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Debate of 'reasonable cost' spices up annual Meredith Town Meeting

MEREDITH — With little debate and by wide margins, fewer than 100 residents at Town Meeting on Thursday evening endorsed the operating budget and a half-dozen warrant articles recommended by the Board of Selectmen, along with a petitioned article to put $5,000 toward the cost of celebrating the town's 250th anniversary in 2018.

Nate Torr, who chairs the Selectboard, explained that the $12,932,815 operating budget will sustain the current level of municipal services, which represent a reduction from 2008, the year the board has applied as its benchmark for the amount to be raised by property taxes. The increase in the budget of $266,166, or 2.3 percent, consists of expenditures for capital equipment and highway maintenance as well as topping up expendable trust funds.

The budget includes 1.25 percent wage adjustment for all town employees and a 2.5 percent merit raise for eligible employees. There are no new positions. Nor have any positions been reclassified. Vacancies arising from retirements and resignations will not be filled automatically.

"We're at a point where, if we reduced anymore, we'd really being going backwards," Torr said.

Voters approved six warrant articles that together added $964,859 to the budget. However, two of these articles drew from reserves and funds already established and a third was supplemented by a grant. These monies represent $382,000 of revenue that offsets the amount that would otherwise be raised by property taxes to fund these appropriations.

The total appropriation, including the warrant articles, is $13,902,674. Estimated revenues of $4,858,651 are supplemented by $1 million drawn from the undesignated fund balance, leaving $7,969,974. Adding $75,000 for overlay and $224,750 for war service credits , the amount to be raised by property taxes is $8,343,773, an increase of $408,576, or 5.1-percen, which is projected to add 25 cents to the town tax rate of $4.55.

The Selectboard recommended applying $250,000 from a reserve to match state highway funding to finance immediate improvements to town roads, leaving the reserve with a balance of $187,154. Likewise, the selectmen proposed that $62,000 for cable television franchise fees and replacing equipment be taken from the cable franchise fee special revenue fund, established in 1999, which will be left with a balance $467,755. Finally, an appropriation of $177,859 restore the chimney, replace the gutters and repoint the bricks on the Meredith Public Library will be offset by a $70,000 grant from the New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Program.

Voters approved a recommendation to add $200,000 to the expendable trust fund for the replacement of vehicles belonging to the Fire Department. The Capital Improvement Program (CIP) Committee proposed accelerating the purchase a heavy rescue vehicle from 2015 to 2014 at a cost of $550,000. The fund has a balance of $364,431 and another $200,000 would enable the town to negotiate a favorable price and avoid borrowing costs by paying cash. The vehicle would replace the 1986 rescue van and Engine 4, dating from 1983, would be retired but not replaced.

Voters also agreed to add $175,000 to the expendable trust fund for replacing vehicles and equipment at the Department of Public Works (DPW). This year the selectmen included the purchase of a dump truck and chipper, with an aggregate cost of $245,000, in their budget and anticipated that other equipment will require replacement in 2015. The CIP Committee noted that without adding to the expendable trust fund, which has a balance of $370,603, future equipment and vehicle purchases could be deferred.

An article to spend $100,000 for a study of the feasibility of constructing a new facility for the DPW on the site of the Highway Building prompted the lone debate of the meeting. Steve Merrill offered an amendment directing the selectmen "to seek design alternatives that meet the needs of the DPW at the lowest reasonable cost to the taxpayers." He acknowledged that a new facility is necessary and presumed that one would be built, explaining only that he sought to ensure that the project was undertaken at a "reasonable cost."

Bob Flanders, a former selectmen who served when the community center, police station and fire station were built, called the amendment "a slap in the face to the people who have worked in the past." He said that all three projects were completed under budget, lauded the design committees for each and insisted "this town has no history of wasting money."

Dave Sticht asked who was planning the project. When Town Manager Phil Warren replied that there was a working group of himself, Mike Faller of the DPW, Dan Leonard of the Water and Sewer Department and Selectman Peter Brothers, Sticht likened it to "inmates telling how to design a prison."

Ken Colburn of the Energy Committee explained that construction costs represent 20 percent and operating costs 80-percent of the cost of a building over the course of its life and said that by investing in thorough planning the selectmen were properly seeking to minimize the operating costs.

