Ted Siefer's City Hall: While visions of budget battles danced in their heads
THE SIGNS of the holiday season proliferate daily - the flickering red and green lights, the wreaths, the Christmas-themed background music. But for the mayor and department heads, 'tis also the season for something decidedly less festive: next year's budget.
Early indications are that the budget for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins July 1, is going to be a doozy. Crafting the budget for the current 2014 fiscal year, you may recall, was tough. "This one is worse," Mayor Ted Gatsas said.
Gatsas said the city is facing upfront costs that could top $3 million. There's the $2.5 million surplus balance that has to be restored; the prepayment of retirement costs; and a $1.5 million increase in city and state pension obligations.
And then there's the tax cap, which will likely be more restrictive than the 2.17 percent applied to the 2014 budget. Gatsas said next year's cap, which is based on the three-year average of the Consumer Price Index, is projected to be slightly less than 2 percent.
At the same time, Gatsas said, he's asked department heads to prepare budgets 1 percent higher than last year's, which he stressed would be a starting point in the talks.
In addition, department heads may have to grapple with a spike in retirement costs; 2015 is the last year in the current contracts for city unions, and it's the last year in which employees can take advantage of a $13,000 payout for retiring. Those costs will have to be absorbed within departmental budgets.
Meanwhile, several departments are projecting deficits this year, including the fire and welfare departments. And the school district is eyeing a big drop in tuition revenue. The school budget process has been complicated by the fact that Hooksett, which is in the process of finding alternative schools for their high school students, has yet to give enrollment figures to the city for next year.
All of this is without considering any spending priorities, such as increasing the number of police officers, as Police Chief David Mara has advocated.
Gatsas said it's too early to get into the mechanics of how he'll make the numbers work. "We're in the second day," he said on Wednesday.
He also said it's too early to say whether he will present the budget to the aldermen well before the deadline at the end of March, as he has in past years. "We will work on it every day and see where we're at," he said.
Tuesday's meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen may have set a new record for brevity. With the holiday break a few weeks away and a new board, albeit with only a couple different faces, to be seated in January, the aldermen have been reluctant to take on new or thorny matters.
But there is one piece of unfinished business this session: the complaint lodged by outgoing Ward 10 Alderman Phil Greazzo against Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur.
Greazzo accuses Levasseur of going beyond the bounds of the charter in his inquiries about the Manchester Dog Park, which Greazzo founded. Levasseur seems to have taken the strategy of running out the clock; he has said he would meet with the mayor, who was charged with reviewing the allegations, in January - after Greazzo is out of office.
On Tuesday, Gatsas told the aldermen that he was referring the matter to the Office of the City Solicitor and that he was confident the investigation could be completed in a week, with the results presented before the last meeting of the session.
Perhaps, but only if the solicitor's office takes a narrow view of Levasseur's alleged transgressions, that he disclosed confidential - and inaccurate - information when he suggested that the Manchester Dog Park Association's insurance had lapsed.
Greazzo has since expanded his complaint to include several instances of alleged misconduct on Levasseur's part. It's doubtful that the solicitor's office has the will or the resources to conduct such an ambitious investigation in such a short time.
Other aldermen haven't shown a great deal of enthusiasm to get behind Greazzo's claims; he couldn't even get a second to his initial motion to refer Levasseur to the Conduct Board.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Tuesday's discussion was that Levasseur uncharacteristically kept his mouth shut.
After the meeting Levasseur, a lawyer, told me he had been advised not to speak; he's consulted another attorney, but said he hasn't hired one at this point.
But he insisted there was no merit to Greazzo's claims. "It's just sour grapes by an elected official I had great respect for, who had some kind of meltdown," he said.
This may be readily apparent to some, but there is not a direct correlation between being an elected official and having good ideas. As the aldermen learned on Tuesday, you don't even have to be of voting age to propose - and execute - projects that benefit the public.
A group of Manchester students, two from Weston Elementary School and two from Hillside Middle School, presented the aldermen with a winter storm preparedness pamphlet they had produced that will soon be mailed to residents.
The students, members of the "Brickmasters" FIRST LEGO Robotics Team, also performed a skit, complete with a mock TV and a breaking news bulletin for a blizzard.
The students conducted a survey that showed close to 50 percent of Manchester households are not prepared for a severe winter storm. The pamphlet contains a host of tips, such as having a gallon of water per person and nonperishable food to last three days, along with a list of emergency agencies and resources.
The group will again make the presentation at a statewide competition this week in Nashua.
As the mayor put it, "Sometimes great ideas don't have to come from elected officials. Sometimes they come from students, and they're ideas that we need."
Ted Siefer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tbsreporter.