Ted Siefer's City Hall: Not funding severance pay unwelcome news to department heads
When presenting his budgets Feb. 19 for the 2014 fiscal year, Mayor Ted Gatsas proclaimed there would be no layoffs and that the city would "continue to provide the services our residents expect and deserve."
Not surprisingly, the mayor's critics were dubious, and a few weeks ago the aldermen voted to send a questionnaire to department heads to get their own answers concerning the departments' budgetary needs. Of particular concern was the fact that, unbeknownst to the departments, the mayor's budget left severance unfunded.
Last week, the answers came in, and they confirmed that, yes, some of the department chiefs are freaking out.
The common refrain was that absorbing severance would force the departments to keep positions vacant for months, if not indefinitely, and this would lead to reductions in service.
"Absorbing severance will have a significant impact on our budget," wrote Fire Chief James Burkush in his response to the questionnaire.
According to City Clerk Matt Normand, the unfunded severance line could mean that he would be unable to fill two anticipated retirements. "Losing two employees in a small department with an existing vacancy is devastating," wrote the typically mild-mannered Normand.
The heads of the police, public works and planning departments expressed similar concerns.
News that severance would be unfunded in the mayor's budget was especially unwelcome since the past year has seen a surge in retirements, thanks to a buyout incentive that will remain in effect next year.
At Tuesday's Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, Alderman at-large Dan O'Neil said he was "very concerned" the buyouts weren't resulting in the anticipated reduction in salaries, in theory by getting highly paid veteran employees off the payroll.
"I thought we were going to be seeing savings in the salary line with the buyouts, but that, in fact, is not playing out," O'Neil said.
Gatsas has always maintained the tax cap forced him to make difficult choices.
"It was either fund severance or lay people off," he said.
He noted he supports putting the projected surplus this year toward severance and that other funds could be made available. "If we, as a city, can't find $500,000 to $600,000 - less than half a percent of a $138 million budget - we're doing something wrong," he said.
Of course, those critics of the mayor are already eyeing any surplus this year for the school district.
Among the dire responses to the aldermen's questionnaire, one stands out: that from the Welfare Department.
Yes, Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau noted that his budget continues to be cut - it's down $458,000 since 2003. But, he wrote, "We can operate within the proposed budget."
Thanks in part to a state Supreme Court ruling against the agency last year, finding that it was overly punitive in denying assistance, the Welfare Department has come in for more scrutiny than it has in years. One revelation was that as the department's budget was cut, the amount it paid in assistance declined from the bulk of its budget to less than half. The largest share of the budget now goes to salaries, including Martineau's $113,000, and he's due for another raise.
Unlike the other aggrieved department heads, Martineau again emphasized the efficiency of his office. "My staff has returned savings in excess of $2,000,000 (since 2003), and we are ever watchful to implement savings where possible," he wrote.
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Last week, Christopher Micklovich and his infamously bloodied mug were back in the news. We learned the city last May had quietly paid a $200,000 settlement to the man who suffered a beating at the hands off-duty city police officers at the Strange Brew Tavern in 2010.
The news was especially surprising to Alderman at-large Joe Kelly Levasseur. He's a member of the Committee on Human Resources, which typically deals with legal matters involving city departments.
"I understood that there were the parameters of a settlement," Levasseur said, but he didn't know that one had actually been paid.
And so, Levasseur made a motion to require the city clerk to send to the aldermen a copy of any settlement entered into by the city. "So we don't have to be learning about it in the Union Leader," he said.
Mayor Gatsas moved quickly to call for a vote on the measure - which was unanimous - but not before Levasseur pressed him on the matter.
"You didn't know about this?" he asked the mayor, referring to the Micklovich payment.
"No, I didn't know about it," Gatsas replied.
"And you weren't happy about it?"
"No, I wasn't one bit happy about it," he said.
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On Monday, the three superintendent candidates will be in Manchester, and they'll be running the gauntlet. They'll meet with the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, tour the schools and take questions from the public and school board members at a forum at Memorial High School at 7 p.m. The next day the Board of School Committee is expected to make its decision.
At Tuesday's meeting, the aldermen raised questions about the candidates. All three come from school districts that are significantly smaller than Manchester.
Alderman Bill Shea noted no candidate would be "perfect."
Except Gatsas? In response to Shea's comment, the mayor assured the board he's not after the superintendent job. "Don't worry, I will continue being mayor," he said, to laughs.
And, as outgoing superintendent Tom Brennan might attest, being mayor still guarantees Gatsas will have plenty to say about the direction of the school system, regardless of who gets tapped to be its next chief.
Ted Siefer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @tbsreporter.