobbed what seemed like a modest proposal, but it landed like a stun grenade. As subsequent events showed, health insurance is a sensitive subject for the school board.
Langton's idea had backing from board member Art Beaudry, who questioned why elected board members who perform a part-time job should get the benefits of full-time employees; that is, both dental and health coverage.
Other board members grumbled that boosting health premium contributions wasn't fair since it would affect only those who opt to take the insurance. A better idea, they suggested, was to cut the $2,000 annual stipend all board members receive.
Langton's motion — to raise the premium contribution rate from 20 to 30 percent — was defeated.
Board member Donna Soucy later proposed cutting the stipend by 25 percent.
This prompted Beaudry to propose the nuclear option: Eliminate the entire stipend and all health coverage. “Let's make the playing field even. I'll give up my $2,000,” said Beaudry, who is running against Soucy in the District 18 state Senate race. “You want to play political games, let's play political games, because that is all this is.”
Only Beaudry and Langton voted for this proposal. By an 8-5 vote, the board passed Soucy's motion, which technically recommends the aldermen cut the stipend; they're the ones authorized to make such financial decisions.
So how much will this save? A grand total of $7,000.
The school board's health insurance is by far the greater expense: In 2012, the district's premium costs alone will be nearly $90,000. This doesn't include costs for individual claims the district must cover as a self-insured entity.
We know this — as well as who on the school board gets health and dental — thanks to the efforts of Rich Girard, the host of the “Girard-at-Large” morning radio show on 90.7 FM.
He filed a right-to-know request to get this information, and after two months, the district provided some answers last week. (Both Girard and the district provided this information to the New Hampshire Union Leader.) So who on the school board is getting the benefits in 2012?
Receiving both health and dental are John Avard, Roger Beauchamp, Erika Connors, Jason Cooper, Ted Rokas, and, yes, Donna Soucy.
Christopher Stewart gets just health.
Debra Langton, Roy Shoults and Dave Wihby get only dental.
Beaudry, Kathy Staub, Dave Gelinas and Sarah Ambrogi receive no benefits.
Citing privacy laws, the district would not say how much it pays for each member's insurance. Some are enrolled in family plans.
No board member was as vocal on Tuesday in defending the benefits as Avard, who is a chiropractor.
“I think this is a 24-7 job,” he said. “When I have to have these conversations (with parents) at sporting events rather than watching my kids, I think it's appropriate. Even with the insurance, I'm still out $30,000 a year because of the time I put in here. I have a committee meeting tomorrow, and I had to cancel appointments with about a dozen patients,” he said.
When Soucy's motion to cut the school board's stipends goes to the aldermen, will they follow suit? If so, the stakes will be higher. The aldermen get a $4,000 stipend and a greater proportion of them — 10 of the 14 — get health and dental from the city.
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Alderman Phil Greazzo says he's going to file a complaint with the Attorney General's Office any day now over what he says are campaign finance improprieties on the part of his opponent in the District 20 state Senate race, Lou D'Allesandro, the avuncular six-term incumbent.
During his years in office, D'Allesandro has amassed a war chest of more than $300,000, far more than any other legislator.
Greazzo said he has been examining the senator's campaign finance reports, and he doesn't see how expenses such as cellphone bills, auto repairs and flowers have anything to do with running for office.
“It's up to the attorney general to make the determination whether these are legitimate expenditures or whether he's actually using these funds for personal items,” Greazzo said. In his view, “they don't smell appropriate.”
Greazzo especially doesn't like the amount of money D'Allesandro shells out every year for his birthday celebration/fundraiser at Athens Restaurant. The one on July 24 cost $3,852, an amount Greazzo says exceeds the contributions it brought in.
D'Allesandro calls Greazzo's complaints “nonsense.”
“Mr. Greazzo can raise any issue he likes,” D'Allesandro said. “I don't spend any money that isn't associated with my political life.”
He added: “My goal is to serve people honorably, and I believe I've done that my entire political life.”
As for why he needed to continue fundraising despite his flush campaign account, D'Allesandro noted that he is in a highly competitive district.
“We do mailings, I go door-to-door, I do signs. I do everything I need to do so that we're victorious,” he said. “You have to raise money to do that. That's the American way, and if Mr. Greazzo doesn't like it, he can get out of politics.”
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Neither Greazzo nor D'Allesandro, nor any other state or local candidates for that matter, has been seen around the Henry J. Pariseau Apartments on the West Side, and this has resident and longtime political activist Richard Fortin scratching his head.
The 10-story high-rise, one of several Manchester Housing Authority buildings in the city, is full of seniors, the very people known for their steady voting habits in an increasingly apathetic age.
“When I was an activist, this is one of the buildings we used to target,” said Fortin, who has worked on Republican campaigns going back to Richard Nixon. “I've only been here three years, and candidates have not been anywhere near this building. No one has campaigned or made an effort to solicit votes. It's like the building doesn't exist.”
Fortin is especially vexed that neither of the candidates in the special election for the Ward 11 alderman seat, Emily Sandblade and NormandGamache, have come around. “I know what it takes to get votes, and Ward 11 is not an easy ward to get votes out of,” he said.
Fortin has personally extended the invitation to Gamache, his favored candidate in the race, even though Gamache is the one being backed by the city Democratic committee in the technically nonpartisan race.
So far, he hasn't heard back. Senate candidate Greazzo had offered to serve a spaghetti dinner to residents, but that hasn't materialized either, Fortin said.
The housing authority does have rules when it comes to political campaigning: Get-togethers have to be initiated by a resident, and the building management must be notified.
But this had never stopped candidates from going to the senior housing complexes in the past, according Dick Dunfey, the authority's executive director.
He, too, noticed that requests from candidates have trailed off in recent years. “The elderly always vote. I think for that reason, these buildings were seen as fertile ground for campaigning,” Dunfey said. “I remember 10 to 15 years ago, there was a lot more political traffic.”
Ted Siefer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tbsreporter.
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