Ted Siefer's City Hall: With Gatsas back, aldermen increase fees, tighten exemptions
Mayor Ted Gatsas was back in the saddle again on Tuesday. Over the course of the aldermen's meeting - his first since he underwent heart-bypass surgery just a month ago - it was clear that he was still Mayor Gatsas. Maybe more so. The meeting was lengthy and at times contentious, but Gatsas took it all in stride and kept things moving at a steady clip.
At the end of the meeting, Alderman-at-large Joe Kelly Levasseur pointed out that a pretty remarkable recovery had taken place.
"The fact that you're here four weeks later ... I know we make your blood pump pretty well," Levasseur said - a sentiment that probably applies best to himself.
"Guess what? It's even stronger now," Gatsas replied, presumably referring to his ticker.
Gatsas is not one for sentimentality, but he took the moment to express his gratitude.
"First, let me say thank you to the board for your work over the last four weeks, and to ChairmanO'Neil for stepping up, and the department heads for stepping up," he said before turning to the care he received at Catholic Medical Center. "I can't say enough good things about that hospital. I know people tell you 'Go down to Boston.' I can tell you the care I received was second to none."
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Tuesday's meeting was a long one, partly because the aldermen took the unusual step of immediately going into a lengthy nonpublic session. The purpose was to get the latest on discussions with Public Service of New Hampshire over the rate it wants to charge municipalities that use efficient LED streetlights.
LEDs would use less electricity, but the savings would be offset by a tariff, or special rate, PSNH is seeking to charge municipalities to power and maintain the lights.
You may recall that late last year the aldermen hurriedly authorized spending up to $25,000 to hire a lawyer after city officials learned that state regulators were prepared to rule on PSNH's proposed rate, which they felt would shortchange the city.
With nearly 9,000 streetlights, the city is by far PSNH's largest municipal customer, and its electric bill is about $1.4 million annually. Converting to efficient LED lights could lead to big savings, but the amount would depend on how much the city has to pay PSNH to power and maintain the fixtures.
Since the Public Utilities Commission first allowed the city to intervene in the review process, PSNH and city officials have been dealing with each other directly.
Gatsas said he couldn't go into detail on what was discussed during the closed-door session, but he said he hoped that the parties could reach an agreement soon.
"We're still talking," he said. "I think it's something that could impact the budget over time and reduce our costs."
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It doesn't seem likely that pay-as-you-throw will be coming to Manchester anytime soon, and it remains to be seen whether the aldermen will manage to finally approve new parking regulations that could net up to $500,000 in new revenue. But the board has steadily given its stamp of approval to new and higher fees that will affect particular constituencies, if not the general population.
Among the items approved by the board Tuesday without much debate were a 70 to 100 percent hike in building permit fees and an increase in the amount the Fire Department charges fire alarm box owners. The board also voted to tighten property tax exemptions for disabled people - and this one did generate a bit of discussion.
The change lowers the income limit to qualify for a disabled exemption to $37,000 for a single person and $50,000 for a married couple; the new asset limit is $90,000 for a single and $115,000 for a couple.
Alderman Bill Barry called Manchester's current disability exemption (the change doesn't take effect until the next tax year) "mind-boggling."
"There are 600 people in Manchester getting the disability exemption. In the rest of the state, there's about 500. Something must be going on in Manchester. Obviously, it's not the water, but they're all moving to Manchester," he said.
Alderman Keith Hirschmann, a Republican, countered the view of Barry, a Democrat.
"On behalf of those who are disabled, we have the three best medical facilities in the state. Disabled people tend to congregate where they get health care," Hirschmann said. "I just want to go on record saying the disabled people I know, they're disabled, and they deserve this."
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The aldermen's Human Resources Committee has given the green light to a proposal from Mayor Gatsas to eliminate an ordinance that requires supervisors to make more than their underlings.
"A person taking a supervising position should be happy with a 10 percent increase. (Their) pay shouldn't have anything to do with who the people being supervised are," Gatsas told the committee on Monday.
Gatsas was referring to the fact an employee promoted to supervisor is awarded with a 10 percent raise. Under the current ordinance, if the supervisor's pay after the raise is still lower than the base salary of his or her highest-paid subordinate, the supervisor's pay would be raised above that point.
There was some pushback. Alderman-at-Large Dan O'Neil questioned how common such a situation is.
Human Resources Director Jane Gile said it's not frequent, but it does happen.
"I can't give a number off the top of my head. I'd say a handful of times," she said. Of course, Gatsas knows what it's like to be a supervisor and get paid less than his charges. At $68,000 a year, Gatsas makes less than nearly all of his department heads as well as a good number of rank-and-file workers.
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It appears a plan to hand over the operation of the city's West Side Ice Arena to local business partners won't slide into place as quickly as it appeared a couple of weeks ago. The plan was supposed to have been back before the aldermen on Tuesday, after a review by city officials.
But the city's finance and legal team is clearly taking a longer, harder look at the deal, as Gatsas has urged. And at least one important critic came forward at Tuesday's meeting: Alderman Ron Ludwig, the former longtime parks director who holds the city's ice arenas - the JFK Memorial Coliseum and the West Side arena - close to his heart.
"JFK is a jewel; the West Side is a jewel," he said. "We shouldn't be leasing it, we should be retaining it."
Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.