GOFFSTOWN — Education and public safety are the top issues facing the city, Mayor Ted Gatsas and Ward 12 Alderman Patrick Arnold concurred during their first mayoral debate, but they differed on how to address the problems.
The two mayoral candidates squared off Wednesday morning at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. Robin Comstock, president and CEO of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the debate, moderated.
Arnold, in his opening remarks, focused on his three Rs: restoring the city's commitment to children and schools; renewing the focus on job growth and innovation; and reforming the way City Hall serves and protects its citizens by responding to the "very real concerns of taxpayers" about crime and public safety.
"We are the largest city in the state of New Hampshire," said Arnold, an attorney and father of a 14-week-old daughter. "We can and should have the very best schools that our state has to offer."
In his opening remarks, Gatsas focused on his accomplishments over the past four years, which included establishing the state's first technology high school and building a municipal complex that includes a new highway department building and police headquarters.
He said the city has to improve education so third- graders will perform at grade level and first-graders will be able to tell the difference between a number and a letter of the alphabet.
The mayor did not dispute that crime and public safety are top issues. He said that he is not a crime analyst and so leaves law enforcement to the professionals, relying heavily on Police Chief David Mara and Assistant Chief Nick Willard.
Gatsas said it is easy to speak about a vision for the city, but no mayor can do anything without the approval of the aldermanic board.
"They have eight votes," the Republican mayor said, referring to the number of Democrats on the 14-member board.
Arnold agreed that much of governing is about having a good working relationship with the aldermanic and school boards and community members. The problem, he said, is the current "it's-my-way-or-the-highway management style."
Comstock said a survey of Manchester residents found that 77 percent of them felt the school district needed more funding.
Gatsas said the city spends on average about $12,500 per student, when the $21 million in federal funds is added to the formula. That puts the district just below the average amount spent in the state.
Arnold said the taxpayers' interests always have to be at the center of the discussion, but the city can't afford not to meet the challenge. Depending on the funding formula used, Manchester is sometimes on the bottom or in the middle, but it never comes out on the top, he said.
Arnold said Manchester was once the leader in education, and under an Arnold administration it can become that once again. Part of his plan would be to hire more teachers and work collaboratively with the school and aldermanic boards.
"It's about how do you pay for it. The questions are easy, but the answers are hard," Gatsas said. Arnold, he said, voted against his proposal for a $2.8 million bond for technology infrastructure for the schools, $300,000 for teacher preparation, $500,000 to make the schools safer and $1.5 million for technology for the schools.
Arnold said he voted against the bonding because it was a Band-aid fix to a long-term problem. He said in the past four years that Gatsas has been running the city, there has been no improvement in students' performance and violent crime has increased. Robberies, he said, jumped by 20 percent.
Gatsas noted the police solved 56 percent of the robberies in 2012, a record that is double the national average. And he credited the chief with reducing the number of panhandlers downtown by assigning an officer to walk an Elm Street beat and for cleaning out vagrants in Victory and Veterans parks by parking a cruiser near them.
Arnold contended Gatsas must confine his walks to the Hanover and Elm streets area because he said he's seen an increase in panhandling near Elm and Bridge streets. He said under an Arnold administration, the city would hire three to four police officers a year — all beat cops — for an expanded community policing program. A cop on the beat, Arnold said, is a deterrent to crime.
Arnold said he proposed a Riverfront Development Authority that envisioned a riverwalk along the Merrimack River to rival those in San Antonio, Pittsburgh or Providence, R.I.
Gatsas suggested Arnold take a trip down to the economic development office and dust off a similar riverfront vision from 12 years ago. At that time, the cost was $21 million, according to the mayor. And, he said, today there are restrictions as to the pilings that could be placed in the river. Again, he said, it comes down to funding.
Arnold said in the past there were mayors who left the city with lasting legacies, such as the Verizon Center and Fisher Cats.
"What is your crowning economic development achievement over the last four years? A grocery store? I think everybody here knows we can do better than that," Arnold said.
Gatsas says there is development happening across the city, noting the new St. Mary's Credit Union headquarters on the West Side, apartment buildings being erected by Brady-Sullivan and Riverfront II being built in the South End.
As for his legacy, Gatsas said he'll leave that for the historians.