The winter that wasn’t - Gunstock had lowest attendance since 1980s

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On the path to spring, Laconia High School girls lacrosse players have started training with a run through Laconia Thursday afternoon.  (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)


LACONIA — "I'm not sure just what season we're in," remarked Chris Haddock of CBH Landscaping Contractors, as a winter that left his snow plows idle for days on end drew to a close and the spring calling for his shovels, rakes and hoes called early.
The impact of the mild winter fell heaviest on winter recreation.
"This year we had the lowest attendance since modern snowmaking began in the 1980s," said Greg Goddard, general manager of Gunstock Mountain Resort. "This was by far the worst season since then."
He estimated that gross sales slid by about 25 percent, with lift tickets, skiing lessons and equipment rentals representing the largest share of the decrease.
Goddard recalled that the season began slowly in December, when warm days overcame snowmaking to thin the skiers on the slopes during the holidays. January he called "sketchy," apart from "a great Martin Luther King Day weekend." February was "OK" and March "the worst I've ever seen." He said that "we made more snow this year than last" to support school groups, racing leagues and skiing lessons, which were paid for in advance. And he said that the resort will be open this weekend for "a last hurrah."
The El Nino, Goddard explained, left New England on the rainy side of storms from the west while fending Nor'easters off shore and out to sea. He said that in the winter of 2011-12, the last year with an El Nino, which spawned the same weather pattern, the resort closed even earlier than this year.
"The only joy in my life, except for my wife," Goddard continued, " is that with the lack of snow and the warm temperatures, construction of the mountain coaster is two weeks ahead of schedule."
The newest attraction at the resort, the mountain coaster will carry riders in carts running on rails up to 30 feet above the ground, relying solely on gravity for speed, 2,660 feet downhill, around two circles and through sharp curves, at speeds up to 25 mph. Originally projected to open in the middle of July, Goddard said that with the short winter and early spring he hopes that it will be up and running by the Fourth of July.
Snowmobilers fared even worse.
"We never even opened the trails," said Jon Bossey, president of the Belknap Snowmobilers Inc. "We did all the pre-season work, putting up signs and stakes and building bridges," he said. "Now we're taking it down and putting it in storage." He said that with the warm temperature neither the ground nor the lakes froze to provide a sound footing for snowmobilers.
Bossey said that because snowmobilers generally do not register their machines until it snows and only then join a club, membership shrank from 480 a year ago to just 249. He said that with frugal financial management and without outstanding debt, the club easily weathered the loss of members.
However, Bossey said that while some 49,000 snowmobiles were registered with the state last year, the number fell short of 20,000 this year. The proceeds from registrations, he explained, fund the state's share of the cost of maintaining and improving the trails in partnership with the snowmobile clubs. Bossey said he anticipates the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department may be compelled to place a two-year moratorium on grants-in-aid, which would be unprecedented.
Lisa Meeken, who manages the HK Powersports dealership in Laconia, said that with strong sales in the fall "we're not sitting on a ton of unsold inventory." But, with so few snowmobilers riding, work in the service department slowed. She said that in a bust season snowmobilers might wait two weeks for repairs, but this year there were several weeks when machines were being serviced on demand.
The slow winter, Meeken said, enabled the dealership to get a jump on the summer season.
"We're two months ahead showing ATVs, motorcycles and even jet skis. She suspected the real impact of the mild winter could appear in the fall when snowmobilers, wary of another slow start to winter, delay their purchases.
The sugaring season was accelerated and foreshortened by the mild winter. Nathan Smith of Smith Farm Stand in Gilford, who taps some 800 trees, said that while some of his counterparts began tapping in late January or early February, he waited until the last week of February and suspects he could have started earlier.
"You've heard of January thaws," he remarked. "This year we've had a lot of them."
Smith said that if trees are tapped too soon, they begin to heal before the sap stops running. On the other hand, he noted that with warm temperatures in March, trees have begun to bud.
"Even if the sap is running, the trees are so far along the taste of the syrup would be affected."
With the long winter a year ago, he produced most of his syrup in April, while this year his season will end before the end of March.
"Its damaging," he said, estimating his output has dropped by a third.
Chris Haddock of CBH Landscaping Contractors said that with such light snowfall there was little plowing for his employees, who he retains on the payroll throughout the year.
"We did a lot of training and education this winter," he remarked. "We do some every winter, but this year we took advantage of the time to take it to a new level."
Haddock said that most often the firm contracts with its clients, mostly commercial enterprises, to plow for a set price for the season, explaining that a long, cold stormy winter works to the advantage of the client while a short, mild, dry winter works to the advantage of the firm. "We find that it all balances out over a three or four year period," he said. Despite less plowing work and lower operating costs, Haddock said the company "took a hit," but much less than other firms that charge each time they plow. f
Meanwhile, Haddock said his crews were still doing landscaping work in December and have gotten an early start this spring. "It's been a little hit or miss," he said, "but we're taking advantage of the weather to do what we can, mostly cleaning up and edging some mulch beds."

