Published June 13 at 9:30 PM

The passing of Manchester’s budget:  A history of how we got here from there.

I am a veteran of many budget processes and battles in Manchester.  Having served as an administrative assistant to Mayor Raymond J. Wieczorek from January 6, 1992, to August 27, 1997 and as an Alderman at Large from January of 1998 to January of 2000, I’ve seen my fair share of budgets up close and personal; 8 of them to be exact.  Of those 8, I coordinated the development of 3 for Mayor Wieczorek and proposed 2 myself during my term as alderman at-Large.

I was around when Claremont Money fell from the sky and the city got $34 million from the state and spent $29 million, most of it on schools.  The city could have cut taxes by $8.25/thousand (25% at the time), but it ended up cutting them by only $1.49.  Personally, I believe that was one of the factors in Wieczorek’s defeat after a term that was historic not only for it’s length (only Josaphat T. Benoit had served longer), but also for its accomplishments.

At the time, Wieczorek said he’d always said he’d spend more on schools if he’d had it to spend.  The electorate didn’t buy it and out he went.  Despite all the good things he’d done, the people’d  decided that he’d changed under pressure and sent him packing.

I mention this piece of history for several reasons.  First, to counter the idea that Manchester’s schools have “historically been underfunded.”

For all the criticism that Wieczorek endured, his budgets never resulted in the layoff of a teacher.  His budgets managed to significantly improve the heating and ventilation systems at all 3 high schools and renovate science labs throughout.  Where he drew the line was increasing spending to fund pay raises for teachers.  WE DIDN’T HAVE THE MONEY to do all we wanted, but we did what what we could do, including the building of a new middle school and significant additions to the existing junior high schools for their ill-fated conversion to middle schools.

Claremont Money resulted in a significant increase in school funding, but the teachers’ union, having labeled Wieczorek the Darth Vader of education, still backed his opponent in 1999, West High Principal Robert A. Baines.  Rest assured, they (education advocates, school employee unions) didn’t complain about school funding or contract talks during his mayoralty.

Education in Manchester “chronically underfunded”?  The record says “not so much.”  Even before Wieczorek’s reign as Mayor, which saw property values collapse after the FDIC came in and shut down the state’s 5 largest banks, all headquartered in Manchester, teachers and schools did pretty well under the previous administrations of Emile Beaulieu and Bob Shaw.

The seeds of an educational disaster were sewn during Baines’ term, however.  His decisions on how to handle tuition town school contracts and renovations of the schools enabled, if not encouraged Bedford to build its own high school.  $10 million in annual tuition revenue disappeared, but $10 million in overhead did not.  Ouch.

Add to that the debt service costs of an unnecessary $106 million renovation plan, now costing some $7.5 million in annual debt service, and one can begin to understand, at least in part, the path that leads to today.  Those payments continue until 2028, by the way.

Under Mayor Frank Guinta, who defeated Baines on the basis of ever increasing taxes and spending, the city started to experience the ills of a faltering economy and was in the throes of a personnel compensation system (Yager Decker) and school union contracts that had dramatically increased operating expenses.  Guinta’s solution was to propose citywide furloughs to get through what was hoped to be a temporary rough patch.

We know better now but, in the face of fierce union resistance, then Ward 2 Alderman Ted Gatsas, a more than likely candidate for mayor, came onto the scene with a plan to extend employee union contracts.  The plan would simply delay the implementation of that year’s scheduled 3% cost of living increase (COLA) until January 1, 2012 in exchange for a 3 year extension that provided COLAs of 1.5% on July 1, 2010 (for a total increase of 4.5% in 2010) 2.5% on July 1, 2011 and 2.5% this coming July 2012.  This was in addition to the “merit” and “step” increases which ANNUALLY increased the salaries of the vast majority of employees by 3% on the “city side” and more than 5% on the “school side” of the budget in addition to the COLAs.

Total cost to the city over the life of the extension?  Employees across the city and school district receiving INCREASES in pay of between 10% and 25% or more during an economy sinking fast with no sign of improvement on the horizon.

To it’s credit, the school district administration and, for a time, the school board resisted this “deal.”  They’d done the numbers and calculated that the $800,000 or so in first year savings, would not be worth the $11 million in increased salary costs the contract would add to their budget.   They worried that, with a worsening economy, they would not receive sufficient funds to support this contract.  They offered an alternative:  Save over $3 million by freezing all district wages that contract year in exchange for an extension that would restore the “step” raises and grant a 1.5% COLA.

The unions balked.  Refusing to accept the district’s offer or even present it to their membership for a vote, they chose to go with the Gatsas deal with MEA President Scott McGilvary proclaiming it “the better” of the two deals for the membership.  The aldermen voted to ratify that contract, but the school board held firm and rejected it, forcing the Manchester Education Association to consider concessions in an attempt to win over the necessary votes.  The jobs of 80 pink slipped teachers, principals and other personnel were pinned to the outcome.

