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September 20. 2014 9:58PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: It was a week of spice, bed bugs, abandoned buildings, gambling


 


HIRSCHMANN 

THE quote-of-the-week award goes to Ward 12 Alderman Keith Hirschmann. "There are a lot of scourges, a lot of things to worry about in the city," he told members of the Administration Committee on Tuesday.

True, and city officials took aim at several of these scourges last week: spice (a.k.a. synthetic pot), abandoned buildings, bed bugs and, at least in the view of Hirschmann, poker machines.

Hirschmann launched a crusade against the devices after it was revealed earlier in the summer that a West Side pizza shop that was the target of drug bust had apparently relied on the machines for revenue far more than fresh slices.

After meeting with police officials and the city clerk, Hirschmann drew up detailed amendments to the ordinance governing "amusement devices," which he presented to the committee on Tuesday.

The amendments had two main components. One would raise the current $2,000 annual permit fee by $500, with the additional revenue going to a special account to support the investigative work required to prove a poker machine is being used for gambling. The other would require criminal background checks for permit seekers.


CRAIG 

The machines, in case you haven't heard, generate about $240,000 annually for the city.

It's safe to say most of the aldermen haven't been too receptive to the several ideas put forward by Hirschmann, one of the board's two Republicans, since he rejoined the board this year. But his ordinance had a good hearing, even if the committee's chairman, Alderman Joyce Craig, was skeptical.


LUDWIG 

Echoing the sentiments of Alderman Ron Ludwig, she said any fee hikes should be dealt with as part of the budget process. And she noted that Nashua only charges $500 to license the machines.

And, as Police Chief David Mara pointed out, any additional money from the permit fees probably wouldn't be sufficient to reassign detectives to the gambling beat. "With undercover officers, there's a more vexing problem facing the city, and that's drugs," he said.

In addition, City Clerk Matt Normand noted that these aren't your father's video poker games.

"Back in the '90s, it was a sit-down single device that you might see in a casino," he said. "Now they've evolved. They have flat screens, they can be on the bar tops, and can have multiple games. This has really complicated the law enforcement."

In the end, the committee nixed increasing the fee by $500, but backed adding the criminal background check to the application process.

Still, Craig said that she didn't think this would "curtail bad behavior."


LONG 

Hirschmann took the vote as progress.

"All of this crime is interconnected," he said. "We can't just worry about spice ... It has to be a multi-pronged approach."

No free lunch

If the magnitude of the permit fee for poker machines is eyebrow raising, the same could be said for the paltriness of another fee mentioned in passing by Normand on Tuesday.


GATSAS 

You see, Margarita's Mexican Restaurant on Elm Street wanted to expand its outdoor seating area. "No mas" was the answer from the administration committee, which quickly concluded that the intersection with Concord Street was already pinched enough for pedestrians.

In response to a question from the committee, Normand disclosed that expanding the seating area wouldn't cost the restaurant any more money beyond the $50 a year for the permit to "encumber the sidewalk."

For the sake of comparison, Boston charges $500 to $1,200 a year for a restaurant to operate a "sidewalk cafe." Portland, Maine, charges $80 a year, plus $2 per square foot of the seating area.

Given the host of fee increase the aldermen have signed off on recently in their quest for new revenue - and the growing enthusiasm for al fresco dining in the city - it's surprising this one got overlooked.

There's always next year's budget process.

On the bugs

City officials are in the process of beefing up the ordinance concerning bed bugs and other pests, thanks to the efforts of Alderman Pat Long, who has been at the forefront of this particular scourge in the city and at the State House.

Long, who is also a state representative, was instrumental in getting a so-called bed bug law enacted, and he's now working on updating the city's insect and rodent ordinance to reflect that law.

One of the main changes is to make owners responsible for responding to reports of the insects promptly and thoroughly. The ordinance had a brief debut in committee last week, but Long requested it be tabled so he could make more changes.

Homelesss youth

Child and Family Services wants to hold a mass camp-out in downtown Manchester - and what's more surprising is the mayor supports the idea.

The "sleep out" would take place at Stanton Plaza in front of the Radisson on March 20 - not exactly peak camping season. The idea is to raise awareness and money to combat youth homelessness. In a letter to the mayor and aldermen, the director of the organization notes that similar events have been held in New York and Burlington, Vt. Of course, culturally speaking, those places aren't Manchester. And Mayor Ted Gatsas, as his actions around Bronstein Park and his opposition to a breakfast in the park program might indicate, isn't a fan of people hanging around parks at all hours.

But Gatsas told me he supports the event; the organization is going through the proper permitting process, and most importantly, it will raise awareness about the problem of homeless young people in the city, who, according to one recent report, number around 1,000.

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Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.


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