MANCHESTER, NH — Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Aldermen covered a lot of territory, with public comment focused on continued concerns of downtown business owners. Several business owners took their three minutes at the microphone to urge city leaders to do something about the continued problem of “vagrants” who they say jeopardize downtown commerce.
Pat Mills, General Manager of Bonfire Country Bar, said the issue has been problematic for a year and a half, with people he does not classify as “the homeless,” but rather “those we know as the spice people of Elm Street.”
Mills said unlike those who line up in the morning at Labor Ready looking for work, or who seek services through the shelter, he is referring to aimless characters who are on Elm Street every day.
“We need to come up with some sort of plan, it’s the same people over and over. It’s affecting every single business,” Mills said.
“We need to do something, we need to empower the police with some sort of mechanism to move these people along, We’ve seen the videos — I’ve taken videos — of these guys spiced out and falling down. This is jeopardizing our business,” he said.
Jim Pliakos, owner of the Shaskeen, also spoke about the atmosphere downtown which he says is not conducive to businesses, citing “the same six to twelve people who don’t want help. They’re just causing problems, using drugs out in the open, it’s right across the street from City Hall.”
Pliakos said the city needs to take action, regardless of what the ACLU might threaten to do.
“We need to do something about this, we need to be proactive,” Pliakos said, adding that his wife and kids can’t park on Lowell Street and make it up to the Shaskeen without being “harassed” by street people. “If you don’t see it you aren’t looking.”
Andrew Thistle, owner of Cheddar & Rye, echoed Mills’ comments. He said as a newer business, they are still trying to build their brand, but the downtown climate is not helping.
“I talk to six or seven customers every week who won’t come downtown at night,” and said he has personally called paramedics for 25 overdoses over the past six months, and observed other illegal drug use.
“We are speaking in voices of desperation to get this problem fixed,” Thistle said. “If it’s not taken care of by the people in power the sentiment on the street is that business owners and those who exist downtown will have to take care of it ourself, and that is a bigger problem than the ALCU or any problem you guys would experience doing it the legal way. This is not a threat; it’s the word on the street of those who are affected and will lose their livelihood because of this situation.”
At the close of the meeting, Mayor Craig announced that there will be a community meeting on homelessness to be held June 3 at the Doubletree Hilton from 5-7 p.m., something she noted Alderman Tim Baines has been advocating for as a way for business owners and others who live and work in the downtown, to come together to work toward solutions to many of the problems described earlier in the meeting.
Block Party Objections
In other public comment, two Lowell Street business owners asked the Board to revoke a permit granted to Penuche’s to shut down traffic on Lowell Street for “Sunday block parties,” as it is having a negative effect on their businesses.
Peter McNulty, owner of Northeast Munitions at 27 Lowell Street, said he opposes the shut down as it is causing “major financial setbacks” to his retail operation, selling weapons and tactical gear.
“Sunday is my retail store’s busiest day and last year the shut down cost us thousands in lost revenue,” McNulty said. He asked the board to reconsider the shut down and revoke the permit.
Also speaking in opposition to the Sunday Lowell Street shut down was Clark Graves, who is the new owner of Gauchos, along with his son Ben.
“It’s a one-way street, and I’m not sure what the thought process would have been that one business had the ability to close the street to traffic to all other businesses on the street,” Graves said, adding that closing the west end of Lowell street prevents customers from getting to his restaurant, and also reduces available parking. “It makes it very difficult to do business.”
School Board Nominee
The Board unanimously accepted the resignation of Ward 2 School Board member David Scannell, who has moved out of the Ward. Alderman Stewart nominated Kathleen Kelly Arnold to fill Scannell’s seat. He noted that several applicants came forward but he chose Arnold because of her unique qualifications, and her ability to “hit the ground running,” as a former five-term school board member. The board is expected to vote on May 21.
Fleet Director nominee
Mayor Craig nominated retired Police Capt. Jon Hopkins as the city’s new fleet director. That nomination will lay over until the May 21 meeting when it will be put to a vote. Alderman Joe Levasseur questioned whether anyone from the department had applied, saying he likes to see people move up to such positions from within a department. Craig said Hopkins was the most qualified for the job and the best fit.
Students on the ballot
A request by Granite State Organizing Project for a non-binding ballot initiative passed after Mayor Craig broke a tie vote. The request was to put the following question to the public: “Are you in favor of a student from each high school having a seat on the School Committee as a non-voting member.”
