MANCHESTER, NH – Improving city schools with a boost of targeted fundingwas the motivation behind passage of a $318.7 million 2018 budget proposal Tuesday by the Board of Aldermen, which voted 10-2-1 in favor of the budget, despite a veto attempt by Mayor Gatsas.
Aldermen Keith Hirschmann and Joseph Levasseur did not support the budget proposal. Alderman Thomas Katsiantonis abstained from all votes Tuesday night.
Mayor Ted Gatsas vowed to veto every one of seven budget resolutions on the table, even vetoing a vote that failed, 9-3, defending the unnecessary veto by saying, “I’m consistent.”
Before the Board of Aldermen voted to override Gatsas’ first veto, Gatsas explained his preemptive veto plan with a stern warning for the board.
“This is about a conversation from the heart, this is about anybody that wants to think I don’t care about children, because I do care about children and their education,” Gatsas said. “But this is about reality.”
Gatsas chided the Aldermen, and saidfunneling more money to the school district with one-time funding would set the city up for a $3.7 million shortfall going into next year’s budget cycle.
“We’re going to have to tell people on the city side that there’s no raise again. We can’t do it, unless this board’s prepared to increase taxes by 10-15 percent,” Gatsas said. “Alot of people are living hand-to-mouth and can’t afford another tax increase.”
However, the mayor’s frustration was fueled by what he called a “manipulation” of tax projections from the county level reflected in the budget plan submitted by Alderman Long – an alternative to Gatsas’ proposal – which was eventually adopted by the Board.
Alderman Long maintained that his proposal would not increase the city tax rate.
Gatsas was visibly agitated as he grilled Finance Director Bill Sanders over the fraction of a penny difference between the two budget calculations. Sanders at first told Gatsas it was a matter of mathematical “rounding” that would not affect the outcome of the overall budget figures. After continued questioning by Gatsas, Sanderstold Gatsas that for calculation purposes “wecan only deal in cents not in hundredths or thousandths.”
Gatsas would not let the matter go.
“I sit here and say how was the county rate changed? Why was it changed? Never have I ever seen it change on my side when I did a budget, never,” Gatsas said. “Somebody needs to tell me why. I don’t want to have to get an investigation, but someone needs to fess up.”
Alderman Long eventually fired back at Gatsas for the use of the word “manipulation,” and defended Sanders’point thatthe apparent discrepancy was built-in to the budget formula for calculation purposes.
The approved budget proposal gives the School District $2 million more than outlined in the mayor’s budget, money Superintendent Bolgen Vargas will use to add health and language instructors to middle schools, a reading enrichment program, andhelp begin a process of reducing class size.
Although the city expected to get $2 million in state funding support for full-day kindergarten, that funding has not been settled at the state level, and Gatsas maintained that the $2 million will not materialize. Alderman Long’s proposal would have taken$2 million from the city’s Economic Development Fund to cover any kindergarten shortfall, but that resolution was rejected 9-3-2, with Alderman Levasseur, Hirschmann and Sapienza opposed.
Alderman Sapienza, who said he was not comfortable with moving money from Economic Development, offered an alternative plan, which would rely on using $1.5 million from new construction, and $1.6 from fund balance.
“This vote is not about education or economic development. It was to transfer the fund balance to 2018, so let’s take these votes, one at a time, and take care of that, first,” Sapienza said.
Alderman Levasseur, one of the only two Aldermen who voted against Long’s proposal, also gave his fellow board members an earful on the ethics of budgeting.
“This year this same board, many of you, voted for a police contract and yet you don’t want to pay for it, so you vote for contracts then you lay people off. You’re voting for contracts and telling people you can get the money, then you don’t want to pay for it,” Levasseur said.
He criticized the Board of School Committee for not being able to “make tough decisions” on their end of the budgeting process.
“If you vote for these contracts you have a moral obligation to pay for them, you shouldn’t be taking out of one-time accounts put there for specific reasons.If you don’t put these people up against the wall they won’t make decisions, they’ve proved that year after year,” Levasseur said.
“It’s the people we elected on school board who refuse to make the tough decisions. All this could be fixed by redesigning the district, but they won’t because it’s politically inexpedient for them to do so,” Levasseur said. “Nobody wants to make a tough decision unless it’s not an election year, or their back’s against the wall.”