School Board passes budget. Parents bemoan cuts

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A parent speaks against cutting the elementary band program in front of a standing room only crowd at last night’s Laconia School Board meeting, which was held at the high Sschool in anticipation of a larger-than-normal crowd. (Laconia Daily Sun Photo/Gail Ober)


LACONIA — After hearing voices of parents bemoaning the across-the-board cuts being made by the school board, mostly in regard to the elementary band program and the ski program, the board unanimously passed without discussion a $37,780,254 budget with $23,183,198 to be raised in taxes.
The $23,183,198 includes local tax revenue that is limited by the city tax cap, the amount the district gets from the statewide property tax and $6,052,278 in state adequacy aid.
The amount is $1,641,995 less than the school district needs to operate at the same levels in fiscal year 2016-2017 than it did this year, which necessitated the cuts.
Many of those at last night's meeting bemoaned the elimination of the elementary band program, which will now be offered as an after-school program. Others wanted to see the ski team continued and others feared that the reduction of six language teachers to five throughout the school district could negatively affect education.
Business Administrator Ed Emond said that music education and language arts will continue to be taught at all levels, but the way the programs are structured will be altered. He added that the current structure has been in place for about 15 years and harkens back to when there were 2,400 students in the district and now there are about 2,000. He said a retirement in each of those departments meant there wouldn't need to be any layoffs in those departments.
While it didn't get mentioned at last night's meeting, some of the parents who attended said after the meeting that they understood cuts had to be made but disagreed with some of the programs that were cut. When asked what they would do differently, they said they would eliminate the position of assistant superintendent and noted that Laconia is the only district in the area that has one.
At the end of this school year, Phil McCormack, who is a temporary superintendent, and Emond will retire. Assistant Superintendent Kirk Beitler will be taking over as the Gilford School District superintendent. The parents said this would have been the perfect year to restructure the very top of the pyramid.
The board also approved changes to Laconia education contract that would potentially ameliorate some teacher layoffs by allowing 10 teachers who qualify to retire at the end of this year.
Until yesterday, five teachers each year could retire at the end of the school year provided they gave notice to the administration. Those teachers with seniority are allowed to retire first. With 10 teachers being allowed to retire at the end of this year, the district can potentially reduce the number of teachers who have to be laid off and potentially hire newer teachers at a lower rate.
The LEA and the school board also agreed to continue to allow "bumping," or the practice that if any teacher is laid off, he or she can bump a teacher who holds an existing position. The changes allow that if a laid-off teacher wants to "bump," he or she must have one year of experience in subject area or position.
Teachers who will be laid off will be reinstated in the inverse order of being laid off, if at the time of the recall they are certified and qualified to teach the available position. Recall rights exist for two years and a laid-off teacher must maintain contact with the school district as to certifications.
A laid-off teacher must accept a recall within 10 days if one is offered and years of previous credit cannot be lost because of a layoff. A teacher who has been laid off is allowed to take other employment immediately.
The approved budget now moves to the City Council for its approval.

Jail workers contract would provide first raise in 4 years


LACONIA — Corrections officers at the Belknap County House of Corrections could see their first pay raise in four years when the Belknap County Delegation votes on a two-year contract with unionized employees there. The delegation will meet on Monday, April 4, at 6 p.m., at the Belknap County Complex for the vote.
All 21 members of the Belknap County Corrections Officers Union last week voted for the contract, which provides a 1.4 percent pay raise in each of the two years, as well as step increases, which could increase total compensation by 4.4 percent each year for eligible workers.
It also provided for health insurance changes, going from an HMO plan to a "site of service" plan. Belknap County Commission Chairman David DeVoy (R-Sanbornton) said that change will save the county $3,000 per employee, even though the county will pick up the entire cost of the health insurance premiums. Currently, employees pay 5 to 6.5 percent of the premiums for the HMO plan.
There is also an incentive bonus of $1,000 in the first year for employees who make the switch to the site-of-service plan, which provides for $1,000, $2,000 and $3,000 deductibles on single, two-person and family plans.

DeVoy said that the contract, if approved by the Belknap County Delegation, will save the county $64,000 in health insurance costs over the next two years.
The proposed contract is similar to the collective bargaining agreement between Teamsters Local 633 and the county, which was approved by a 10-5 vote by the County Delegation last August.
DeVoy said contract talks were being held this week with the new union representing the Belknap County Sheriff's Department. Last week, employees of the department voted unanimously to switch from the State Employees Association to the Teamsters Union.
County Commissioners will take formal action when they meet at 3:30 p.m. today to approve the contract with House of Corrections employees. Both DeVoy and fellow commissioner Hunter Taylor (R-Alton) are members of the county's negotiating team.