LACONIA — City Councilor Brenda Baer, who is running without an opponent for her fifth consecutive term in Ward 4, confirmed yesterday that her next term will be her last. "Absolutely, positively," she said, "unless they find a cure for old age. You can't go on forever." She had made an offhand remark to the same effect the night before at the Belknap Mill where she was among the handful at the mayoral debate.
Baer, who is 87, said that she has undergone four surgeries in the last three years and insists while "everything is fine" concedes "it take something out of you."
Baer's tenure on the City Council has taken her full circle, turning on her relationship with the School Board and its supporters as the city invested some $40 million in building a new middle school and making major improvements to the Huot Technical Center and Laconia High School.
After losing her first bid for City Council to incumbent Jim Cowan by just 22 votes in 2003, two years later Baer was among the six candidates running in opposition to the proposed property tax cap and in support of the public schools. The slate of candidates was endorsed by "Laconians for Sensible Government," which mounted a well financed advertising campaign on their behalf. With Cowan eliminated in the primary, Baer carried Ward 4 by 14 votes over conservative Mike Verhoeks.
Baer backed construction of the new middle school in 2006, but soon displayed her independence by casting the lone vote against the budget in 2007 when she failed to persuade her colleagues to provide adequate funding for public transportation for seniors. At the same time, in a show of solidarity, she was among the five councilors seeking re-election to file together before the cameras at City Hall.
Although all were re-elected, in 2008, when the School Board sought funding to rebuild the Huot Regional Technical Educaiton Center, the council split, with Baer joining the block of four who withheld funding for the project. When she ran for re-election in 2009 she met with opposition from the same forces that carried her to office four years before. Mike Seymour and Marge Kerns, both of whom had chaired the School Board, ran for mayor and city council in Ward 1 respectively while Mayor Matt Lahey stepped down to run for the council seat in Ward 2 and Jack Terrill challenged Baer in Ward 4.
Shortly after the incumbent councilors again filed for re-election en masse, Baer, in a letter to the local newspapers, warned against the move by the School Board to take over city government. "Once they get in," she wrote, "you will never balance the budget and the school's spending will continue to skyrocket and you will have a new high school whether you can afford it or not." She said that she retired her debt to her former allies with the construction of the middle school. On the eve of the election Baer hosted a "Celebration of Solidarity," excluding Kerns and Terrill from those invited. Lahey called her rally "an exclusionary and divisive sideshow" and endorsed Terrill.
Baer edged Terrill by six votes to win a third term and was the lone dissenter when the council ultimately authorized funding for the renovation and expansion of the Huot Center. When Terrill challenged her again in 2011, Baer stretched her margin of victory to 110 votes.
Last year, as the council wrapped the $16.8 million financing package for the high school project by approving a borrowing of $1 million, Mayor Seymour recognized Baer, who remarked "Scrooge is up." She recalled that the budget for the project had swelled from $10 million when the council first approved it to more than $16 million and said that she initially opposed it. However, when the district was offered an interest-free loan of $6.5 million, she voted to accept it on the understanding that the funds would be spent on the Huot Center and high school. But, she said that since some $3 million was being spent on the football field, she would vote against any further borrowing.
And last week, when the School District sought the council's approval to accept a second interest-free loan, this time of $1.28 million to install a sprinkler system and air handlers at the high school, Baer again balked. She said that there was enough money to address these and other life-safety issues, but the School Board and City Council chose to spend on the playing fields.
"I've evolved," Baer acknowledged, describing her time on the council as "a learning curve." Initially opposed to the tax cap, she declared "thank God it's been in place. It has kept us from spending beyond our means."
"I've always been for the schools and I'm still for the schools," she insisted. "But, basically it's the money thing that gets to me."
The next to oldest of 14 children, Baer was raised in the midst of the Great Depression in Springfield, Massachusetts, where she said her father practiced law and her mother "ran back and forth to the hospital." She recalled that her father bartered his legal services, representing clients in return for necessities. "You didn't have anything," she said. "But there was always plenty and what you didn't have, you didn't miss."
After graduating from high school at 16, Baer went through a succession of jobs before becoming a secretary at the Indian Motorcycle factory, where she worked for Fritzie Baer in sales and marketing. She married his son, Bob, whom she met after he returned from racing motorcycles in Florida. In the 1950s, Fritzie became the manager of what was then the Belknap Mountain Recreation Area and is now Gunstock.
"Bob went to work with his father and we moved to Laconia," Baer said. "I arrived on New Year's Eve, 1956, right on the stroke of midnight." All three of the Baers worked at Gunstock until they were let go when the resort underwent a major reorganization and restructuring in the 1960s. The Baers remained in Laconia, sending their four children through the public schools. Brenda spent 10 years at Lakes Region General Hospital and also worked at the Laconia Clinic and Franklin Regional Hospital before retiring. A three sport athlete in high school, Baer has been an avid golfer well into her 80s.
Baer said that "maybe with two years to think about it, somebody will step out and run for seat."