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For challenger Nielsen, a familiar post


October 09, 2009
CLAREMONT As one time Claremont mayor, James Nielsen IV feels he brings not just experience to the council, but also a sense of order.

Nielsen is no stranger to city politics. Having served on the council in multiple seats at different times, he most recently served in 2007 before stepping down in order to accommodate his son's employment with the Claremont Police Department; an ultimatum he conceded due to city charter rules that prohibit either from occurring simultaneously.

Two years removed, Nielsen is ready to throw his name back in the hat against incumbent Deborah Cutts on Nov. 3

"I'd like to see more focus during the meetings," he said two weeks ago in his office at the New Hampshire Federal Credit Union. "The charter says each councilor should only speak once per agenda item, and that after that they must seek council permission to be heard again there's too much banter going on."

A higher appreciation for process isn't the only thing on Nielsen's mind. With the talk of a proposed tax cap dominating city politics these days, he has a few ideas about how to provide some fiscal creativity.

"[City Manager] Guy [Santagate] came to me a few years ago to seek my opinion on what to do with the budget, because people were complaining about high property taxes," he said. "I suggested level funding, and he's done that at a 3 percent increase for new growth. But I'd like to see true level funding."

Nielsen said that although he knows such proposals will be countered with arguments about union contracts, health care for city employees, and retirement plans, he believes there's another way to bridge the gap.

"Our annual surplus fund runs around $200,000 to $300,000," he said. "I think we should use that money to cover some of those expenses. And if that's not going to cover it, management will know ahead of time and we can cut something else."

Which brings Nielsen to his next point:

"In my opinion, there's too much involvement [during the meetings] on the part of the city manager and the city solicitor [Jane Taylor]," he said. "He [Santagate] often interjects the council should stick to the agenda more and do what we need to do."

Nielsen stressed the importance of the mayor's role being independent from the manager's office, saying "the city manager's input is important, but I won't be in there every week."

He feels the city could save some money on the city manager's salary, too.

"When we hired him, the council made a decision to get the best they could afford," he said. "He didn't take health coverage, and he didn't take retirement or any annual increases. But the problem was, he began to play on that fact, and the bottom line is we're paying him, $97,000, with a $10,000 bonus? That's more than the governor makes. Should we have a city manager that makes more than the governor?"

And for Nielsen, it isn't just the city manager's salary that concerns him.

"We have nine department heads," he said. "If they're each making between $80,000 to $90,000 a year, that's close to a million dollars for administration alone."

I'd also like to see a council against bonding," he said. "Except for extreme circumstances."

Overall Nielsen thinks the council is in need of more "objective thinkers."

Nielsen, not one to mince words, freely admits he "may not be able to change the property taxes, but we have to show the effort. Even if taxes go up $100 a year, sure, some people can afford it. I can afford it, but there are plenty who can't."

Just because we have money set aside for something, doesn't mean we should spend it now," he added. "If administration can come to us with a plan and say 'yes, we need this and here's why, then fine. But we could do some shuffling."

As for the proposed tax cap, Nielsen said the current council "should have the discipline to stay below 2.5 percent [annual increase]. "

The proposed amendment, to be tied to the rate of inflation, could be overridden by a two thirds majority of the council on individual expenditures, which leaves Nielsen scratching his head a bit.

"Why?" he asked. "Why already include a mechanism for going over 2.5 percent?"

Penny Pitou
Martin Lord Osman
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