Among the selectmen, only Herb Vadney expressed support for the amendment. Lou Kahn reminded Merrill that the proposal was for a feasibility study, not to design and engineer a facility, suggesting that his amendment was premature. On a show of hands the amendment failed and the article was adopted.

 

Last Updated on Saturday, 15 March 2014 12:37

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Sen. Hosmer campaigning to establish N.H. minimum wage of $9 per hour

LACONIA — "For me personally it's a moral thing," said State Senator Andrew Hosmer (D-Laconia), who is among a group of senators championing legislation to reintroduce and increase the state minimum wage. "I believe it is a valid act of government to set a floor for wages."

Hosmer, accompanied by Jeff McLynch, executive director of the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute, brought his campaign to the offices of The Daily Sun yesterday. Two days earlier a bill to set a minimum hourly wage of $8.25 in 2015 rising to $9 in 2016 and thereafter adjusted to the cost of living carried the New Hampshire House of Representatives, 173 to 118.

In 2011, the Legislature repealed its own wage standard and currently the state is subject the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which amounts to $15,080 a year or less than $300 a week. Tipped employees may be paid a wage equal to 45-percent of the minimum wage, or $3.27 an hour.

McLynch singled out two shortcomings of the current minimum wage. First, the erosion of its purchasing power has left those working for the minimum wage unable to purchase basic necessities. Since 1979, he said that adjusted for inflation the purchasing power of the minimum wage has shrunk by 23 percent, or more than $2 per hour. Second, the state's minimum wage is the lowest among the New England states, where Vermont at $8.73 per hour is the highest followed by Connecticut at $8.70, Massachusetts and Rhode Island at $8 and Maine at $7.50. Moreover, all the other five states will likely have minimum wages of $9 or more within the next few years.

"Minimum wage workers are constantly falling farther and farther behind," Hosmer said. "They can't make ends meet." Stressing that "our goal should be to enable people to get off public assistance through work," he said that "a reasonable minimum wage should be part of our strategy."

The increases proposed in the bill, McLynch estimated would directly and indirectly raise the earnings of some 76,000 workers, including tipped employees, representing 12 percent of the state's workforce. He said that 48,000 currently earning less than $9 per hour would benefit directly while the wages of another 28,000 earning between $9 and $11 would also rise, although not as much. 

Of these 76,000 people, McLynch said about three-quarters are 20 years old or older, about 60-percent are women, a third are full-time employees and 10,000 are parents. "The minimum wage is not just a starting wage," he said.

"These people are not savers, Hosmer noted. "They're spenders." Raising the minimum wage, he continued, would increase spending, particularly in the retail sector and "prime the pump" to hasten the recovery of the economy. McLynch projects that a minimum wage of $9 per hour would increase aggregate earnings in New Hampshire by $64 million.

At the same time, Hosmer suggested an increase in the minimum wage would decrease dependence on public assistance. McLynch referred to one study that found that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage could reduce enrollment in the food stamps program by as much as 3.2 percent and expenditures by 2 percent. Finally, Hosmer ventured that a higher minimum wage, comparable to those of neighboring states, could help to mitigate the rapid aging of the population by dissuading young people from leaving the state.

Hosmer described the bill before the Legislature as "a moderate approach," conceding that while a steeper increase may be warranted what he called "the political tolerances" could not be overlooked. Although the bill is opposed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, representing small business, the New Hampshire Retail Merchants Association and the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association, Hosmer said that it enjoys the support of a "a strong and diverse coalition."

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Last Updated on Saturday, 15 March 2014 12:27

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Cold unrelenting but fuel assistance money running low

GILFORD — As New Hampshire's winter grinds on and on, the local agency responsible for distributing federal fuel assistance has reached the bottom of its coffers.

According to Judy Scothorne, the program director of the Belknap-Merrimack Community Assistance Program division of energy, the $3.7 million Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program (LiHeap) is exhausted.

Scothorne said the total award to Belknap-Merrimack CAP was $4.4 million, however the state has only approved $3.7 million. The money, she said, has helped between 5,000 and 6,000 families supplement their fuel budgets this winter.

In addition, Citizen's Energy or "Joe-4 Oil" gave each county 33 slots that each provided a 100 gallons for people who qualified.

"That's just a gift," she said. "It's wonderful."

