It’s not a full-fledged movement just yet, but at least one downtown business owner appears to be pushing back against a perceived lack of action by officials in addressing the growing number of homeless in downtown Manchester.
Beginning April 1, business owners along Elm St. can pay the city a $25 fee to put out A-frame “sandwich-style” signs advertising their stores or restaurants. But last week one local restaurant owner put aldermen on notice he has no plans to pay that fee “until the vagrants who are camping on the sidewalks” remove their “paraphernalia” from outside his business.
In other words, why pay to put a sign on the sidewalk in front of your business when a homeless person can spread out their belongings there for free?
Edward Aloise, co-owner of Republic Cafe and Campo Enoteca restaurants, laid out his intentions in an email sent last week to Mayor Joyce Craig and city aldermen.
“On April 1, I along with other business owners along Elm Street will be required to pay a $25 fee to encumber the street with an A frame sign,” Aloise wrote. “I respectfully submit that I will refrain from paying that fee until the vagrants who are camping on the sidewalks remove their sleeping bags, backpacks, dirty clothing, broken bicycles and assorted paraphernalia that they can place on they sidewalks at no charge.”
Aloise fears that with warmer temperatures on the horizon, the current “unsightly and unhealthy situation” will only get worse.
“I will place my fee in escrow and release it when some action is taken,” Aloise wrote. “I understand the legality of removing the individuals, but the absurdity of the fee for business while we see the detritus littering the street is uniquely disturbing.”
Aloise says he plans on passing his message along to other businesses along Elm Street, where he assumes there will be “other like-minded owners who will see it right to take similar action.”
Aloise’s email came one day after aldermen held a lengthy discussion in nonpublic session on a request from Ward 3 Alderman Tim Baines to alter city ordinances to allow downtown business owners to control the use of the sidewalks outside their storefronts year-round.
Baines believes the ordinance change will help business owners reporting complaints and concerns raised by customers over the number of homeless outside businesses.
The encumbrance permits are issued to businesses between April 1 and Oct. 15 to control the use of sidewalk space outside their businesses as needed. Baines is looking to have the date restrictions removed.
Baines said the change would allow business owners to maintain control of the immediate area outside their doors. The proposal comes on the heels of reports of homeless individuals urinating and defecating in alcoves and doorways.
The Aldermanic Committee on Administration and Information Systems voted recently to recommend the full board approve the proposal, but last week Ward 1 Alderman Kevin Cavanaugh asked that the item be removed from the board’s consent agenda, saying he wanted input from City Solicitor Emily Rice on the matter after the city ran afoul of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire on panhandling issues.
Rice suggested the board may want to discuss the topic in a nonpublic session because it involved “advice from the city solicitor,” and aldermen went behind closed doors for roughly an hour before coming back into open session and voting to table the matter until their next meeting.
Late last week, Baines said he “fully expects” the issue to soon be discussed in open session. He said he thinks Aloise’s email is just the latest indication of growing frustration about the homeless issue among the downtown business community.
“This is another example of business owners taking the issue into their own hands,” Baines said. “People are looking at what can be done. Some are frustrated by what they see as a lack of movement by the city.”
Aldermen supported a motion last week by Alderman At Large Joe Kelly Levasseur to send a question asking voters if they want the school district to become a city department to the Committee on Administration and Information Systems for further review.
The vote was taken after board members learned of an effort at the state level — headed up by State Representative and At Large school board member Pat Long — to allow voters to bring the school district under the umbrella of city government without the approval of the state legislature.
HB 544, “An Act Relative to the Governance of the Manchester School District,” has been referred to the House Education Committee.
In 2001, voters passed by a 4,000-vote majority a city charter amendment changing the school district to a city department. That amendment was later struck down by the courts, which ruled that it violated state law. The Legislature changed the law in 2003, but the change has yet to be vetted in the courts as attempts to hold another charter vote have failed.
Long’s bill would amend RSA 49-B by inserting after Section 14 language establishing a charter commission “to develop a local procedure, which does not require the approval of the legislature, to revise, amend, or replace the Manchester school district charter.”
“The charter commission shall submit its recommendations for a procedure to revise, amend, or replace the Manchester school district charter in the form of a ballot question to the Manchester school district voters for a vote at the November 2020 regular election,” the bill reads. If the ballot question is approved, “then the Manchester school district charter shall be revised, amended, or replaced ... effective on the date the ballot question is approved.”
Levasseur asked if the bill is passed, will Manchester have the ability to change the school district “any way we choose” without having to go through Concord first?
“What this bill is recommending is it allows Manchester to put a charter commission together,” Craig said. “Those names, the people running, would be on the ballot in 2019. They would come forward and make recommendations on how we can make that school board better, potentially have the authority to put their own budget together under the same parameters that we have on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen side.”
“Send out their own tax bills?” Levasseur asked.
“Correct, that would be in 2020,” Craig said.
“We can call our own charter commission right now,” Levasseur said. “It’s recommended that we do so every 10 years, but we can do so right now, can’t we?”
“The statute RSA 49 is the statute that establishes charter commissions,” City Clerk Matt Normand said. “I think we have to follow the parameters in that. I think it calls for a charter commission every 10 years. I’m not familiar with this bill until this evening, but I think this bill looks to establish a charter commission specifically for this purpose sooner.”
Long’s bill calls for a charter commission consisting of nine registered voters of the Manchester school district to be elected in nonpartisan fashion in November.