Ted Siefer's City Hall: Questions arise over sale, other options for old police station
IT IT TIME for the nuclear option for the old police station on Chestnut Street?
This is what Ward 7's Bill Shea was wondering at Tuesday's meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen following the revelation that the Massachusetts developer who had signed a tentative purchase agreement for the building had bowed out.
"Maybe it'd be better to level the building and use the land for a parking lot," Shea said. "We continue to spend money on maintenance; we've already spent $40,000."
The building has been vacant since December 2012, when the police moved into their shiny new headquarters at the Municipal Complex.
Mayor Ted Gatsas and Economic Development Director Will Craig have insisted that the prospective buyer, the Grossman Companies, gave a low-ball offer and then, before they even had a chance to properly respond, wrote a letter withdrawing from the deal altogether.
This sequence of events didn't sit well with Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur, who pressed Craig on whether the developer had expressed his offer in writing.
He had, Craig said.
"If there's a letter with a counter-offer, I want to know if there was a discussion," Levasseur said. "There are not a lot of buyers out there for this building."
Levasseur later told me he was concerned that the mayor had shot down a potential deal without giving the aldermen a chance to evaluate it.
At the meeting, Gatsas said he would be happy to discuss the finer points of the interaction with Grossman but only in non-public session since the building was still on the market.
After emerging from the closed-door session, Gatsas told me he wasn't ready to give up on selling the building. "The building next door to it is completely full," he said. "There are a lot of things moving. It's just a matter of the right person coming along."
Speaking of low-ball deals for city properties, remember the Massachusetts developer who wanted to build a student housing tower at the site of the Pearl Street parking lot? Word is the developer, James Vitas, might be interested in again approaching the city with a proposal. And this time he might have a well-connected ally: Patrick Arnold, the former Ward 12 alderman who gave up his seat to run for mayor last year.
Arnold, an attorney, did not respond directly to the question of whether he was representing Vitas. Rather, he wrote in an email: "I am in communication with a number of individuals in the private sector about potential projects that will serve the best interests of city taxpayers, residents and families."
The last time we heard from Vitas, he made a proposal that would have involved the city bearing much of the cost for the student apartment building; neither the mayor nor the finance director felt it was worthy of much consideration. But some aldermen seemed more inclined to work with Vitas - and Arnold might have their ear.
Mayor Gatsas is generally not one to wait until the last minute, especially when it comes to budgets. Last year, he made a point of presenting his budget as early in the year as possible, so the aldermen could get a jump on reviewing the spending plans, particularly the one for the school district.
But we have learned that the mayor will be presenting his budget on Monday, March 31, the last date allowable under the charter.
Gatsas said his reason for holding off this time was simple. "Last time, the budget just sat there. Getting it in early didn't get the budget out early," he said.
And this time around there are a lot of moving parts, namely the host of revenue ideas the mayor has solicited from department heads. These proposals - from hikes in parking rates and building permit fees to pay-as-you-throw, the controversial trash collection system - have been the subject of many a committee meeting of late.
The mayor's budget doesn't incorporate any of these schemes; first the aldermen would have to approve them. Gatsas is holding the details of the budget plan close to his vest, but he has said it will propose 1 percent increases for all departments - and that it makes "very difficult" choices in order to stay within the tax cap.
Once Gatsas' budget lands, it will no doubt focus the debate on the new fee proposals - and on the prospect of overriding the tax cap.
Every aldermen's meeting has its share of shout-outs, whether it's the mayor recognizing a generous donor to a city cause or an alderman calling attention to the accomplishments of students in his or her ward.
But the biggest praise at last Tuesday's meeting was reserved for the town of Hooksett - for rejecting at its town meeting a contract with Pinkerton Academy that would have essentially resulted in the town pulling its students en masse from city high schools.
"I was very happy to see the Hooksett vote," Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig said, turning to the mayor. "I was wondering if you could share any thoughts with us on how you're going to address Hooksett."
Gatsas has had a tense relationship with members of the previous Hooksett school board, and he has at times struck a defiant tone in the face of complaints about city schools. But he said he was ready to turn over a new leaf.
"It's a 100-year relationship. As soon as the new board is put in place, I'm going to ask for a joint meeting so we can get people to the table."
And referring to Central High's victory in the NHIAA Hockey Championship last week, Gatsas noted, "I think the winning goal was scored by someone from Hooksett."
Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.