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Ted Siefer's City Hall: Automatic pay step grenade could be tossed Tuesday night

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 18. 2014 11:10PM

Generally speaking, bureaucrats are not known for their creativity. But Mayor Ted Gatsas is asking city employees to put on their thinking caps and come up with new revenue ideas, which is expected to be a running theme at Tuesday's Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting.

The mayor has made it clear that he faces a daunting task in crafting a budget for the next fiscal year, the third straight that will be constrained by the tax cap. The emphasis on new revenue could be a way of steering the conversation away from a tax cap override, something that a contingent on the board appears to be considering more seriously than ever before.

Some of these aldermen will likely have a skeptical reaction to the notion that there's much more revenue that can be squeezed out of the departments. Last year saw a parade of ideas - such as using the new central fleet facility as a regional garage and higher building permit fees - come and go.

Then there's overhauling the Yarger-Decker pay system, which for the first time in awhile will be on the agenda. It was placed there by Keith Hirschmann, the newly elected Ward 12 alderman who served on the board about the time the pay system, which gives city employees automatic annual raises, was put into effect.

"Sure, it's going to be a bit of a grenade," Hirschmann told me. "Fourteen years ago, it probably was a good thing to do, but now it's leading to budget cutbacks."

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The school board held its first meeting Monday under the new rules of order it adopted the week before. The biggest change in the rules was to give the mayor more power to control how meetings are conducted, and on Monday, Mayor Gatsas wasted no time flexing his new muscle.

The school board only holds one official meeting a month.

The board can, and often does, schedule special meetings, but under the existing rules, it could not have public comment during those meetings. So Gatsas exercised his new right as the board's "parliamentarian" to declare that public comment would be permitted at special meetings.

And that was that.

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In general, Monday's meeting moved at a brisk and productive clip. Still, it offered a reminder why it's a good thing the board has two members - Art Beaudry and Debra Gagnon Langton - who are willing to be its resident boat-rockers.

Were it not for the inquiries from Ward 2's Langton, the board might have signed off on the district's "personnel report," a list of the district's newly hired and exiting staff, along with their salaries.

The report showed that the district's new spokeswoman was going to be paid for the remaining six months of the year at a higher salary than the board had agreed to; and that a new executive director would be paid $100,000 - $20,000 more than the upper limit posted for the job.

The report also indicated that the money for the director's salary would come from the district's own coffers, not federal funds as the superintendent had stated.

It wasn't until after the board - invoking as it often does a special clause in the state's open meeting law concerning personnel matters - met in nonpublic session that these matters were ironed out. The executive director will be paid with federal money; the spokeswoman's half-year salary was adjusted; she'll be getting $32,000, as anticipated.

The district closely guards its personnel report; it's never included in the meeting materials released to the public prior to the meeting. The information is only disclosed, upon request, after the board has voted on the matters.

For those who are curious about whom the district is putting on its payroll and what they're paid, the new executive director is Patricia Snow, the former principal at Beech Street elementary. And yes, she'll be getting $100,000 as executive director of the "Innovation Zone," a program aimed at boosting performance at seven struggling elementary schools.

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Of all the controversial matters the school board deals with, one wouldn't think that a contest for students to design a new logo for the district would be one them. But there they were on Monday, Beaudry and Langton, pressing the superintendent about why the board wasn't informed about the contest.

"I would have liked to have had prior knowledge of this before I read about it in the paper. It seems like we get more out of the Union Leader than the administration," Beaudry, Ward 9, said. "And I would've hoped to make this open to the public. These are public schools. I just would've liked more people to get involved in this and had the public rallying around our school district."

Superintendent Debra Livingston said that it was her prerogative as the new school leader to launch such initiatives. "The purpose (for changing the logo) is that when a new superintendent comes in, I think it's important to revisit the vision and the mission," she said.

In case you were also out of the loop, the two logo finalists are on the district's website,, and voting will be open until Jan. 31.

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One of the more significant actions the school board took during the public portion of its meeting was to send its wish list of building projects to the aldermen - with an emphasis on wish.

Totaling $22 million, the aldermen are unlikely to approve a fraction, if any, of the upgrades. This has been the ritual for several years.

But Chris Stewart, Ward 3, raised an interesting question. While they are the district's responsibility, the school facilities themselves belong to the city. And while the aldermen control the purse strings and have the power to issue with construction bonds, it's the district that has to cover the debt on those bonds.

"This is $22 million of deferred maintenance that the city is not spending on its buildings," he said. "What are the legal guidelines that guide the relationship between the school and the city side?"

Perhaps this question will be addressed when aldermen - the body that voted to spend $38 million on a shiny new municipal complex - consider the school board's wish list at their meeting this week.

Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter: @tbsreporter.

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