The Soapbox: Manchester’s aldermen about to give away $6M in tax relief to ineligible project

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Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.

According to a recent estimate by the Manchester Assessors Office, the city will be losing approximately $6,000,000 total in property tax revenue over the next five years due to tax relief granted to the developer of the apartment project on W. Auburn Street, across from the downtown Market Basket.

At a public hearing on February 15, 2022 the Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA) approved Community Revitalization Tax Relief Incentives to support this project, although it does not meet the eligibility requirements of the governing statute, NH RSA 79-E. This state law allows a municipality to issue property tax relief for certain types of projects, but only if the specified criteria are met. In this case the criteria were not met. 

The BMA voted “yes” on two applications for tax relief for the project from the applicant, JSIP Manchester QOZB, LLC. One was for the property at 21 West Auburn Street and the other for the property at 24 Depot Street. Both of these buildings were demolished to make way for the construction project. Here’s how the vote went, according to the minutes of the meeting:  “Alderman Long moved to approve the two Community Revitalization Tax Relief Incentive applications. Alderman Trisciani duly seconded the motion. Mayor Craig called for a vote. Alderman E. Sapienza requested a roll call vote. Aldermen Barry, Gamache, George-Kelly, Cavanaugh, Stewart, Long, Fajardo, Trisciani, and Heath voted yea. Aldermen E. Sapienza, Sharonov, and T. Sapienza voted nay. The motion carried.”

So, why was this project ineligible for this tax relief? The city’s current application form for requesting tax relief under NH RSA 79-E includes this statement, derived from the wording of the statute: “Projects involving demolishing structures with significant historical, cultural, or architectural value are not eligible for RSA 79-E incentives.” This statement, though not included on the application form used in February 2022, was as true then as it is now, but the BMA ignored this fact. 

NH RSA 79-E requires that the Manchester Heritage Commission make the determination of whether or not a property has the characteristics mentioned. In regard to this apartment project, the Commission determined that, “While the architectural value of 21 W. Auburn Street is questionable, the historical and cultural value is not.” Furthermore, the Commission emphasized that the building at 24 Depot Street, constructed in 1914 by the John B. Varick Hardware Company, had “significant historical, cultural, and architectural value.” The Commission based its decision on abundant information available from surveys and historical documentation. 

As the Commission wrote in its letter to the BMA of January 26, 2022, “The Agricultural Store located at 24 Depot was one of the more aesthetically pleasing [of the Varick structures] with its large storefront windows and detailing. This building was the nexus for the creation of the Gaslight District, and the guidelines associated with the overarching Arena Overlay Design Guidelines.” 

The aldermen were specifically informed of the requirements for eligibility for tax relief under NH RSA 79-E. At the February 15, 2022 hearing, both Robert J. Gagne, the City’s Chairman Assessor, and City Solicitor Emily Rice outlined the eligibility details, and the Aldermen could have reviewed the actual statute at any time before and during the meeting. At the hearing both I, as a member of the public (who was then serving on the Manchester Heritage Commission), and a local board member of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance went over the same information, and urged the BMA to adhere to the law. 

Having been informed of the eligibility requirements, it can reasonably be concluded that the Aldermen who voted “yes” on granting tax relief to this project effectively violated their oath of office which requires that they fulfill their responsibilities in accordance with the statutes, rules, and regulations of the State of New Hampshire. 

The vote to grant tax relief to this project was wrong on several levels, not the least of which is that it made a mockery of what should have been a scrupulous legal process. This is what the public expects and deserves.  

Will anyone on our next Board of Mayor and Aldermen do anything to rectify this situation? Or, will the new BMA simply conclude, “Oh well, the previous BMA did this, and I’m not responsible.” That is not satisfactory, especially as some of the aldermen who voted “yes” to granting the tax relief will be serving new terms on the next BMA. 

Who will have the courage to acknowledge that the vote taken on February 15, 2022, was improper, and then do whatever needs to be done to make things right? It does seem that the first step needs to be for the BMA to rescind this vote.

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Aurore Eaton is a freelance writer and the former Executive Director of the Manchester Historic Association. She served on the Manchester Heritage Commission from March 2017 to June 2023.

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