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Temps running hot as county budget talks near end

LACONIA — Tempers flared and accusations flew around the meeting room as the Belknap County Convention met Tuesday evening for its second straight day of deliberations on the proposed 2014 county budget.
One of the hotly disputed issues dealt with administrative pay and an effort by County Convention Chairman Colette Worsman to adjust line items in the budget to reflect the salary of County Administrator Debra Shackett, who gets $106,720 a year and whose salary is split 70/30 between the Administration and Nursing Home budgets..
Shackett questioned the numbers Worsman was using and asked how she was calculating them and charged that Worsman was presenting the wrong information to the convention in an attempt to cut her pay.
Worsman denied that she was trying to cut Shackett's pay, but said she was basing her calculations on the $86,720 listed in last year's budget when the convention's Republican majority voted to cut the administrator's pay by $20,000. The ounty commissioners later restored the pay cut by transferring funds from other accounts.
Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) pointed out that the convention has no control over setting salaries, saying ''we don't have the right to monkey with that.''
Other Democrats weighed in, with Rep. Lisa DiMartino (D-Gilford) asking Worsman why she was attempting to cut Shackett's pay, asking ''do you think she is overpaid?'' and Rep. Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton) asking ''why are we going through every line and punishing people who don't deserve it?''

Worsman made no reply.
County Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) stated emphatically that the convention does not have the authority to set salaries and said that the commissioners would continue to pay Shackett the salary they had agreed on.
It was the third attempt Worsman has made to cut Shackett's pay. In 2012 she attempted to cut the administrator's pay to $89,164, the same amount as County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen makes, but that motion failed on a 11-7 vote.
County Convention Clerk Jane Cormier (R-Alton) defended Worsman, saying that ''there's no way to get to the bottom line unless we do separate salaries'' prompting Huot to say that, while the administrative salaries being apportioned between departments does make for difficult accounting, that ''it doesn't make any sense at all'' to follow the procedure Worsman was using.
Later in the discussion Shackett told Worsman that she was indeed, trying to cut her salary and the audience, composed largely of county employees, broke out in applause.
Commissioners and the convention members also clashed over the legal services line item in the administrative budget. Commissioners had asked for $40,000 and that sum had been reduced to $30,000 by the convention's subcommittee. Worsman, with support of Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia,) moved to reduce that number to $10,000, with Tilton maintaining that the actual expenditures for 2013 were less than $10,000.
That touched off a discussion of the legal action that the convention has voted to take against the commissioners in their year-long dispute over line item budget authority. No legal action has yet been filed and when Rep. Ian Raymond (D-Sanbornton) asked for an update on the suit, Rep. Worsman said she wasn't prepared at this time to talk about in a public session.
Raymond said that the county has already spent $7,554 defending itself against the potential pending lawsuit.
When Worsman made the motion to reduce the legal services line to $10,000 Rep. DiMartino said that with a possible lawsuit pending ''that would be foolish'' but Tilton said that the commissioners had chosen to use funds from the contingency line to pay for legal bills rather than coming to the county's Executive Committee to to seek a transfer, so it was appropriate to hold that line to $10,000.
Commissioners pointed out that transfer requests which had been made were denied by the committee, which is why the contingency line was used.
The motion to reduce the legal services line to $10,000 passed by a 10-7 vote.
Other cuts which the convention is considering in its proposed ''working budget'' total up to $732,855 from the $26.57 million budget proposed by County Commissioners.
County Commissioner Steve Nedeau (R-Meredith) said that the cuts under consideration — which include a 1.6 percent cost of living pay increase as well as 3 percent salary-scale "step' increases for elegible employees, as well as reductions in health insurance, longevity and retirement benefits — will have a devastating affect on the morale of county employees and increase turnover.
''We're going to suffer and people won't want to come here to work.'' said Nedeau.
The convention will meet next Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the Belknap County complex to finalize the 2014 budget.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 11:59

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Sled dogs will start running this morning

LACONIA — Jen Lyman of the Lakes Region Sled Dog Club said she expects the Laconia Classic to begin as scheduled at 10 a.m. this morning.

She said the club will likely use about 20 snowmobiles to pack down the 15-mile course and then bring a groomer in from the Belknap Snowmobile Club.

"It'll be slow going tomorrow but Saturday and Sunday will be perfect," she predicted.

Lyman said that depending on when it stops snowing today and whether or not the area gets any sleet will be the final determinant of how the trails are packed and what time today's race will begin.

The start/finish line is in the open field just north of the intersection of Old North Main Street and Parade Road, directly across the road from the entrance to the old State School property.

The six-dog race is scheduled to begin today at 10 a.m. with the three-dog race at noon and the unlimited race at 1:30 p.m.

Should the trail require some additional packing or if there are white-out conditions this morning, Lyman said the race could be delayed a half-hour or so.

She was optimistic that the bulk of current snow storm would be finished by tomorrow morning and that the trails would be ready.

On Saturday, the six-dog race would begin at 9:30 a.m., the three-dog race will begin at noon, and the second leg of the unlimited race will begin at 1 p.m.

Sunday's six-dog race begins a 9:30 a.m., the three-dog race starts at noon, a special one-dog race for juniors begins at 12:30 and the final run of the unlimited race is at 1:30 to 1:45 p.m.

Governor Maggie Hassan is expected to participate in the festivities leading up to the start of Sunday's unlimited-class race.

She said so far there are 35 entries but with yesterday's snow she is hoping for more.


Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 11:53

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Massive lower Liberty Hill cleanup project will start next month

GILFORD — A decade after toxic coal tar was first discovered beneath house lots off Lower Liberty Hill Road, work to remove it is slated to begin next month.

