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June 10. 2014 10:24PM

Manchester aldermen override city tax cap, 2015 budget up 3.99 percent

MANCHESTER — The Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to override the tax cap to adopt a budget for the 2015 fiscal year that represents a 3.99 percent increase over last year’s budget.

The vote came at a special meeting Tuesday evening, the deadline for the aldermen to complete a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The vote was 12-2; at least 10 votes were required to override the tax cap, which would have restricted the budget increase to 2.13 percent.

The budget allocates $143.7 million to the city and $159.5 million to the school district, which is the same amount allocated by Mayor Ted Gatsas in the budget he proposed earlier this year and is line with the recommendation of the superintendent.

The budget adopted by the aldermen was drawn up by Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig and Ward 3’s Pat Long. Much of the money in excess of the tax cap is devoted to filling a shortfall Gatsas intentionally left in his budget. It allocates an additional $2.4 million for health care costs and $2.1 million for severance; both of those items were unfunded in Gatsas’ budget.

The budget also devotes another $253,000 for the hiring of five more police officers and $30,000 for the purchase of 600 more blue recycling toters. The budget designates about $1 million in bonding for road repairs.

According to the budget, the combined tax rate will go up 91 cents, to $23.58 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The budget will also be bolstered by increased estimates for total property valuation; additional revenue from vehicle registrations; and new revenue from increased parking enforcement hours and other fee hikes approved by the aldermen.

Craig said the decision to override was not taken lightly.

“We were put in a position where we had no choice but to override the tax cap. But we as a board can’t be expected to do this next year,”

she said. “There’s got to be a recognition that we need to make significant changes to health insurance, workers’ compensation and to Yarger-Decker.”

Yarger-Decker is the payment system that sets a schedule of automatic raises for city employees.

The final vote Tuesday came after two recesses, during which the mayor and a group of aldermen met behind closed doors to make modifications to the budget.

The most significant change was to shift $300,000 that had been earmarked for health insurance to contingency, a priority for Gatsas and a contingent of aldermen who had proposed their own budget.

Following the break, Gatsas said he could support the budget in part because it was under a 4 percent increase.

But, he said, “Things have to change; we need to change the way we run city government, and Yarger-Decker is in the forefront.”

The two no votes came from Ward 12 Alderman Keith Hirschmann and Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur, who presented their own budget Tuesday that was designed to stay under the tax cap. It was rejected 12-2.

As proposed, their budget would have fully funded the requests of the police, fire and highway departments, while making cuts to other departments, and it would eliminate several vacant positions and cut several line items, such as $5,000 for hot meals for the aldermen in the anteroom at City Hall.

“I prefaced every cut I made with the need to fund public safety,” Hirschmann said.

Levasseur said their budget made hard choices because they didn’t regard overriding the tax cap as an option.

“It comes down to whether you believe in the tax cap,” he said. “If you believe in it, you stay within it.”

The aldermen also voted to amend new bonds proposed by the mayor, who wanted more than $900,000 for repairs at City Hall. The Craig-Long budget shifted $668,000 of a $933,000 bond to road repairs. In addition, $319,000 in bonding for fleet maintenance software in the mayor’s budget was also shifted to road improvements.

Gatsas vetoed removing the money for City Hall repairs, after department heads noted the roof was leaking in places, the carpet was worn and paint was peeling.

“We build new fire stations, new police stations, a new highway department, and the place people come to that’s theirs, City Hall, we don’t do anything to since 1998,” Gatsas said.

But the aldermen voted to override his veto.

Alderman-At-Large Dan O’Neil said, “I think if we did a poll of the citizens, carpeting City Hall or road repairs, I think we know what they’ll say. They’re not interested in carpeting at City Hall.”

tsiefer@unionleader.com


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