Alderman’s words on elderly tax woes and school funding ignite firestorm

"I've got an 85-year-old woman who lives across the street and she won't give up her house."

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MANCHESTER, NH – Ward 4 Alderman Chris Herbert, bully or visionary? Your answer probably depends on how well you understand the city’s internal struggle to keep taxes at bay while funding the rising cost of education, and whether your approach would be through increasing revenue or cutting the fat.

Herbert knows he’s under fire. Yet he stands by a controversial statement made May 24 during an Aldermanic committee meeting, regarding the issue of how the tax burden on the elderly could be solved in the context of fully funding education. In 49 seconds, Herbert alienated a segment of constituents who say, at face value, Herbert is intent on pushing the city’s elderly out of their homes.

Chris Herbert

Alderman-at-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur is among those critics who say Herbert’s remarks show he’s got no heart for the city’s elderly and no understanding of how to really fix the city’s budget woes. Quite simply put, says Levasseur, leave our seniors alone and try spending less.

Herbert says he’s only aiming at a problem nobody wants to zero in on, or fix.

Somewhere in between is the real question: What happens to a graying city like Manchester, which is hitting a revenue wall due to a problem that’s been described as a “silver tsunami?”

New Hampshire is the third fastest-aging and fourth-oldest state in the country, struggling to entice new businesses – and the needed workforce – to boost its economy. Gov. Chris Sununu has made it a priority to attract businesses looking to employ a younger demographic – potential taxpayers who (by the way) demand a competitive education system for their kids, and municipal services that support a thriving, tech-based economy.

NH Center for Public Policy

The controversy boiled over at the May 24 Joint Committee on Education, where Herbert was engaging committee chair and fellow Alderman Barbara Shaw in a discussion over the city’s struggle to fund education. Toward the end of a 10-minute exchange, Herbert made the following observation – distilled into a 49-second sound bite which has been circulating around social media. [A 10-minute version of the exchange leading up to his comment is posted at the top of the story]. 

“All we talk about is cutting and cutting and cutting and cutting… I’ve got an 85-year-old woman who lives across the street and she won’t give up her house. She’s sitting on $350,000 and she can’t afford it anymore. And you say give her a tax credit. No, we should have a program that gets her out of the house. We need to get new people to come in and occupy those houses. We can’t be run by the elderly in a city; that’s foolishness. I mean, if you want to go do that, you can go down into the communities outside of Orlando and they have a lot of money,” Herbert said.

Shaw’s response was pointed.

“Well, I’m 75 years old, and I consider myself basically elderly, but I want to keep my house and I’m on a pension … a teaching pension,” Shaw said.

Prior to that exchange, Herbert spoke about the need to fund education without continual cuts to programs and teachers. 

“It’s time to belly up to the bar and pay the bills, because that is a citizen’s responsibility. So far we’ve  continuously come up with excuses to not pay that bill and it’s created, in my opinion, a very negative effect and perception of Manchester, and I’m sure it hurts our ability to attract businesses… I know we can afford it, my constituents can afford it,” Herbert said.

When contacted Sunday, Herbert said he stands by his words, and position – even though he realizes those who oppose his point of view want to characterize him as heartless advocate for doing away with old folks. 

“It’s pretty straightforward,” says Herbert, 67. “We do have an issue, and it’s not just Manchester – it’s a problem all around the state – the aging of New Hampshire. From the city’s perspective, that puts pressure on its ability to fund city services, education being a big portion of that.”

He says distilling his comment about moving his 85-year-old neighbor out of her home might be good fodder for an election year, and remove him from the Aldermanic table, but he says his full position is that if there are that many elderly residents in the city struggling to stay in their homes, the city should identify them and then investigate ways to help them “get out of that situation”  in a way that benefits them, and preserves their investment, and dignity.

“The only recourse they have right now is second mortgages and reverse mortgages, and I’m not satisfied those are the best options,” says Herbert.

“The elderly get taken advantage of all the time from people selling things – including financial scams and all that. Our elderly tend to be targeted, and the city shouldn’t ignore that situation. Maybe the city should try to find some creative ways of dealing with the underlying problem, which is the aging of the state, while preserving the integrity of funding our schools,” he said. “My view is that the city has to pay attention to this problem it faces and they have to do it reasonably well, otherwise, we’re stuck between a no-tax cohort that makes it difficult, and a lack of resources. That’s the downward race to the bottom type of vice you can get into if you don’t have enough citizens with an ability to fund education.”

He pointed out that seniors in Manchester already get a tax break.

“Let’s get that out of the way. They already get a tax break, and I’m not inclined to increase it. We just have to look at it in a more comprehensive way. It’s a larger problem than an assortment of people who can’t afford their houses anymore. I believe it’s something we need to look at in a fresh manner,” Herbert says.

Joe Kelly Levasseur

Levasseur is among those who took note of – and offense to – Herbert’s statement. He rejects the idea that it’s a politically motivated attempt at discrediting Herbert.

