MANCHESTER — It's one of the more obscure elected offices in the city, but the race for welfare commissioner this fall may be among its most hotly contested.
Six-term incumbent Commissioner Paul Martineau is being challenged by Diane Guimond, the former deputy commissioner of the Welfare Department.
Guimond and Martineau faced off in a close race in 2011, with Martineau beating her 6,971 to 6,061.
The Welfare Department has come under greater scrutiny since the last election. A legal advocacy group successfully challenged it for denying assistance based on guidelines that were deemed too stringent and out of line with state law.
The aldermen have also examined changes to the structure of the office. The amount of money the department spends on assistance to the needy over the past decade has declined, while the amount it spends on staffing has increased to the point that it makes up most of the $1 million budget. Martineau's salary alone for the current fiscal year tops $114,000.
Guimond said she was disturbed by the way Martineau had run the office in recent years. "To say I'm going to cut assistance year after year — and brag about that in one of the worst economies we've had in 15 years — how could he do that? Something's not right," she said.
Martineau has argued that the department's salaries, including his own, were beyond his control, since they are governed by the city's Yarger Decker system of automatic yearly raises.
He noted that the proportion of his budget devoted to salaries was lower than that of other departments.
"In other departments, salaries make up 88 percent of the budget," Martineau said. "But we still need people, case workers, to process the people who come in. Then we have to turn around and verify the information (they provide)."
Martineau has pointed out that he has consistently run his department under budget, to the point that he has returned $2 million to the general fund over 10 years, while his budget was cut by nearly $500,000 in the same period.
"I'm going to run on my record. Hopefully taxpayers can see I'm looking out for their interests," he said, noting that his budget comes only from city property taxes, not state or federal funds. "We're there to help those who need it and that's what we're going to do."
Guimond, however, questioned if Martineau wasn't turning away truly needy people to make his budget.
"We're saving all this money, but at whose cost?" she said.
Last year, several people told the New Hampshire Union Leader that they were unfairly denied assistance, including one man who was told he couldn't get rental assistance because he lived in a unit owned by his sister. The office later reversed the decision.
Guimond began her career in the Welfare Department as a case worker in 1991 and was appointed deputy commissioner after Martineau was elected in 2001, a post she held until 2004. She was the town administrator for Lee, N.H., from 2008 until 2011. About her departure from Lee, Guimond said, "It was time to part company."
Guimond said she's a Republican who "has become more conservative" as she's aged. At the same time, she said, "I don't necessarily disagree with the Democrats either."
Martineau is a Democrat.
The next election could be the last for welfare commissioner. Voters will get to choose whether to make it an appointed rather than elected post as part of the slate of changes proposed by the Charter Commission.
Martineau, for his part, backs making the commissioner an appointed position, since it has evolved to function largely as a department head does. Guimond said she has "mixed feelings" about the firstname.lastname@example.org