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April 26. 2014 11:31PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Hirschmann leery of business group's ice arena takeover


 

At times during last week's meeting of the aldermen's Land and Buildings Committee, it seemed like Alderman Keith Hirschmann was trying to stop a roaring train.

Hirschmann urged his colleagues to take a close, careful look at the agreement put forward by the group of local businessmen who want to take over the operation of the city's West Side Ice Arena, in partnership with the Manchester Regional Youth Hockey Association (MRYHA).

Pushing for a speedy approval of the deal, however, was Alderman Dan O'Neil, chairman of the board of aldermen, and his colleagues also seemed eager to reach an agreement, to be voted on possibly as soon as Tuesday.

O'Neil has noted that the West Side arena is in poor condition, and even with MRYHA as its main tenant, the city can barely afford to keep running the facility. Hirschmann has pointed out that the business partners, while local guys, have little experience running an ice arena and are looking to the city to fund much-needed renovations. Hirschmann was able to prevail upon Alderman Pat Long, the committee chairman, to at least hold another meeting before the full board possibly considers the deal.

Mayor Ted Gatsas has been a prime backer of shifting the city's recreational facilities to public-private control, but he told me that the proposal put forward by Renaissance, as the partners are calling their venture, needed to be closely reviewed before any vote.

"I've got concerns if everything city staff is looking at is not addressed - the personal guarantees, the 'What happens if?'" he said. "I know attorney Clark and (Finance Director) Bill Sanders are working with them. I just want to make sure we have due diligence, as we had with McIntyre."

Gatsas was referring to the agreement in 2009 that transferred the operation of the ski hill to the ski school, a deal Renaissance's attorney cited as a model. But then, it took more than a year before that deal was finalized.

Another public-private predecessor is the Derryfield Country Club. In 2002, the city reached an agreement with a couple of business partners that led to the creation of the restaurant and events center, although the city's Parks Division still is responsible for maintaining and operating the course.

It so happens that the restaurant managers are seeking a revision to their lease with the city that would alter the schedule for rent increases set to go into effect over the next 15 years, as part of a larger plan to upgrade the facility and expand parking.

O'Neil had a far more skeptical reaction to this plan when it was put forward in committee last month. He called the parking lot expansion a "deal breaker," since he said it could affect access to a popular sledding hill, and he insisted the proposal be vetted by no less than three departments. They have yet to report back.

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The aldermen's Administration Committee has kicked to the curb the pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) trash fee idea, but last week it gave the green light for a couple of more modest revenue-generating plans. The most significant of them would tighten property tax exemptions for disabled people. The proposal was put forward by Assessing Board Chairman Robert Gagne as part of a larger plan to tighten up the city's exemptions. Gagne has noted that while the city ranks near the bottom of a 14-town survey for median income, it tops the list for the percentage of tax base value discounted through exemptions for the elderly, disabled and veterans. Taken together, the exemptions cost the city $5.52 million last year.

But under Gagne's plan, only the ranks of disabled exemptions would be reduced. Currently, the disabled qualify for an exemption as long as their income does not exceed $100,000 and their assets, not including their home, don't top $200,000.

The plan approved by the committee Wednesday would equalize the asset and income limits for the disabled with the elderly, as is the case in other towns. The income limit for both groups would be $32,000 for a single person and $45,000 for a married couple; the asset limits would be $90,000 and $115,000.

The full board will have its say on the plan on Tuesday, along with several other revenue ideas, including PAYT.

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Another measure took a big step forward in the Administration Committee: A draft version of a comprehensive right-to-know policy.

It's a lengthy document, and, as is often the case with legalistic materials, its substance can be lost in the fine print. But for anyone accustomed to what had been a fairly accommodating, if inconsistent, response to RTK requests on the part of city officials, the policy poses significant changes. For example, those who invoke the state's Right to Know Law, RSA 91-A, would be directed to make their request to the city clerk through a personally signed document. Copy fees would be assessed up-front, before records were released. And copy fees would be charged on a per-page basis even for electronic records that don't require "copying."

Not surprisingly, radio host Rich Girard, a prolific executor of RTK requests, is not pleased with the proposed policy, and he dashed off a letter to the committee detailing his concerns.

He quoted from state law, the purpose of which is to ensure "the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies."

Girard wrote, "This policy falls short of that mandate by creating unnecessary and unlawful confusions, burdens and restrictions on what information is available, the process to request it and the legal mandate to provide it."

But the committee deferred to the judgment of the city's legal counsel, who in this case played a big role in drafting the policy.

"I've read through the communication from Mr. Girard," Solicitor Tom Clark said. "I don't think (his concerns) rise to the level of violating the law or the spirit of law.."

Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.


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