“Look, I like him as a person. He’s a very good person. He means well. He very rarely raises his voice in anger. He’s a kind and generous person who really believes we need more money and tax revenue, and if a person can’t afford their taxes, they should move out. I don’t think he’d apologize for saying it,” Levasseur says. “But he made the statement. Nobody had a hand up his butt. He’s nobody’s puppet. He speaks his own mind, and he’s not shy about it. If he wants to apologize for how he said it, if he wants to take it back, that’s up to him. We didn’t make him say it,” says Levasseur.

“But he said what he believes, that if you can’t afford tax increases, sell your home and get out of here.  He believes older people in this town are the reason we have a tax cap,” Levasseur says. “I don’t think we have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem, and we’ve had it for the two decades since I’ve been here. We’ve made a lot of bad decisions that have cost the city serious money.”

Levasseur pointed to city contracts that hamstring budget negotiations.  He’s in favor of instituting a 401K plan to replace pensions, for example.

“We increase the one contract they gave to police to $4 million in pensions for 190 police officers, a contract that we can’t afford. Now all the other departments are demanding the same amount. Now the fire department wants duty pay because the police department has it,” Levasseur says. “Chris Herbert votes for contracts we can’t afford, then demands the elderly on fixed incomes either afford it, or move out. That’s what he meant and he can’t spin his way out of it.”

Levasseur acknowledges that it’s a statewide issue – a fact underscored in a 2016 study by the NH Center for Public Policy, which examines what the state’s role in solving demographic challenges should be. If you ask Levasseur, instead of forcing the elderly to move, a better way out of the city’s revenue problem would be to legislatively change the statewide tax system, which could lower the overall burden on Manchester taxpayers.

But he would really like to hear Herbert talk about cutting expenses rather than raising taxes.

“I don’t hear him talk about cutting the cost of employee salaries and benefits and pension obligations. I say we have to stop going up on our tax rate every year until people are pushed out of their homes, or find an alternative taxing solution – which either means imposing a sales tax or income tax. That will lower property taxes, but a good conservative like me knows that property taxes only go down in the short term, and they go back up in the long term, like we’ve seen in Massachusetts and Connecticut,” Levasseur says.

Levasseur said if Herbert wants to spend more government money on another government subsidized program that helps the elderly, he’s adding to the problem of tax burden.

Vote for 14 Joe Kelly Levasseurs [for alderman] and you’ll have no increase in taxes and salaries, and maybe the elderly will even be able to afford to eat out once in a while. Vote for 14 Chris Herberts and all your elderly will be moving out,” Levasseur says.

Herbert says if the city truly cares about its elderly – those consistently cited in tax cap debates as living on the edge and about to lose their homes – then they need to figure out who these residents are that are truly stretched thin, and offer a service they can reach out to for the help they need.

“The thing you want to avoid is that they lose their asset because they can’t pay taxes, so maybe the city can guarantee assessment within 15 percent of the value of the property, that puts a price floor on that house. And then, have some sort of system in place to start helping the particular individual – most likely a female, because they notoriously outlive their husbands – and look at other housing options,” Herbert says.  

“If they need assistance, maybe we should encourage the kind of housing that is amenable to an elderly population without charging them a fortune, including $500 a month in maintenance fees,” Herbert says. “There’s just stuff we need to talk about as a city in a way aimed at solving that first problem, the inability to pay taxes primarily from the elderly, so we can get to the second problem, which is that we can’t survive as a city with the current funding problem. If I have 10 votes I will solve the second problem first, and work like hell to solve the first one second, because these problems are related.”

Levasseur says he sees it  differently.

“I’m a strong supporter of the tax cap, which forces unions to negotiate at numbers that are much more economically reasonable. Enrollment is down in Manchester, and we’ve had to downsize the workforce and costs associated with it. Yet, people are freaking out about the fact that the city is supposedly laying off 14 people – even after the Manchester School of Technology  principal said she doesn’t need that many teachers, and is surprised she was able to keep them as long as she did,” Levasseur says.

“Joe Kelly might say Chris Herbert wants to run the elderly over with a school bus full of kids, but that’s because he’s not above building a straw man and knocking it down,” Herbert says. “It’s not that easy to explain, and it’s a problem that will not be that easy to solve. But you have to start talking about it in an honest manner.”

And by the way, Herbert says, if anyone understands the issues facing the city’s elderly, it’s him.

“My 87-year-old mother in law lives with us. By the way, she’s Mary Sysyn, a long-time Alderman for this city. I don’t know what would have happened to Mary if she didn’t have a daughter willing and able to help her. Knocking $200 off an already discounted tax bill isn’t going to save someone who’s financially and physically unable to afford to keep their homes. That’s not going to cut it,” Herbert says.

“I guess by making an issue of what I said, they may have been doing me a back-handed favor. I’m going to get asked about this at the next aldermanic meeting, and I will keep bringing it up until someone, somewhere, comes up with solutions. I’m trying to define a problem while others are trying to keep it undefined,” Herbert says. “Their motivation isn’t to make the city better; it’s political. But I’m not going to stop talking about it.”

Editor’s Note: The 2016 study, New Hampshire’s Demographic Challenges And the Role of State Government, referenced above by the NH Center for Public Policy Studies is included below.

Other resources: A 2005 report, Shifting the Load: Costs, Effects, and the Potential Impact of Property-Tax Relief for New Hampshire’s Seniors

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