Manchester City Government: A Model for America? (Part II)

II. Making it Work for Manchester
The second installment of a two-part interview series about bipartisanship in Manchester city government. Read Part I here.

Success began almost as soon as Mayor Gatsas moved into City Hall, with an annual budget process of almost unprecedented ease, “I said we’d have a budget by April, that’s normally two months before it ever happens. We had a budget by sometime around April 12,” said Gatsas. Both the Mayor and the Aldermen credit this to changes he made to the process. Instead of following the tradition of presenting a “Mayor’s budget” to the Aldermen and then forcing them to come up with a counter-budget, Gatsas worked with the Aldermen to craft a “City budget” signed by the Mayor and 11 out of 14 Aldermen. It passed both the Board of Aldermen and the School Board in 14-0 votes.

After passing the budget, Team Manchester kept the momentum going by tackling a real estate problem that had been plaguing the city for a decade: the city-owned industrial development at Hackett Hill. The city didn’t organize to sell it off before the real estate bubble burst, and seeing the millions of dollars it was costing year after year, Gatsas decided enough was enough upon taking office. He worked with the Alderman to come to a unanimous agreement regarding the terms of the sale, and turned a financial drain into a revenue source that brought businesses to the city.

While both the Mayor and the Aldermen emphasize their ability to agree to disagree, some important successes have come through compromise. Alderman Craig proposed a change to the city’s recycling program, and by doing her homework and proving that the numbers added up, she recruited a Republican Mayor to what may traditionally be seen as a Democratic cause. “I was working with the Mayor,” she said, “He was very involved, and we were able to move single-stream recycling forward, and it’s going to save us money and is better for the community and the environment.”

No matter how they are getting there, it’s hard to dispute that Manchester is doing something right. In the midst of a three-year recession, the city is a bright spot in New Hampshire’s economy. Gatsas claims to be cutting ribbons on the opening of various small businesses on a weekly basis, and notes that several large firms will be opening shortly, bringing nearly 1,000 new jobs to the area. “Things are happening in the city, there’s an electricity that, if you talked to business owners, is much different that what they’ve seen in an awful long time, and it’s a very exciting place to be,” he says with pride, “I think it all comes down to a positive atmosphere that people see in City Hall.”

“I don’t have a problem with authorship,” says Gatsas, alluding to his teamwork-based approach to problem solving, “If we can get the deal done, it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. We should all get the credit, and let’s get it done.”

The upcoming budget process increasingly looms over the positive atmosphere in City Hall. Both Mayor and Aldermen acknowledge that layoffs may be on the table, and the key role being played by the public employees union seems designed to stir up partisan controversy. A key component of Gatsas’ plan for arriving at a flat-funded budget is to ask the unions to increase public employees’ contribution to their health care plan, but as union contracts are not up for renewal, this requires the unions to voluntarily come to the table. “There’s got to be an equal medium between what employees are willing to absorb, what taxpayers are willing to absorb, what services we want to continue in this city, and what we want to reduce,” said Gatsas, outlining his pragmatic approach.

Alderman Lopez agreed with Gatsas that his plan was one of the only feasible ways to avoid layoffs, but seemed doubtful of its success, “I have no idea whether they [the unions] will concede to anything or not,” he said, “Unions are very unlikely to open up their contract for anything…unions don’t give things away once they have them.” Alderman Craig agreed, “It will be very difficult to make a responsible budget without help or compromises from the unions.”

Both Aldermen acknowledged that school funding is a hot-button issue that tends to emphasize the differences between Republicans and Democrats. Particularly Craig, with her background on the School Board, noted that their definition of a “responsible” budget might differ from the Mayor’s when it involves the schools. Both parties hope that $30 million in additional state school funding due to Manchester this year will arrive, but are certainly not counting on it, as the state has what Gatsas calls “a billion dollar problem,” referring to the state budget shortfall.

Mayor and Aldermen all acknowledged that there will be challenges going forward and tough decisions to make, but “We’re at least approaching it in a way that is in inclusive and transparent,” says Alderman Craig, “We will be okay as long as our voices are standing for Manchester; if we get into the political arena, we all lose.”

Amelia Chassé also contributed to this report

Author: Shawn Millerick

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