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Manchester charter commission considering $15,000 a year for elected officials

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 20. 2013 11:24PM

MANCHESTER - The city's aldermen and school board members would lose their health benefits but see about a four-fold increase in their annual stipends under a proposal approved by the Charter Commission Wednesday.

The panel voted 5-4 to back a proposal to eliminate the health and dental coverage for the elected officials, while increasing their stipends to $15,000. The aldermen now get $4,000 a year; members of the school board get $2,000.

At the same time, the commission narrowly rejected two proposals that would have altered the tax cap.

The panel voted on more than a dozen proposals, none of which represent final decisions. The public will get a chance to weigh in on them at a hearing next Wednesday at 6 p.m. at City Hall. Ultimately, a pared-down slate of questions will go on the November ballot.

The health benefits have long been a controversial issue, since the aldermen and school board members serve on a part-time basis, and they are unevenly enjoyed by the officials.

The debate Wednesday began with a motion from Commissioner Rich Girard to eliminate the benefits entirely, without any consideration of the stipend.

"Many people who have run for city office didn't realize they could participate in the benefit plan, but it's amazing how many of them will drop their existing plan to take those benefits," said Girard, a former alderman. "I do think there are people who continue to run because they get comfortable with the benefits."

This motion failed by a 5-4 vote, but a subsequent motion to couple the elimination of benefits with a boost in the stipend passed 5-4.

Supporters of the proposal have argued that the salary is appropriate considering the time demanded of the elected officials, and that it is unfair to pay aldermen more than school board members.

Girard disagreed. "I don't think the boards are equal. I believe the Board of Mayor and Aldermen is a superior board. It has the greater authority," he said. "It has 23 departments to deal with in addition to the schools; the school board just has the schools."

On each of the boards, 10 of the 14 members are currently receiving health or dental coverage or both from the city or district. For the current fiscal year, the school district estimates its share of premiums for a board member's family plan will cost $4,000 to $5,000. Its share for the dental plan is $417. This doesn't represent the full cost of the plans; since the city and district are self-insured, they must pay for individual claims.

Voting in favor of the proposal were Commissioners Jerome Duval, Christine Martin, Lou D'Allesandro, Mike Lopez and John Clayton. Opposed were Commissioners Girard, Will Infantine, Nick Pappas and Skip Ashooh.

Tax cap proposals

The commission was unable to advance two proposals concerning the tax cap, which has been one of the most controversial issues facing the panel.

One proposal put forward by Commissioner Christine Martin would have made the tax cap apply only to spending, not revenue.

The idea was backed by the city's finance director, who in prior testimony before the panel said Manchester's tax cap was uniquely restrictive since it applied both to increases in budgets and tax rates.

"This conversation is particularly ripe given we're in budget season on both sides. The majority of officials in discussing their budgets are stuck. There's very little room for creativity," Martin said.

Several members of the panel argued that voters had spoken clearly when they approved the tax cap, and that it was "disparaging" to question their judgement, in the words of Girard.

But Democrats on the panel, who enjoy a 5-4 advantage, said voters may have a different point of view, now that they've witnessed the effect of the tax cap over the past two years.

"We voted for it, yes," said Commissioner John Clayton. "But people voted for Prohibition at one time. I think the notion of giving voters another bite at the apple might be a good thing."

But Commissioner Mike Lopez, a Democrat, cautioned against placing the issue among the charter questions, which voters must approve or reject in their entirety.

"I think it's going to take a lot more education" of voters," Lopez said. "I think the better process for this might be where the aldermen put this separately on the ballot."

Martin's proposal to eliminate the revenue component of the tax cap was tabled.

A subsequent motion to reduce the super-majority required to override the tax cap from 10 to nine of the 14 aldermen failed by a vote of 5-4.

Voting against the proposal were Commissioners Lopez, Girard, Infantine, Pappas and Ashooh. Voting in favor were Duval, Martin, D'Allesandro and Clayton.

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