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February 20. 2013 12:15AM

Updated: Manchester mayor unveils city budget: 2.16 percent tax hike

MANCHESTER — Mayor Ted Gatsas has laid out a budget for the next fiscal year that he says will avoid layoffs and invest in education, while adhering to the limits of the tax cap.
The budget, presented Tuesday to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, allocates $138 million for city departments and $155.7 million for the school district — the maximum allowed under the tax cap.
Gatsas also proposed $2.8 million in new bonding for technology and security improvements in the school system.
At the same time, the budget makes deep cuts to the budget of the Community Improvement Program, which funds infrastructure projects and nonprofits.
The budget would result in a projected property tax increase of 2.16 percent, from $22.18 to $22.66 per $1,000 of assessed value.
In crafting the 2014 budget, which would take effect July 1, Gatsas had the immediate challenge of absorbing $4.1 million in additional pension costs for district and city employees, due to changes by the state retirement system.
"I do not pretend that the road ahead is easy. This road is difficult, most notably for the schools, but there's nothing that's insurmountable or impossible," Gatsas said in his budget speech.
The tax cap limits any budget increase to 2.17 percent over last year's budget. Gatsas' budget is 2.16 percent higher, but it leaves no room for additional expenditures due to "rounding," according to the city's finance director.
The aldermen had little immediate reaction to the budget, which they received for the first time Tuesday, but they voted to schedule a public hearing on the spending plan early next month. The aldermen approved a motion from Alderman Joyce Craig to hold the hearing at Memorial High School, to avoid "what happened last year," Craig said, referring to a crowded hearing that could not accommodate everyone who wanted to speak.
Gatsas noted that the hearing "will give the taxpayers a chance to weigh in as well."
The date of the hearing has not been determined.
Gatsas' budget is $4.1 million higher than last year's, $3.3 million of which is devoted to the school district. Parent activists and members of the school board have clamored for more funding, particularly in the early months of the school year, when crowded classes and other problems sparked an outcry.
Gatsas' budget is in line with the tax cap budget proposed by Superintendent Thomas Brennan, while Brennan has advocated for a larger "school approval" budget of $160 million.
Jim O'Connell, president of the Citizens for Manchester Schools, the activist group formed in response to last year's school budget process, told the aldermen during the public comment at Tuesday's meeting that neither budget is adequate.
The school approval budget "is the minimal amount to meet minimum state qualifications," he said. "There is nothing like a budget that would, let's say, bring in teachers to teach foreign languages that are taught in every other district across the state."
The school board must still review Gatsas' budget and vote on its own budget proposal. The aldermen have the ultimate authority to approve the budgets, including whether to override the tax cap, which requires a 10-vote majority.
Gatsas' school budget, totaling $155,724,449, is nearly $6 million larger than the budget he proposed for the school district last year.
"Our schools are a vital part of this community and despite these budgetary challenges we are faced with they will continue to thrive because of our students' unwavering desire to succeed," Gatsas said in his address.
The $2.8 million bond would be used to purchase 5,000 new computers and tablets, and establish a WiFi network in all schools. It would also designate $300,000 for professional development for teachers and integrated curriculum development.
The proposal is in keeping with Gatsas' emphasis on technology. He's highlighted the full-time program at Manchester School of Technology as "the future" of the district, and he's rolled out "virtual" learning labs this semester, a program that has been hampered in part by glitches and a lack of trained facilitators.
The bond would also devote $500,000 to replacing the telephone and intercom systems at the schools, which police and school officials have called a safety priority.
The starting point for Gatsas' city budget was the directive to department heads to reduce their budgets by 1 percent from last year — and they will be expected to make further cuts.
"The individual departments will have to make up the severance costs of their retiring employees," Gatsas said. "The alternative would be to reduce line items which would result in layoffs and that is unacceptable."
Nearly all departments cut their budgets by the 1 percent, with the exception of the police, fire and highway departments.
The Police Department will be spending $140,000 more in salaries; the Fire Department will be spending $720,000 more. Gatsas said the added costs were a result of the departments having to pay the full salaries that had been subsidized by federal grants.
The Highway Department's budget is raised by $300,000 to cover utilities, fuel and contracts.
In his address, Gatsas also hailed the newly completed municipal complex, "on-time and under-budget," and he pointed to health coverage reforms that he said will bring about $3.2 million in savings this fiscal year.
"Ladies and gentlemen, here in Manchester we are changing the equation when it comes to health care," he said. "This is real progress.
Everyone in this city, from those of us sitting in these seats, to the police and firemen, to the laborer at Public Works, to the individuals here at City Hall, you are agents of change and you should be commended."
The cuts in the Community Improvement Program were prompted largely by reductions in the federal grant programs, according to Gatsas.
Gatsas said he's anticipating a 10 percent cut in the Community Development Block Grant program, the main federal funding source, on top of an 8 percent cut last year.
The CIP budget allocates $578,000, compared to the $1.04 million spent in 2013.
Among the programs that will see reduced funding under the budget are the New Horizons food pantry and shelter and The Way Home emergency shelter.
The total 2014 CIP budget is approximately $2.2 million, while total city and non-city funding requests this year totaled $71.8 million, according to Gatsas' budget documents.
"Obviously these decreases have an effect on our ability to fund very worthy projects that we all want to see succeed but, very simply, we do not have the capacity," Gatsas said.
Gatsas presented his budget a month earlier than he did last year, and he urged the aldermen to finalize the budgets as soon as possible, particularly for the school district.
"I feel that it is of the greatest importance that we begin the deliberation and conversation regarding the budget sooner rather than later," he said.
tsiefer@unionleader.com

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