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July 06. 2013 1:05AM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Ambulances, parking, street closure make for long session


 

On Tuesday, the aldermen held what is expected to be their only meeting this month - and so the agenda was unusually packed, not only with pressing business but also with items that have languished in committee for months.

It was a long and at times arduous session, but by the time the clock struck midnight, the aldermen had plowed through a lot of material. Among the items they tackled: approving the weekend closure of Hanover Street downtown; moving forward on an ordinance targeting "vicious dogs"; and hiring an expert to help the city in its effort to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in road degradation fees.

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The main event on Tuesday, of course, was the ambulance contract. It was high drama, featuring feuding high-powered executives, rigorous debate and an uncertain outcome until the final vote.

The adversaries were the city's current emergency ambulance provider, American Medical Response, and American Ambulance of New England - and the prize was the five-year contract to be the city's designated responder to 9-1-1 calls.

AMR had in its favor the support of the mayor and the fire chief, who argued that the company had straightened out its act after being blasted with complaints over its billing practices in 2011 and 2012. American could point to the support of a number of department heads - and to AMR not disclosing legal actions that have been taken against it that American argued should have disqualified it from the contract.

In the end, the vote in favor of AMR was a lopsided 10-3, but this was hardly a foregone conclusion. Even those who ended up voting for AMR had indicated earlier in the evening that they would prefer to see the contract go back to committee.

"To me, there's an appearance of impropriety here, whether it's true or not true. Because I don't have all the information, I'd make a motion to go back to committee," said Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig, who would later vote to give the contract to A MR.

One of the main concerns hanging over the debate was whether American would pursue legal action if the contract went to AMR. These concerns were heightened by a letter last week from American's attorney, John Cronin, in which he noted that the city has been successfully sued by companies in the past that charged that it had disregarded the rules it set for awarding public contracts.

The aldermen may have had their concerns allayed somewhat when Charles Maymon, American's vice president, told them he had retained Cronin to assist with the request-for-proposal process, not pursue a lawsuit.

Speaking later in the week, Cronin was less diplomatic. "I think they're weighing all their options at this point in time," he said, referring to the company's executives, while adding, "They're not in the business of suing communities; they're in the business of providing the best service."

In any case, Cronin, who has been a familiar face around City Hall for 20 years, argued that the aldermen's handling of the RFP would dissuade future bidders.

"I think the message out of this clearly is when it comes to doing an RFP in Manchester, if you don't disclose important facts and conceal things that would hurt you, you won't be held accountable," he said.

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The aldermen had more immediate legal matters to tend to on Tuesday: a request to spend nearly $149,000 for expert testimony in a lawsuit filed by National Grid challenging the city's assessment of road degradation fees. The case has been going on since 2011, and Deputy City Solicitor Tom Arnold told the aldermen that the expert was crucial in attesting to the long-term damage caused when utilities dig up the streets.

Two years ago, the city billed National Grid more than $350,000 in degradation fees, and the costs have escalated since then. National Grid sued to challenge the fees.

Several aldermen felt $149,000 was pretty steep, but a proposal to allocate only $50,000 was rejected. The aldermen ended up voting, 7-6, to support Arnold's recommendation to allocate the full amount. That expert witness better know his stuff.

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Remember that parking study a couple of months ago by the Florida consulting company that cost $15,000, to assess demand for parking around the Bedford surface lot in the Millyard? And then, remember how the aldermen agreed to spend an additional $20,000 for the next phase of the study, to do geo-technical testing in order to determine the fitness of the site for a large building?

On Tuesday, Finance Director Bill Sanders was back before the aldermen with a proposal to spend an additional $94,000 for the next phase of the consultant's work. The money would go toward producing specs for a parking garage and a possible development above it that could include a hotel and apartments.

The point to doing all this preliminary work, Sanders explained, was for the city to come up with its own plan for a garage/mixed-use project - and bringing in the Millyard businesses as partners - rather than simply selling the lot or putting out an RFP.

Mayor Ted Gatsas, of course, is generally not a big fan of studies, least of all ones that would probably tell him, as someone with his ear to the ground of the business community, what he already knows. And he doesn't like the idea of simply building a parking garage in one of downtown's most desirable locations.

"I'm all for public-private partnerships," he said. "But I'm not going to build a garage that we sell 10 years later for 10 cents on the dollar. I've got a couple meetings next week. Hopefully we come up with something that's right for Manchester."

In any case, the $94,000 study proved to be a study too far, at least for now. The aldermen instead voted to have the Florida consultant come to their next meeting, in August, to discuss next steps.

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As you may have heard, the mayor and school district officials are eyeing the Stark House on North River Road as the site for a possible alternative education center that would cater to young dropouts. Naturally, residents in the area might have some questions, so Alderman Craig has organized a neighborhood meeting for Tuesday at 6 p.m. The meeting will take place, appropriately enough, at the Stark House, 1234 N. River Road.

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It's that time of year. The city's elected officials must decide whether they will seek reelection, and political newcomers - or old-timers, as the case may very well be - must declare their candidacies for the 2013 elections. The filing period starts on Monday and runs for two weeks, until July 19.

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


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