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After heated debate on proposed drug court, Manchester aldermen OK final budget

By TED SIEFER
New Hampshire Union Leader

June 09. 2015 10:03PM




MANCHESTER — The Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Tuesday passed a final 2016 fiscal year budget for the city and school district that totals $305 million, following a heated debate over whether a portion of the funds should be used to launch a drug court.

The board allocated $161 million from the general fund to the school district and nearly $144 million to the city for the budget year that starts July 1.

The amount represents the largest allowable increase in the budget under this year’s tax cap of 1.33 percent, with most of the additional money going to the school district.

During the debate on Tuesday, the deadline under the city charter for the adoption of a budget, aldermen voted to allow the school district to transfer a $1 million surplus amassed over the current fiscal year to its health savings account, effectively allowing it to make use of the money in the next budget year. The final city budget is only $300,000 greater than the current year’s budget, and it flat-funds all departments at this year’s levels.

The budgets are fundamentally similar to the ones proposed by Mayor Ted Gatsas in the spring, but the aldermen approved appropriating an additional $450,000 from the city’s projected $1.5 million surplus in the current fiscal year to the contingency account and for priority infrastructure projects.

The additional allocations were outlined in an “alternate” budget put forward by Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig, who suggested that the $120,500 in contingency funds could be used to help fund a drug court.

The proposal drew a strong rebuke from Gatsas, who has been lobbying Hillsborough County’s legislative delegation to fund the court with a portion of the $5 million surplus in the county budget, which is slated for a final vote later this month. Such courts are now operating in several counties in the state, with the goal of placing drug addicts in treatment rather than jail.

Gatsas said the budget vote would undermine the effort to secure funding from the county, and that it was “unconstitutional” for the city to unilaterally move to set up a court, according to talks he had with a top state judge.

“We sent a letter to the entire delegation,” Gatsas said. “I appreciate everyone wanting to go to the dance, but we should all be holding hands. This was not the place to bring it up, because it just poisoned the water.”

Craig rejected the suggestion that she and other aldermen were only recently stepping up to support the push for a city drug court. “I do feel we’re working together,” she said. “I don’t appreciate the insinuation we’re just jumping on the bandwagon. I have family members that have been struggling with drug addiction for years.”

A majority of aldermen ended up voting against Craig’s motion to use the funds for a drug court, but they backed the transfer of $120,500 to contingency as part of the larger budget.

Another $80,000 was allocated to continue work on the Rails to Trails network, funding that is eligible for an 80 percent state match.

Another $250,000 is to be used to repair a retaining wall on Brown Avenue and to replace traffic signals on Elm Street.

Gatsas said he supported the alternate budget overall.

“It goes with 99 percent of the budget I brought forward,” he said.

Only two aldermen voted against the final budgets: Keith Hirschmann, Ward 12, and Joe Kelly Levasseur, at large.

The aldermen have largely avoided any discussion of the budgetary implications should the city reach agreements on union contracts.

Negotiations have been underway on all city contracts, which expire June 30. A tentative deal between representatives of the teachers union and the school district is being voted on this week.

Immediately after approving the budgets, the board entered nonpublic session to discuss contract negotiations.

Levasseur said there was no reason why the budget vote couldn’t be delayed until after getting an update on the contracts.

“What are we going to do if contracts are approved? Where is the money going to come from,” he asked. “These contracts aren’t revenue-neutral.”

tsiefer@unionleader.com


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