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January 15. 2013 10:38PM

Manchester's charter commission to review tax cap rules

MANCHESTER - The Charter Commission continues its review of education matters tonight, but the discussion could have immediate relevance to the newly unveiled district budgets.

The meeting, at City Hall at 6 p.m., will be devoted to legal questions raised at the commission's meeting on education last week. The commission's public hearing on school issues will be held next Wednesday.

One of the legal questions the commission is expected to consider this evening is whether the district is obligated to submit to the aldermen a budget that is within the tax cap.

Superintendent Thomas Brennan told the commission last week that he did not believe the district was compelled to do so, and he cited a legal opinion from attorney John Teague, with the firm Upton and Hatfield in Concord.

According to Teague's interpretation of the voter approved tax cap, the measure requires that the budget for the city and school district - taken together, not individually - be within the tax cap.

The tax cap states that "in submitting their proposed budgets to the board of aldermen, the mayor and the school district shall not propose total expenditures exceeding" the cap. The cap limits spending and tax increases to the rate of inflation.

The amendment, Teague notes in a letter sent to the district last February and submitted to the Charter Commission last week, says that the Board of School Committee is required to propose a budget to meet the district's needs. The charter still permits the aldermen to reject that school board's budget figure and propose a different one, he said.

"I believe the city solicitor's opinion cuts that process off prematurely, by suggesting that even preliminary figures are legally limited by application of the tax cap limitation," Teague wrote in his letter to Brennan.

Last year, the city solicitor determined that the tax cap amendment requires the school board to propose a budget that is within the tax cap.

Three budgets were ultimately proposed last year, one within the tax cap and the others exceeding it.

On Monday, Brennan again proposed two budgets to the school board: a $156 million tax cap plan and a $160 million plan said to "fully fund" the district to comply with state standards.

The Charter Commission will discuss this issue and other questions with attorney Richard Lehmann, the panel's legal counsel.

Another area up for discussion will likely be reincorporating the school district as a city department and the possibility of giving the district taxing authority.

"This is about conducting our due diligence so we have the information we need before we start casting votes," commission Chairman Jerome Duval said. "We want to make sure we are fully informed."

tsiefer@unionleader.com


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