MANCHESTER MAYOR Ted Gatsas, on March 31, unveiled his $137.4 million city budget.It contains a 2.13 percent tax increase that is in compliance with Manchester’s tax and spending cap. For the first time in recent memory, however, our mayor did not propose a balanced budget. According to Manchester’s finance officer, we face a $7.5 million deficit. It is now the civic duty of the aldermen to balance our city’s budget, just like we all must at home, by June 10.
To put a deficit of this size in perspective, $7.5 million is the equivalent of the total budgets of Manchester’s Health, Youth and Senior Services Departments, Parks & Recreation and library combined. The deficit in Mayor Gatsas’ budget is larger than the budget of every city department except police, fire and highway. That seems fitting since those essential services are most overwhelmed by this huge deficit because they account for 2/3 of our city budget.
We will pay more for less if Mayor Gatsas’ budget goes into effect. Not only do taxes rise by 2.13 percent, but $7.5 million in cuts must go into effect on July 1. These ravaging cuts would lead to 140 layoffs, with the vast majority being in police, fire and public works. Police face a combined (budgetary shortfall and severance) deficit of $1.4 million, while fire and public works respectively face $1 million and $1.1 million deficits. Such enormous cuts to these vital operations will devastate our already overburdened roads and weaken our public safety forces at a time when we must be vigilant in combatting crime. Manchester cannot afford to cut our way out of this deficit.
Manchester also cannot afford to tax our way out of this deficit. If the aldermen choose to override the tax cap to balance the budget solely through a tax increase, taxes will climb by about 6 percent (4 percent override plus the mayor’s 2.13 percent increase). We can all agree that such a large tax hike is unwarranted in this economy.
Aldermen also studied raising revenues outside of the tax cap. Unfortunately, this option does not come remotely close to balancing the budget. City officials proposed $4.6 million in revenue generation, including unpopular and unfeasible ideas like a head tax and raising cemetery fees. More than $2 million of such revenue would come from Pay As You Throw (PAYT), a commendable but flawed proposal that amounts to double taxation for simply disposing your trash.
None of these options — revenue generation, tax increases and spending cuts — can by itself balance our city budget. So what is a responsible answer to address the deficit? Even Mayor Gatsas acknowledges that balancing the city budget without a tax cap override is “almost impossible.” Several aldermen, including me, now reluctantly share that sentiment. I would support a sensible override of the cap, but only under three conditions.
First, all revenue from a reasonable override must fully meet the needs of our city’s roads and public safety operations.
City Hall has kicked the can down the pothole-ridden road when it comes to fixing our streets and bolstering our public safety. Manchester residents do not deserve the prospect of a tax cap override again next year. We deserve better roads and stronger public safety now.
In addition, Manchester should begin an obligatory, community-wide recycling system to preserve our environment, reduce waste and cut unnecessary costs. Spending taxpayer money on waste is a waste of money, literally.
Finally, we should start a new and better approach to reduce excessive health care spending by proactively empowering an individual to oversee health care utilization, increase wellness and contain costs, just like several cities and corporations do. Manchester faces a $3 million health care deficit and the prospect of another $3 million next year.
For too long, our city taxes have gone up and services have gone down, so as we balance the budget and responsibly address this deficit together, Manchester must improve our roads, strengthen public safety, contain health care costs and invest in our people.
Garth Corriveau is Manchester’s Ward Six alderman.