Published Date Written by Michael KitchCONCORD — A bill aimed at resetting the clock on the sale of the former Laconia State School property faces an uncertain future following a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee yesterday, when Laconia City Councilor Matt Lahey (Ward 2) expressed reservations about the proposed legislation.
Senate Bill 19, sponsored by Senator Jim Rausch (R-Derry), would repeal the rider attached to the 2012-2013 state budget prescribing a process for selling the property and, by implication, apply the normal procedure set forth by statute to the disposition of the site.
That process begins with a review by the Council on Resources and Development (CORD), consisting of representatives of state agencies, which advises the Long Range Capital Planning and Utilization Committee, a panel dominated by legislators but including officials of the executive branch. On finding the property is "no longer needed by the state," the committee presents a recommendation to the Governor and Executive Council, which must approve its sale. The statute stipulates that real estate must first be offered to the municipality or county where it is located and sold for not less than its "current market value."
Instead, the Legislature, at the initiative of the Senate, directed the Department of Administrative Services (DAS) to offer the property to the city for $10-million and, if the city declined, to offer it to Belknap County at "fair market value." If neither the city nor the county accepted the offer, the department was instructed to sell the property on the open market and was given $250,000 to hire a consultant and broker to further the transaction. Any sale would be subject to the approval of the governor and Executive Council.
The city declined the offer of $10-million, but when the state appriased the property at $2.16-million submitted a counter-offer to buy it at that price. The counter-offer was refused, the county said it didn't want the property and the DAS proceeded as directed. The department has selected a broker and next month will present a contract to the governor and Executive Council for approval.
Rausch, who has said that the state should not sell the property, told the committee that "the process should not have been circumvented." Noting that that the property has "significant value," he explained that he intended to ensure the issue undergoes a thorough review "whether or not the property is sold."
Rep. Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett), the House Minority Leader serving his 17th term, echoed Rausch, suggesting that the process by which the property was first offered for sale was less than transparent. Like Rausch, he has misgivings about the selling the property and after the hearing remarked that "some of us think this is about Laconia getting it for less than it's worth."
Lahey reminded the committee that from 2009 until 2011 he chaired a commission convened by the Legislature to weigh the future of the property. He said that one of its first tasks was to survey all state departments and agencies to determine if they had any use for all or part of the site. "There were no future uses," he said. He noted that in addition to the appraisal performed by the state, the City Council also commissioned an appraisal and stressed there was no significant discrepancy between the two.
Finally Lahey said that an environmental assessment of the property found numerous sources of contamination, especially in around the more than two dozen buildings on the site, which diminished the value of the property. He explained that the city, but not the state, would be eligible for federal assistance in addressing the contamination.
"Everything that would have been unearthed by the Long Range Capital Planning and Utilization Committee has already been accomplished," Lahey said, "and then some."
Senator Chuck Morse (R-Salem), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and principal architect of the move to sell the site, said that he prefers to follow the process to its conclusion rather than refer the issue to the Long Range Capital Planning and Utilization Committee, which he suspects would shelve the sale of the property. Morse has often described the site as "a money pit" and yesterday reminded Chandler "I'm not putting a dime into this property."
Morse appears to have the support not only of a majority of the committee, including Senator Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith), but also the president of the Senate, Peter Bragdon (R-Milford).