Speaking to a public meeting last night Jim Ash of GEI Consultants, Inc., who has overseen the remediation of the site for a since the contamination was reported, said the project will proceed in two phases over the next two construction seasons. Altogether 93,000 cubic yards of soil, of which between 40,000 and 45,000 are expected to be contaminated and require treatment, will be excavated.

In the 1950s the coal tar, a by-product from a manufactured gas plant in Laconia, was dumped in a sand and gravel pit on the south side of lower Liberty Hill Road, which was subsequently reclaimed and divided into house lots. However, it was only discovered by KeySpan, the corporate successor to the original gas company which was itself acquired by National Grid in 2007, in the course of litigation in 2004. Of the four house lots — 69, 77, 83 and 87 — directly affected by the old dump, National Grid has acquired and demolished three in anticipation of excavating the site and dealing with the contaminated soils.

Ash estimated that 28,000 cubic yards would be removed and 27,000 cubic yards returned in 2,800 truckloads in the first phase and 12,000 cubic yards removed and 27,000 returned in 1,200 truckloads in the second phase. Altogether 2,000 truckloads of contaminated soil will be hauled from the site and an equal number carrying clean soil will return. A cubic yard of soil weighs approximately 1.33 tons.

Preparations will begin in March, weather permitting, Ash said. The site will be fenced and the vegetation cleared. A roadway and wash facility for the trucks will be built, together with a water treatment system. All groundwater removed from the soil before it is transported will be treated to standards set by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Air, noise and vibration monitoring systems will be erected. He expected these preparations would be complete within five to six weeks.

Ash noted that the thresholds for air pollution as well as noise and vibration levels at the perimeter of the site are "very conservative" and will be monitored around the clock. If the thresholds are breached, the contractor will be directed to change or suspend operations until specified levels are restored.

Throughout the course of the project Liberty Utilities will post a weekly update on its website — www.lowerlibertyhillsite.com. The company will also maintain a hotline — 603-216-3600 — and respond to questions and comments from the public within one business day.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 02:11

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2-1 selectboard majority adds some teeth to Gilford's ban on consumer fireworks

GILFORD — Selectmen voted last night by a two-to-one margin to maintain the town's current ban on fireworks and to add some teeth to the ban that imposes fines for those who violate it.

The fines are $100 for the first offense, $250 for the second offense, and $500 for the third and any subsequent offenses.

Selectmen John O'Brien and Kevin Hayes voted for the ban while Selectman Gus Benevides voted against it.

The vote came after two attendees at last night's public hearing spoke — Walt Stockwell of Wesley Woods, who said he supported the ban because it was a public safety and noise issue and Matt Shea of Altas Fireworks of Belmont, who spoke against a ban.

Shea said all consumer-grade fireworks sold in New Hampshire are inspected and designed to be used by people who are using them for their own purposes on their own property.

He said his research showed Gilford's ban came in 1988 when consumer grade fireworks were still illegal in the state. When New Hampshire adopted its commercial fireworks laws some towns like Gilford continued to ban them.

Shea also said his primary concern with Gilford's ordinance was that fireworks can be shot off by professionals but not consumers.

Hayes also read a letter into the record from a local woman who said she couldn't be at the public hearing but was for the ban because common sense and beer don't go together — echoing a statement made a few weeks ago by O'Brien during a previous discussion about fireworks.

She also said that despite the ban, when residents call the police with fireworks complaints, the police say they're coming but often don't.

O'Brien has been the leading voice for the fireworks ban over the past few years. After last night's public hearing he said he considers it a public safety issue and that the first role of selectmen is to enact ordinances that keep the general public safe.

He said no place in Gilford is free of dried leaves and he supports the ban because fireworks are also a fire hazard — especially during the summer.

O'Brien said he didn't expect the police to be driving around looking for fireworks violators but said wants to see them respond when they are called for complaints.

Benevides has long been opposed to a fireworks ban in Gilford. Reading from a prepared statement, he said that the town is seeking to ban something that is legal to possess and use in the state of New Hampshire.

He said he feared expensive legal challenges to the ban once someone is fined and dreads the day when the town is in court because someone had a sparkler.

Benevides said he feared the impact on what he said was an already over-burdened police department and said he wanted their resources used on drugs, rapes, drunk drivers, domestic violence and other criminal activity.

He also wanted to know how the police were going to enforce the rules for island residents, calling the fireworks ban a "law for some but not others."

"Our population swells (in the summer) and we can't expect them to know about this ban," Benevides said. "Residents and guests are our bread and butter."

He said he was also concerned that summer residents have had no opportunity to weigh in on the newest version of the ban. "This will not be received well," he said.

Going to his personal philosophy, he said government, in this case the Board of Selectmen, should meet the needs of residents and that people should take more personal responsibility and not need the government to tell them what to do — especially with legally-possessed item like commercial fireworks.

He said he has never gotten a call from constituents complaining about fireworks, has never gotten any letters or e-mails, and that people have not been "forming lines" at selectmen meeting to get them banned.

"Banning legal items is a dangerous path," he concluded.

As an alternative, he suggested banning them after a certain hour or placing the matter before the voters at an annual town meeting.

"Wow" said O'Brien, before saying Benevides sounded like a lobbyist for some fireworks manufacturer.

He said if faced with a legal challenge he would simply hold up a picture of a young girl who was burned over much of her body when a sparkler she was holding ignited the clothes she was wearing.

"It's strange to allow something so dangerous," he said.

Hayes called for the vote latest ban was enacted.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 February 2014 02:02

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