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Ted Siefer's City Hall: Osborne says to let voters decide tax cap issue - again

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 14. 2013 1:03AM

Could the tax cap end up on the ballot yet again?

It could, if Ward 5 Alderman Ed Osborne gets support from his colleagues at Tuesday's board meeting to back a charter amendment for the November election.

Osborne has been consulting with the City Solicitor's Office on the feasibility of the plan, and the tentative answer is yes, it's permissible, assuming the Charter Commission doesn't propose its own tax cap measure.

It's looking increasingly unlikely that the commission will do so. While plenty of the commissioners have been critical of the cap, the begrudging consensus seems to be that putting it on the ballot would sink the whole slate of changes, which must be approved or rejected in their entirety.

Commissioner Mike Lopez, who has emerged as the swing vote on the issue, has noted that the aldermen have the authority to place single-issue amendments on the ballot, and at the panel's meeting Wednesday, Lopez mentioned Osborne's intentions.

Osborne said he dislikes taxes as much as the next guy, but he said the cap, in effect, places "handcuffs" on the aldermen.

"If voters mean to stay with the tax cap, let it be done; at least we'll know for sure this is what they really want," he said. "The first time around, it was touch and go. Now people have a taste for what's going on."

Will the other aldermen go for it? Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig, for one, said last week she supported the idea.

Only a simple majority would be necessary to pass the measure, though Mayor Ted Gatsas could veto it, in which case 10 votes would be necessary for an override.

Gatsas said he would wait and see how the debate proceeded before deciding whether to issue a veto, but he clearly doesn't think it's a good idea to put the cap on the ballot again.

"The public has made it clear. They voted twice to keep it in place," he said, adding, "I think the tax cap is working."

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Go figure. Monday's meeting of the Joint Committee on Education was pretty exciting.

Gatsas revealed he would be willing to support using $1.2 million in expendable trust money - a special school district account - to hire more teachers, beyond just filling vacancies, which is what his original $155.7 million tax cap budget proposed.

This was a big deal because Gatsas was essentially going on record saying he was willing to violate his credo against using "one-time" money.

He estimated this would allow the district to add 24 new teachers - a number not too far off the 41 new positions called for in Superintendent Tom Brennan's $160 million budget, the one he says is necessary to meet minimum state standards.

But the mayor revealed his thinking about the trust money in the context of a more immediate concern. His proposed $2.8 million technology bond has been held up single-handedly by Alderman Craig, despite the strong support Brennan and members of the school board have expressed for the proposal.

Craig supports the parts of the bond earmarked for upgrading Internet infrastructure and security systems, but she's argued that the $1.8 million designated for the purchase of computers and tablets could wait because it wouldn't happen for another couple of years. Reducing the bond amount would mean less annual debt service, which would mean more money for teachers, she's argued.

Later in the week, Craig said she was "very surprised" by the mayor's statement concerning the use of the trust money. "The expendable trust, the aldermen can't touch that, but certainly I'm in favor getting as many teachers as possible in the classroom," she said.

Gatsas said the proposal to use the trust money wasn't exactly new; he's made it verbally, but not in the ink of his budget, he said.

"If we have the ability to reduce class sizes, that's what we should do. It's that high a priority," he said. "And the highest priority is we make sure we get the technology piece done."

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The idea behind forming the joint education committee panel last year was to facilitate communication between the aldermen and the school board - and members of both boards learned something new last week. The track at Livingston Park is in such a state of disrepair that is can no longer be used for school track meets.

"It's unfortunate; Livingston is a new track, and it's already unusable," Ward 1 school board member Sarah Ambrogi said.

Ward 8 board member Erika Connors said there's a problem with tree roots under the track and that it would cost about $120,000 to repair. Good to know.

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On Tuesday, the top brass from eight city departments appeared before the aldermen for a budget hearing, and as it stretched into its seventh hour, one wonders whether some of the officials thought it ironic that the aldermen were lecturing them about efficiency.

It came as no surprise that the departments were concerned about their proposed budgets for the next fiscal year, particularly the fact that the severance account was left unfunded.

But there were some refreshing ideas put forward about how departments could generate more revenue. The Fleet Management Department's new garage, for example, could be used to service the vehicles of neighboring municipalities. Or the police, rather than arresting people for disorderly conduct, could in some circumstances write tickets for city violations. Then the fines would go to city coffers, not the state.

Generally speaking, the response from the weary department heads was, "We'll get back you on this."

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American Medical Response, the city's designated emergency ambulance company, has certainly taken its hits in the aldermanic chambers. The company has been dogged by complaints over its billing practices, and the aldermen are considering putting the ambulance contract out to bid in the coming weeks.

But AMR received a standing ovation ahead of Monday's school board meeting. The company donated $9,000 to enable the three high schools' DECA teams to attend the national conference in California at the end of the month.

Three oversized checks were presented to representatives of the DECA teams, which focus on business and marketing skills.

Gatsas said he didn't think the move was calculated for public relations. "I think they're just looking to be good corporate citizens," he said.

Ted Siefer may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tbsreporter.

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