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Manchester’s mayor reflects on her first few weeks, acknowledges challenges lie ahead

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 11. 2018 11:57PM

Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig walks past former mayors Ted Gatsas, from right, Frank Guinta and Robert Baines as she takes the stage during Tuesday's inaugural ceremonies at the Radisson in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — On Jan. 2, Joyce Craig made history being sworn in as the first female mayor of the state’s largest city.

Five weeks later, the former alderman and school board member from Ward 1 is working on drafting the first municipal budget of her tenure, overhauling the city’s approach to the opioid crisis — and promoting ways for residents to report potholes.

“It’s been a tremendous opportunity,” said Craig, who sat down with a New Hampshire Union Leader reporter last week to review her first 30 days-plus in office.

“I feel encouraged by the level of engagement I’ve seen over just one month. I think that says a lot in terms of the opportunity we have ahead of us. We do have a difficult budget coming forward, but I hope that given other opportunities in the city we’ll be able to make some significant progress on items that we may not be able to cover in our city budget.”

During her campaign for mayor, Craig promised to submit a budget that stays under the city’s tax cap, a requirement set forth for the mayor’s budget in the city charter.

School Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas has said the school budget could face a $2.2 million “gap.” The tax cap gives Craig a $1.6 million increase to work with in fiscal year 2019.

Craig said over her first 30 days in office, department heads have provided her with draft budgets, which she is currently reviewing. She plans additional meetings with these department heads in the coming weeks to go over the numbers, and has yet to begin piecing together a formal budget proposal.

“It’s still a work in progress,” said Craig. “It’s definitely going to be challenging.”

According to Craig, tentative plans call for Dr. Vargas to present his school budget on Feb. 22, with Craig unveiling the city budget in March.

Safe Station

Craig said a good deal of time over her first month as mayor has been spent working with public safety officials to overhaul the city’s Safe Station program and overall response to the opioid abuse crisis.

“We’ve had roughly 16 meetings over the last month on this,” said Craig. “What we learned through the process is that people who are coming to Safe Station didn’t always come for a substance use disorder. Sometimes they came because they needed shelter or they needed a meal.

“Now we are identifying the needs upfront and getting people to where they need to be. Before folks might have stayed in respite for a week or two, and that doesn’t happen anymore. They’re not staying in the stabilization unit too long. That’s not just a good thing. That’s a great thing.”

Craig said another outcome of recent discussions about Safe Station is an added emphasis on informing those seeking help about options available to them closer to home, wherever that may be.

“One of the things we identified through this process is that in Manchester we pretty much only always talked about Safe Station,” said Craig. “The fire house is an access point. Today, there are other access points that people can utilize like the hospitals and Granite Pathways. The fire stations are there to save lives, and they are going to continue helping people no matter where they come from. But we also need to educate people about different access points so they know what’s out there.

“I think we’ve made great inroads into making sure people that live out of town understand they need to try to get the services where they live.”

School voucher bill

Craig has made several trips to Concord over the last month and sent several letters to support or oppose bills, depending on the potential impact to Manchester.

One such bill is SB 193, sometimes referred to as “the voucher bill,” which would offer parents state-funded scholarships to send their children to private schools, including religious schools, or to pay for home schooling.

Last month Craig told aldermen it could take away approximately $400,000 in funding currently allocated for the city’s public schools, if 35 students took advantage of the scholarships.

“I went up there to oppose the bill,” said Craig. “Dr. Vargas is opposed, as well as the school board and aldermen. It’s been good in terms of the community seeing elected officials working together. I also advocated for including rail in the 10-year plan.”

Water main break

Craig said one event that stands out from her first month in office came during her first week — the city’s response to a massive water main break on Jane Street that prompted road closures and dozens of evacuations.

“Having worked as an alderman, I had been through an emergency operations center before but not to that level,” said Craig. “To see the employees working together, the department heads there all day ... it brought great pride to me to see that level of commitment in terms of giving the people living there a feeling of safety and security.”

Craig said she continues to hear from businesses and nonprofits in the community looking for ways to get involved.

“People want to be involved in changing and enhancing Manchester, and that’s really encouraging to me,” said Craig.

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