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March 09. 2013 9:20PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Severance pay was last on mayor's budget list

One could imagine the department heads nearly choking on their coffee when they read the news that Mayor Ted Gatsas' proposed budget gave them nothing for severance pay.

The issue has been seized on by critics of the mayor's $138 million city budget, most fiercely by Ward 12 Alderman and mayoral candidate Patrick Arnold, who has derided the mayor's budget as so much "smoke and mirrors."

Last week, the mayor acknowledged that the department heads, who had been meeting with him over the past several months to craft their budgets, likely didn't know severance would be unfunded.

"There's no reason for them to know that," Gatsas said. "The severance was not funded because that was the last thing I did (on the budget). I didn't want to lay people off. If a department head were to do that later, that would be their decision."

Gatsas added that until four years ago, "there was never any severance in any budget."

Earlier last week, the aldermen, led by Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig, moved to get their own answers, voting to send a list of questions to the department heads, including how the unfunded severance line would affect their operations.

Severance has proved particularly costly this year, as a large number of veteran employees have sought to take advantage of early retirement incentives in union contracts that were extended last year for another two years. There were 29 retirements as of January, nearly triple the amount for the entire 2012 fiscal year, and severance payouts totaled $882,000, leaving the budget line overspent by nearly $200,000, with six months left in the current year.

The mayor has argued he had to make hard choices in a difficult fiscal climate, particularly in light of the additional $4 million the city would have to pay the state retirement system for pension costs.

"Anybody that wants to present another budget has that ability," Gatsas said. "The question is easy. The answer is hard."

Alderman Arnold? Anyone?

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Brace yourself for another parking study. The aldermen voted Tuesday to have a Florida consulting firm assess the demand for parking around the city's Bedford lot, adjacent to the Millyard, at a cost of $14,000. The study would also examine the market for "new demand generators."

With new residential and commercial development in the mill complex, proponents of the study said it was time to consider converting the surface lot into a garage - or to develop or sell it, depending on the consultant's findings.

"The demand in the Millyard has changed in seven years. There's a lot going on with companies in the Millyard. We need to make sure they stay in Manchester," at-large Alderman Dan O'Neil said at Tuesday's meeting. "We've got to be proactive with this."

Gatsas clearly was not crazy about the idea, and he mentioned talks he's had with developers who may be interested in a condo parking facility, where individual spaces would be sold. More intriguingly, Gatsas posed the question, "What about a movie theater?"

The parking consultant, predictably, will be interviewing the relevant stakeholders, including Millyard tenants. A chief concern is that a new parking facility not "cannibalize" demand at the city's other garages and spaces.

There were only two votes against moving forward with the study: Ward 10 Aldermen Phil Greazzo, who, as he said, is "not a big fan of studies," and at-large Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur.

"I'd like to get the free market on it if we could. I don't think we should do a study, but do an RFP," Levasseur said, referring to a request for proposals.
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The Manchester City Democrats have a new a leader - and she's a familiar, if very young, face.

Elizabeth Kulig, who was elected chairman at the group's organizing caucus last week, is 21 years old, and she is by a long shot the youngest person to head up the local party. She'll graduate from Saint Anselm College in May.

Kulig was the campaign manager for school board member Donna Soucy in her successful run last fall for state Senate. She also ran Ward 6 Alderman Garth Corriveau's reelection campaign in 2011.

With the 2013 municipal elections looming and another round of state elections the year after, Kulig will have plenty on her plate. She says has the energy for it.

"That's one of the virtues of being young. You're able to put in the hours," she said.
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After tabling the issue for weeks, the Board of School Committee is expected to finally debate and vote on a budget at its meeting Monday.

The next day, the board will hold a public hearing on the budget at City Hall. Given the outcry over crowded classes this year, the board can expect to get an earful. This year the superintendent has proposed a tax cap budget of $155.7 million and a "school approval" budget of $160 million, which is designed to meet minimum state standards.

It is the aldermen, of course, who will ultimately determine how much the district has to spend. They'll hold their public hearing on April 1 at Memorial High School. No fooling.

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


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