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City budget tension rising in Manchester

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 21. 2014 10:37PM

MANCHESTER — Tensions are rising among city officials, with a budget due early next month and a tax cap override appearing increasingly likely.

The tensions erupted at Tuesday’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, after Alderman-at-Large Dan O’Neil presented a list of questions to Mayor Ted Gatsas concerning what would happen if the budget he presented earlier in the year, which contains a $6 million shortfall, was to become the default budget.

Gatsas, who has said he intended the budget to be a starting point for talks with the aldermen on how to bridge that gap, responded by accusing O’Neil of engaging in political stunts.

A growing number of aldermen have indicated that they’re willing to override the tax cap, which limits the increase in the budget over last year to 2.13 percent, a figure based on the rate of inflation. The aldermen have also pressed Gatsas on whether he would be willing to support an override.

Gatsas so far has not directly answered the question, noting that he doesn’t have a vote on the matter (unless there’s a tie or he wishes to veto an override). He has urged the aldermen to sit down and talk with him about solving the budget dilemma.

On Wednesday, Gatsas told the New Hampshire Union Leader that he believes it’s “almost impossible” at this stage to come up with a workable budget without overriding the tax cap.

Had the aldermen been more receptive to new revenue ideas, in particular a pay-as-you-throw system of trash collection, there might have been a way, he said. “I think the aldermen need to start looking at these for next year,” he said.

Gatsas has expressed frustration that, unlike last year, the aldermen have not been working closely with him on developing an alternative budget.

He said much of the discussion on the budget on Tuesday was “destructive” rather than “constructive.”

The dust-up began late in the evening after O’Neil unexpectedly presented a letter to the aldermen with the subject “explanation of FY 15 Default City Budget.”

He noted that, if the aldermen did not agree on a revised budget, Gatsas’ original plan, with the $6 million shortfall, would become the default budget. The city’s finance director has since raised his estimate of the budget hole to $7.5 million.

O’Neil posed four questions to the mayor, including how will he maintain his pledge of no layoffs, and how does he propose meeting health insurance and severance obligations that make up much of the deficit.

Gatsas did not address the questions; rather he accused O’Neil of engaging in the kind of “political paralysis” he warned about in his budget speech in March. “This is all about politics, nothing else. If you want to talk about a budget, come in and we’ll have that discussion,” he said.

O’Neil responded in a loud voice, “Let’s talk here about it. Why does it have to be behind closed doors?”

Alderman-at-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur said it wasn’t politics to ask hard questions of the mayor.

“I don’t see partisan politics being played at all,” he said, adding, “If there’s not the 10 votes for an override, your budget is going to be the default. When you put together the tax cap budget you made choices where the money goes; you’re the one responsible.”

Pressed on the question of what would happen if the default spending plan was enacted, Gatsas said he could “manage the budget,” so long as the aldermen didn’t interfere in his directives to department heads.

“Fair enough,” Levasseur said.

A tax cap override must be approved by 10 of the 14 aldermen. The aldermen must also determine the margin by which a proposed budget exceeds the tax cap.

Ward 7 Alderman William Shea, who is regarded as the dean of the board, urged his colleagues to work together. “I hate the blame game,” he said, “I’m not sure how we’re going to keep working together if we keep throwing bombs at each other.”

He added, “We have to think about raising the tax cap, but we have to limit it to a certain percentage, so people who unfortunately aren’t as well off as others, their taxes do not go up a prohibitive amount.”

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