Ted Siefer's City Hall: A time for ideas and budget matters, large and small
It was a week of big ideas at City Hall. We heard Police Chief David Mara tell the aldermen that he thinks Manchester could use 30 more police officers. (Not going to happen.) Then there was "pay-as-you-throw," the program proposed by the city's public works chief that could, by his estimate, save the city $3.5 million.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and in the case of adopting a per-bag fee for trash pickup, the need is to produce a budget without overriding the tax cap. Mayor Ted Gatsas says even without hiring more police officers, the budget for the next fiscal year is, because of built-in costs, already overspent by $6 million.
Dover and Concord - havens of progressive, pro-recycling types - are among the towns with pay-as-you-throw programs. But already questions are being raised whether it could work or would be fair in Manchester, with its multi-unit rental buildings and larger low-income population. The last time the idea was proposed, when Robert Baines was mayor, there were warnings that such a program would lead to widespread dumping by people who wanted to avoid shelling out for the special trash bags.
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Not all of the ideas put forward last week were grand ones. Several came from Keith Hirschmann, the newly elected - or reelected - Ward 12 alderman. He held the seat from 1996 to 2002, and based on his involvement on Tuesday, the first regular day of meetings for the new term, he was making up for lost time.
Among the proposals he had placed on the agenda were posting more financial reports on the city website and overhauling the Yarger-Decker pay system for city employees, which was referred to the Committee on Human Resources.
The idea that generated the most discussion on Tuesday was one he discussed before the Committee on Administration: to have churches provide emergency shelter for the homeless, rather than the hotels that the Welfare Department pays for and that the welfare commissioner says has blown a hole in his budget.
Hirschmann told the committee that he had heard about Concord working with churches to provide shelter services, and he felt it was worth considering in Manchester. "A church facility," Hirschmann wrote in a letter to the committee, "would have a heated hall with cots and restrooms for temporary emergency shelter," and it would "coax the needy away from getting luxury lodging that the city cannot afford going forward."
The committee was receptive, although questions were raised. Ward 7 Alderman William Shea, for one, wondered "if any conflict arises if we use public funds" with a religious organization. In the end, the committee voted to run the idea by Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau and have him report back.
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Speaking of Martineau, he appeared before the full board Tuesday to request the immediate transfer of $100,000 in contingency funds to deal with said budget deficit. The better news was that Welfare's projected deficit for the year had gone from close to $300,000 to $200,000. This was enough to prompt the aldermen to table Martineau's request for the time being.
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There was a time when commissions in Manchester were powerful entities. That's not the case these days; it has become the mayor's regular ritual to put the call out for volunteers to fill seats on the panels.
On Tuesday, we got a good glimpse into the challenges faced by the newly seated members of the Conservation Commission, which oversees environmental laws in the city. Nicholas Golan told the Administration Committee that members were having to dig into their own pockets to pay for postage. He also said there were many files that needed to be digitized and integrated with the city's GIS (geographic information system) maps.Golon was requesting a budget of $2,500 for the group. "Being a volunteer group, we don't want to diminish people from performing their roles," he said.
Of course, as committee chairman Joyce Craig, Ward 1, told Golon, things are tight everywhere.
In the end, the committee approved the more modest request of $1,250. But later in the evening, at the full board meeting, Alderman-at-Large Dan O'Neil, chairman of the board, said he didn't like the precedent this would set. Instead, he proposed that members of the commission go to the mayor's office for postage and work with the Planning Department on the GIS system.The aldermen, perhaps not surprisingly, liked this idea better.
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It looks like the Manchester Animal Shelter will be getting the long-term lease it has sought with the city. The shelter leases city property on Dunbarton Road for a $1 a year (after all, it serves as the Manchester area's primary animal shelter). With plans to upgrade and expand the facility, the shelter's leaders sought a 40-year lease for the same token price.
The issue caused a minor flare-up the last time it came up in committee. Mayor Gatsas chastised Deputy City Solicitor Tom Arnold before the Administration Committee in December for raising concerns about the lease while acknowledging he hadn't had much time to review it.
"I'm really upset the solicitor did not look at this until today," Gatsas said.
The issue is clearly close to Gatsas, and it bears mentioning that his wife, Cassandra, is the co-president of the Friends of the Manchester Animal Shelter.
At Tuesday's board meeting, City Solicitor Tom Clark said the lease had been reviewed and slightly revised, and he felt confident that the city could move forward with it. And that's what the aldermen voted to do
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The school board will hold a special meeting Monday, and on its plate, ahem, will be school lunches. District Food Service Director Jim Connors is to make a presentation on how newly relaxed federal guidelines for healthy school meals might affect its menu.