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Paul Feely's City Hall: Shouting over firefighters contract; new plan for Rex Theatre site?

By PAUL FEELY
October 06. 2018 8:34PM




By now you probably know the Board of Mayor and Aldermen reached consensus in nonpublic session last Tuesday in support of a tentative three-year agreement with the city's firefighter unions.

Unless you were at City Hall that night, you probably haven't heard just how heated things got before that agreement was reached.

The contract includes a 1½ percent raise in the first year and 2 percent pay hikes in years two and three. It also includes step and longevity provisions. It will appear as a tentative agreement on the agenda for the Oct. 16 meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. The language will then lay over until the full board meets to ratify the deal on Oct. 30.

A source close to the negotiations said a "vast majority" of board members supported the agreement - but that doesn't mean there weren't a few heated discussions.

After the board voted to enter into nonpublic session to discuss the proposal, union members, interested parties, including state Sen. Donna Soucy, and a reporter exited the aldermanic chambers to wait in the hallway outside the mayor's office for word on the deal.

About 25 minutes into the discussion, what can only be described as loud and angry exchanges could be heard emanating from inside the chambers before City Clerk Matt Normand emerged and asked those waiting to go into the third-floor stairwell area of City Hall. Normand closed a second set of doors to create an additional sound barrier, and 40 minutes later word leaked that a deal was reached.

No word on whether Water Works Director Phil Croasdale - who Normand was sent to fetch about halfway through the nonpublic session - was summoned to douse any fires behind closed doors.

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The new deal came together fairly quickly, after Mayor Joyce Craig voted last month to reject a contract proposal from the unions, breaking a 7-7 tie vote by the aldermen. That proposal included a 2 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA), merit and longevity steps retroactive to July 1, COLA increases equal to the city tax cap on July 1 in 2019 and 2020, and merit and longevity steps.

"At the time of the last vote, we seemed really close," Craig said. "After that vote happened I felt it was important we get right back to the table and get talking again, and that's exactly what we did. There was back and forth, but it was a productive conversation. Working with our negotiator, Matt Upton, given all the time that had passed and where we were, the city made a last and final offer based on the information we had in front of us and thankfully it was agreed upon by the leadership of the fire department."

Craig said she is optimistic the contract will pass.

"I think it's a fair compromise for the city, for the taxpayers and for the firefighters."

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Details remain sketchy at this time, but word is a new proposal for the Rex Theatre site at 23 Amherst St. - involving Peter Ramsey, president and CEO of the Palace Theatre - was warmly received at last Friday's meeting of the Manchester Development Corporation's (MDC) board of directors.

Expect more details on the proposal - which the Union Leader understands includes using the building as a performance venue - to emerge when the plan is sent to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen for approval later this fall.

A purchase and sale agreement for the property between the MDC and The Rex LLC - a partnership between philanthropist Liz Hitchcock and Gray Chynoweth, chief membership officer for the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute - fell apart earlier this year when the pair pulled out of negotiations with the city, saying their plan to use the site as a performance venue was no longer "economically viable."

That marked the second time in less than a year a potential buyer walked away from a proposal for the property. In March 2017, Matt Wilhelm, executive director of Old Sol Music Hall, Inc. - who proposed a live music venue for the site - said after months of negotiations, Old Sol Productions and the MDC were unable to agree to terms for a purchase and sale agreement.

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Nearly lost in the shuffle at last week's aldermen meeting was the fact that board members approved an expansion of the city's automated trash collection program. The downtown area, alleys and most one-way streets will be excluded from the expansion.

In 2016, aldermen approved a pilot program in portions of Wards 6, 7 and 12. The program kicked off May 1, 2017, with the Department of Public Works deploying one specialized truck to collect trash in selected areas. Automated trash collection involves the use of a garbage truck fitted with a mechanical arm, which grabs and empties trash carts. The automated collection process requires that trash be placed in a special rolling cart compatible with the truck's mechanical arm. The city sold the carts to residents in the pilot area for $19 to $35, a 50 percent discount, depending on size.

With the expanded service, an additional 10,000 and 12,000 trash carts would be sold to customers who do not currently have a cart or will decide to buy an additional one, said Mark Gomez, environmental programs manager for the Public Works Department. Offering the same 50 percent discount on the carts could cost the city $250,000, but officials believe savings of up to $30,000 per year in workers' compensation savings for each automated truck deployed would "far exceed both the annual and total expenditures associated with amortizing the cost of discounted carts," Gomez said.

Craig's office confirmed Thursday the financial details on the totes - i.e. whether a discount will be offered - have yet to be worked out. The planned expansion is unlikely to launch prior to fall 2019.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.


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