Although the cost of home heating oil has only risen about 20 cents to about $3.79 per gallon, she said the frigid temperatures coupled with a growing number of working poor people in central New Hampshire has really taken it toll.

Fuel assistance is determined by a matrix based in part on income and and the number of people in the household. A family of four that earns a total of $47,100 can qualify for the minimum subsidy of $150 a season she said. The average benefit is between $650 and $750 dollars and the maximum benefit is $1,100.

"What I see is people who don't make enough money to heat their homes in New Hampshire," Scothorne said.

"We've got a lot of working folks," she said. "They're the people who wait on you in the store and the people who are (chambermaids.)"

Scothorne said the soaring prices for kerosine and propane have made it harder for people who live in mobile homes to heat their homes this winter.

Gilford Finance Director Geoff Ruggles supervises the town's welfare office and said he has seen about eight people in the past two weeks who have exhausted their federal fuel assistance money but who still need fuel. He said many of the people the town helps are on fixed income or earn low incomes and many of them live in the town's mobile home parks.

"We give assistance regularly to families with two incomes," he said.

Both said that in many cases there isn't enough fuel assistance to meet the minimum delivery requirement of 100 to 150 gallons. At $3.99 per gallon, the March 10 average rate posted by the state Department of Energy, a family must come up with $598.50 for a single delivery of 150 gallons of oil.

Scothorne said there is one company that delivers smaller amounts of fuel but the cost of delivery is reflected in the price and they don't deliver kerosine.

Ruggles said a fair number of Gilford residents who have come in for assistance are elderly who often heat with kerosine, which the state said costs $4.39 per gallon.

Although demand is growing, Ruggles said they town budged $16,000 for heating assistance in 2014. In 2013, about $14,000 was budgeted for heating assistance and the town spent about $22,000, some of which came in November when the weather turned cold but the fuel assistance program was not yet available.

He also said the federal Housing and Urban Development standards for fuel oil use have been exceeded because of the lengthy and cold winter so people who would normally have enough gallons are running low.

"Many people are right on the edge," he said. "As to elderly people, well you can only ask them to turn down the thermostat so far."

Ruggles said that people have taken to calling the town when they are completely out of kerosine and said the town has had to tell them to buy diesel fuel to get by until the paperwork in the town's welfare office is completed.

"We have to use some discretion," he said.

Last Updated on Saturday, 15 March 2014 12:08

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Proposed farm camp for children up for review by Belmont Planning Board

BELMONT — A local couple hopes to add an education angle to their home-based farm by hosting small private agricultural camps for children at their Bean Hill Road home.

Frederick and Tina Fleming have asked the Planning Board to give them permission to use their farming buildings for the day camps.

"We just want to share our knowledge," said Tina Fleming who is a reading teacher at Laconia Middle School. She said the planning process requires a change of use because of the commercial component of running the camp.

The Flemings have been farming for years and operate a small family farm. Tina said they have some chickens, pigs, goats, pigs, and lambs with some gardens as well.

She said the goal of the educational program is to bring very small groups of children to the farm and have them experience farming in a personal way.

"So many children don't even know where their food comes from," she said.

As teacher, she said she hopes to integrate agriculture and reading into the camp curriculum. She said she would do special programs and have various experts in different types of agriculture — like bee keeping — come to the farm and give short talks.

"I just want to share that knowledge," she said.

She said she hopes the camp will be very hands on — something that will give children the real experience of farming and learning about the food chain.

One of her goals is to teach safety around animals. She said she has two horses and wants to teach youths about leading them and feeding them.

The farm has three Nigerian goats that will "freshen" and give birth sometime in late June or July. "I want children to learn to bottle-feed a baby goat," she said.

The Flemings have some chickens — broilers and layers — and she said part of the camp could be learning how to gather eggs in the morning.

She said the farm has some sheep and lambs — for both wool and meat — and said one of the classes would be sheering and making wool.

"It's just going to be a seasonal thing," she said, adding that she will continue to teach reading during the school year. "I really want to introduce children to agriculture."

"The key," she said, "is keeping it small."

The Planning Board will review her proposal on March 24 at their regular meeting. The Flemings' plan has already be reviewed by a planning review committee designed to help people through the town's planning process.

Last Updated on Friday, 14 March 2014 12:55

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