Councilors swap sharp opinions over $1.8M school borrowing

LACONIA — The City Council gave a first reading to the School District's request to authorize borrowing $1,828,000 to fund renovations at Laconia High School last night, but only after a sharp exchange between Councilors Brenda Baer (Ward 4), who alone dissented, and Henry Lipman (Ward 3), chairman of the council's Finance Committee.

Councilors Lipman, Matt Lahey (Ward 2) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) voted for the first reading of the resolution to authorize the borrowing. Councilors Ava Doyle (Ward 1)and Bob Hamel (Ward 5) were absent. A public hearing on the issue, followed by the second and final resolution to authorize the borrowing is scheduled for the next regular meeting of the council on November 12.

Two weeks ago, Baer was lone dissenter when the City Council gave the School District a green light to pursue a Qualified Zone Academy Bond (QZAB), a loan bearing no interest awarded by the federal government and administered by the New Hampshire Department of Education. She renewed her opposition when the resolution authorizing the borrowing reached the council again last night.

Baer objected to the first reading of the resolution, claiming there has been no public hearing or discussion by the council and no final vote would be taken until after the November 5 election. She said that the loan requires a 10 percent local match and questioned how the School District intends to draw $180,000 from the capital campaign, which funded the expansion of the Huot Regional Technical Educaiton Center and building of Bank of New Hampshire Stadium. Baer warned that the $78,261 in annual payments over 23 years to repay the borrowing would drive the municipal debt service beyond the $3.2 million limit keep overall property tax burden within the city's cap.

The School District, countered Lipman, "is not asking for one nickel from us." He reminded Baer that the School Board has undertaken to service the borrowing from its operating budget. Likewise, he stressed that funds will be spent addressing health and safety issues by installing a sprinkler system and air handlers as well as removing asbestos and radon gas.

Baer said that school officials have known about the life-safety concerns for some time, but chose to reconstruct the playing fields. "They didn't just pop up," she snapped. Furthermore, she suggested that if the School District could service the debt from its operating budget, then its budget must be inflated.

Lipman reminded Baer that the School District balanced its budget within the tax cap despite foregoing $500,000 in state aid. He repeated that the funds will be applied to life-safety issues. "This is the best way to do it for the taxpayers," he said. "You're suggesting we wait till we have to do it — a fire. This is an orderly way to do it."

Mayor Mike Seymour, visibly troubled by Baer's suggestions that QZAB may be matched or repaid at the city's expense, asked Ed Emond, business administrator of the School District, to explain how the loan would be serviced. Recalling that the School District received a QZAB of $6.5 million to fund the expansion of the Huot Center, construction of science laboratories and reconfiguration of the playing fields, he said that the loan was matched by the capital campaign. That fundraising effort, he said, provides sufficient resources in cash and in kind to match the second QZAB.

NOTE: What Captain Bill Clary told the City Council began as a search for a treadmill for the Police Department led to a wellness challenge and an award of $3,486.75 from the New Hampshire Interlocal Trust, which in partnership with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care provides health insurance to the police force. Meredith Roy, wellness coordinator for the trust, said that a six-month wellness challenge, with specific goals, was designed for the department. In presenting the check she described the officers performance as "outstanding." Roy said 80-percent of the employees participated, more than twice the average for work-sites, and 77 percent completed the challenge.