It took until August of 2009, the month before the city’s primary election, but they finally broke the board’s resistance by agreeing to increase the amount of premium they paid for their health insurance by a mere one half of one percent with each pay raise they received; a total of 2%.  This less than a token concession was enough to get Ward 1 School Committeewoman Joyce Craig and Ward 2 School committeeman Bob O’Sullivan to change their vote.  The contract was ratified, the pink slips were recalled and joy filled the land.

Craig would go on to win her bid to become Ward 1’s alderman after just one term on the school board.  O’Sullivan was defeated by Ron Ludwig in a very close race for alderman in Ward 2.  Many, including yours truly, believe his attempt to curry favor with the teachers’ union by changing his vote backfired, angering conservatives in the ward.

It wasn’t long before the contract math became problematic for the city.  Now mayor, Ted Gatsas immediately set the wheels of the budget process in motion.  With a decline in the city’s revenues and tax base taking hold, alarm began to set in.  Hiring freezes were put in place, vacancies went unfilled, operating budgets were cut, but personnel costs were pushing relentlessly higher.

Serious budget reductions were avoided in Gatsas’ first year, but not the second.  The pressure created by escalating personnel costs were too much and Gatsas began to look for contract concessions to save positions in the city budget.  Up first:  The firefighters.  13 of them were laid off when talks broke down over restructuring of the city’s health insurance benefits.  Attempts to save their positions by increasing spending or accepting Ward 4 Alderman Jim Roy’s proposed reorganization of the department were rebuffed by the board.  It had been more than 80 years since firemen were laid off in Manchester, but they were and it sent shockwaves through the system.

Gatsas continued to pursue concessions with the city’s unions, having warned in his March 2011 Budget Address, that the city would face increased salary and benefit costs of approximately $20 million for the 2012 budget.  Still, the unions were disinclined to come to the table.

2011 was an election year and Manchester voters spoke loudly and clearly reelecting in Ted Gatsas and Jim Roy by resounding margins despite ferocious opposition from the firefighters’ union.  Manchester voters didn’t buy that they, or any of the other aldermen who supported the budget, were “anti-public safety.”

Manchester’s voters also adopted the spending/tax/revenue cap by a healthy margin, despite the amendment’s wording, which was both copious and complex.  Usually, voters reject something they don’t have time to read and/or can’t understand.  Not this time.  They knew the ballot question was about adopting a “tax cap” and they wanted it.  Battered by the economy and angered by the refusal of the unions to cooperate with the city to ease the situation, they came to the polls and said their piece.

“Pro School” forces tried to derail Gatsas’ reelection, too.  Angered by a budget that saw 200 paraprofessionals threatened with layoffs because the school board refused to authorize any teacher layoffs, proponents of higher school spending mobilized.  The positions were ultimately saved by the use of “one time funds,” from various federal and grant sources.  And, the school district tapped over $3 million from its “expendable trust” funds to further boost spending.  (That number has now grown to $4.3 million because of higher than expected health insurance claims.)

The efforts of the “pro school” crowd largely met with electoral failure and the election of seven freshmen members reshaped the board.  With increasing costs from the union contracts and the evaporation of “one time money,” (in 2010 they received $10 million in federal stimulus money which hid the problems, in 2011 they received $1.8 million which uncovered it, in 2012 it was all gone and they had to deal with it.)  they faced an 8% increase in spending just to maintain the status quo.  That wasn’t going to happen under any circumstance, especially now that the tax cap prohibited it, unless overridden.

Following the election, Gatsas began to assemble the 2012 budget and renewed his efforts to persuade employee unions to reopen their contracts, renegotiate their health insurance benefits and extend the contracts for another two years.

Already down more than 20 positions due to budget trouble, facing the layoff of 14 more officers, and having learned from the firemen that the mayor and aldermen would lay them off, the police unions were the first to the table and agreed to a restructuring of the city’s health insurance benefits.  The would get to keep their scheduled 2.5% COLA and all “step” increases, plus additional paid vacation time and increases in their extra detail pay in exchange.  More importantly, they were told that the department would receive funding to hire another seven officers.

The ice was broken and virtually all other employee groups would take the city’s contract extension offer, modified for their particular circumstance.  The changes to the health insurance benefits were non-negotiable.  Positions would be retained and, in some cases, added to.  Now, instead of having to layoff of up to 90 employees, the city was able to retain all current employees.

Unfortunately, Manchester’s teachers rejected the extension deal negotiated between MEA President Ben Dick and Mayor Gatsas by a 3 to 1 margin.  It wasn’t even close, despite the fact that over 143 teachers, 10 principles and 18 support staff had been pink slipped.  There was little that could be done under the city’s newly imposed budget cap and, absent concessions, the political will to override that cap was non-existent.  Manchester’s principals would follow suit as would the union representing the paraprofessional educators.

This history brings us to the budget battles that raged for months over school funding and the dramatic votes that took place last night.  It certainly isn’t a “complete” history, but it is the basic outline of the events that bring us to today.