Voting in favor were Adlermen Dan O’Neil, Bill Barry, Normand Gamache, Kevin Cavanaugh, Tim Baines, Will Stewart, and Chris Herbert. Voting against were Aldermen Tony Sapienza, Elizabeth Moreau, Bill Shea, John Cataldo, Barbara Shaw, Keith Hirschmann, and Joe Levasseur.
Ward 2 Alderman Will Stewart spoke in favor of the measure, saying that students should have a seat at the table and be able to engage in discussions that affect them directly. The Board discussed whether by approving the request they were usurping the Board of School Committee’s decision not to have student members seated with the board. After much discussion, earlier this year the BOSC decided to allow student involvement, but decided against having students join the board. Rather, they are invited to deliver brief reports at the beginning of regular meetings.
Alderman Chris Herbert said putting it on the ballot and letting voters decide would be a way to discover “how deep is our support in the public’s mind for our public education,” and called it a “unique opportunity” to ask that question and get that answer.
City Clerk Matt Normand advised the board that they have sole authority to place such a question on the ballot, and that, alternatively GSOP — or any group — has the ability to get a question on the ballot by gathering signatures on a petition without board approval. Sudi Lett, GSOP Youth and Education Coordinator and Varsity Basketball Coach for Central High School, spoke on behalf of GSOP, which was instrumental in pressing the BOSC to formally include student voices on the board. A letter submitted by Lett is below:
The City’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report was presented, which included an independent audit of city financial reporting conducted by Melanson & Heath. The conclusion was a “clean” report, noting that the city’s finances were in accordance with overall standards.
Alderman Elizabeth Moreau asked whether it would be prudent to include an audit of the school district’s finances with the city side, but was told that the Board only has the authority to allocate funding for an audit, but no authority to direct the BOSC otherwise.
Alderman Tony Sapienza inquired about a $9 million unassigned fund balance.
“Is that an actual pile of money sitting there? We may be able to spend that money,” Sapienza said. He was told that the funds, mostly cash, are considered the city’s current available resources, but that a city like Manchester should have between 5-10 percent working capital in an unassigned fund balance. The $9 million represents a little less than 7 percent of the city’s overall expenditures.
Capital Improvements at SNHU Arena
The Board voted in favor of $1,130,000 in capital improvement funding for maintenance of to the SNHU Arena, with a bond resolution referred to the finance committee. Board members discussed the city’s obligation as building owner to make sure the arena’s chiller system is in working order.
No conduct hearing for Levasseur
A request made by a city teacher that the board refer Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur to the conduct board based on a social media post that resulted in her being reprimanded was accepted and filed. In her complaint, Weston Elementary teacher Janet Beauparlant said she believed Levasseur used his influence in some way to report her March 10 Facebook post, picturing a tattered school book.
During the meeting Levasseur said he was the victim of “lies” and criticized a story on Manchester Ink Link for not seeking a direct comment from him prior to publication.
Central to Beauparlant’s reprimand was the issue of whether her post was a possible violation of FERPA, a federal law that protects the privacy of a student’s educational record. Her post included the inside cover of a math book, where students write their names.
Levasseur, an attorney, said during the meeting that he “doesn’t even know what those letters stand for,” and maintained that he took issue with the fact that the city has spent several million dollars on books, so tattered books shouldn’t be in circulation.
However, what he posted on Beauparlant’s social media page told a different story. He wrote that he was going to show the post to the superintendent himself, and that an employee working for a private company would lose their job over such a post, which she said caused her concern over her own job. Levasseur also posted several disparaging remarks about Beauparlant’s affiliation with the teachers union and politicized the book issue. He then shared the post on his own Facebook page. Beauparlant asserted that if she faced disciplinary action for the post, so should Levasseur, for sharing it.
Alderman Dan O’Neil said that in conversation with Levasseur prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Levasseur acknowledged that he knew who reported the post to the school administration, but he did not disclose that information during the meeting.
In other business, the mayor presented an opportunity for the city to apply for a federal Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD Transportation Discretionary Grant, which could be used to add a second egress to South Commercial Street and improve traffic challenges in the South Elm Street area. Grant awards for urban communities can be up to $25 million, fully funded, Craig said.
The application cost to the city would be about $100,000, however Craig said that Peter Flotz, developer for the Southern NH University parking garage project, has offered to donate $50,000 toward the application fee.
The board voted in favor of accepting the $50,000 from Flotz and waiving the usual procurement requirement by contracting with CLD | Fuss & O’Neill engineering firm to help fast-track the competitive grant application in order to meet the July 15 deadline.
The Mayor’s Memo on the BUILD Grant is below: