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Council discussion of proposed police budget focuses on addressing heroin issue; LFD overtime again questioned

LACONIA — Members of the City Council reviewed police and fire department proposed budgets for 2014-2015 on Monday night and were told by the respective chiefs that they are making progress but severe problems remain to be dealt with.
For police the most recent problem is what Chief Chris Adams calls an epidemic of heroin abuse in the last 18 months which has led to several deaths and for Fire Chief Ken Erickson it is a high rate of structure fires which is three times the state average (4.62 per thousand residents compared to 1.6 statewide.)
Adams said the city ranks first in the state in the rate of violent crimes but is headed in the right direction in many areas in dealing with the problems the city has with substance abuse, drugs, alcohol and high crime and poverty rates.
''It's a community issue and I think we're making headway in dealing with it,'' said Adams, who said innovative policing with Problem Oriented Policing Teams which focus on using a proactive rather than a reactive approach has helped bring a focus to police activities.
Ward 2 Councilor David Bownes said that a lack of treatment and prevention programs hurt such efforts. ''It's not always a law enforcement only issue,'' said Bownes, who said that it is huge problem nationwide and that a policy of just locking people up has been a huge failure nationally.
Ward 3 Councilor Henry Lipman said he would like to see a more comprehensive plan which involved the use of technology and cooperation with other agencies which would make Laconia ''the least attractive place in the state for drugs.''
Adams said that 90 percent of the city's crime can be traced to substance abuse and that in turn is linked to poverty, which is higher in Laconia than the state as a whole.
He said that the city has had several surveillance cameras stolen off from poles in recent months but thinks more of them could be used to deter and detect crimes,
Fire Chief Erickson said that he has a problem with absentee landlords which hamper his building inspection efforts and said that inspections could play a role in dealing with substance abuse. He said he would like to see the city require out-of-town landlords to have a designated local representative so that he could schedule inspections and councilors asked City Manager Scott Myers to research state law to see if such a local ordinance can be drafted.
Erickson said his department has put the four firefighters who were hired last year with a federal SAFRER grant to good use and that they have enabled his department to have seven firefighters and two officers staff each platoon, six at Central Station and three at the Weirs Station, enabling more effective emergency responses and reducing the number of vehicles which respond to emergencies.
''Seventy percent of all responses are single-unit responses,'' said Erickson, who said that two-unit responses have been reduced from 54 percent in 2000 to 18 percent last year.
Councilor Hamel said he would like an explanation of the $727,000 in covered overtime for the 2013 calendar year, which he said council members had expected would be lower with the addition of four additional firefighters.
Erickson and Myers said the number listed for overtime included every dollar spent on Bike Week, paramedics who are funded by the hospital and a host of other items with Erickson doing a quick tally which showed a total of $456,000, some $184,000 of which was for the hospital.
Administrators said they would provide a complete listing of what constitutes the overtime line for council members.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 April 2014 01:48

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39 businesses loooking to hire at job fair hosted by Belknap Mall

BELMONT — Some 39 businesses attended a New Hampshire Employment Security (NHES) sponsored Laconia Job & Resource Fair yesterday at the Belknap Mall.
''There was a good turnout of businesses looking to hire and a lot of interested job seekers,'' said Carol Cantin-Aubut, office manager for Laconia's NHDES office.
Local businesses such as Belknap Landscaping, Patrick's Pub and Dunkin' Donuts were among those interviewing potential workers, and the Lakes Region Community College booth was attracting a steady stream of people looking to upgrade their skills through the NHWorks program, which helps provide job skills in manufacturing.
Newly elected Executive Councilor Joe Kenney attended the event and spoke with NHDES Commissioner George Copadis and Aubut abut the job fair and the state's efforts to help people find employment.
He said that he was impressed with the cooperation and collaboration among state agencies in dealing with employment issues and said that there appeared to be many job seekers attending.
Copadis said the state held 29 job fairs last year which brought out over 900 employers and 6,800 job seekers and is eager to put together job fairs in parts of the state where businesses are looking for new workers.
"The job fair is a great opportunity for employers to gain access to a local ready and willing workforce," says Copadis "Having employees from the communities that you serve strengthens your business and makes our communities stronger. ''
NHES provides free services, resources, and tools to assist both job seekers and employers with the entire job search process, hiring and employment needs. NHES has services available online and onsite to assist job seekers including an automated Job Match System, internet access, local papers, book and video library, employment counseling, networking groups, and career assessments. Employer Seminars and weekly workshops are held covering such topics as job searching, resume writing and interviewing techniques.



Carol Cantin-Aubut, office manager for the Laconia office of the New Hampshire Department of Employment Security, talks with NHDES Commissioner George Copadis and District One Executive Councilor Joe Kenney at a Job Fair at the Belknap Mall. (Roger Amsden/for The Laconia Daily Sun)

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 April 2014 01:31

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Planning board opts for original route of riverwalk at Beacon Street West

LACONIA — The Planning Board this week approved the plan of Chinburg Builders to add 37 residential apartments at the Beacon Street West development and, at the same time, decided to recommend to the City Council that the riverwalk follow its original route along the waterfront, contrary to the recommendation of the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District (TIF) Advisory Board.
The new units will be divided between two buildings. The large, currently empty building on the site, originally intended for commercial use, will house 30 apartments. The remaining seven units will be in a new 6,230-square foot building straddling the Perley Canal, built on the footprint of the structure that collapsed under a snow load some years ago.
Chinburg's decision to rebuild over the canal for residential use prompted reconsideration of the proposed route of the downtown riverwalk. That section of the riverwalk runs along the Winnipesaukee River at the rear of the Beacon Street West Condominiums, but stops short of the Perley Canal. Closing the gap over the canal to Beacon Street West and extending the path from City Hall to Church Street would complete the riverwalk along the north bank of the river.
Originally Chinburg planned to build a restaurant over the canal and granted the city an easement to incorporate the riverwalk into the project. Jeff Spitzer, the firm's senior project manager, told the TIF Advisory Board that the riverwalk would be both compatible and desirable in conjunction with a restaurant or other commercial use. But, he said that following the course of the easement past the apartments, within feet of their windows and patios, would compromise the privacy of residents.
Rather than follow the river, Chinburg instead proposed routing the riverwalk around the building, crossing the Perley Canal with a bridge behind the building then turning a corner before joining Beacon Street West. The developer agreed to fund the cost of constructing this segment of the riverwalk.

The TIF Advisory Board agreed to present both the original and alternative plans to the Planning Board, but voted three-to-two to recommend the route preferred by the developer.
The Planning Board approved Chinburg's plans for the two buildings, with the caveat that they be reviewed by its architectural sub-committee. But, the board also voted to recommend that the City Council, which controls the easement for the riverwalk, hold the project to its original route. Warren Hutchins, chairman of the Planning Board, said that Chinburg will be asked to explore designing the residential building to accommodate the riverwalk with the architectural sub-committee.
The ultimate decision whether to execute the original easement or relinquish it and negotiate a new easement for an alternative route rests with the City Council.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 April 2014 01:28

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Conty commission agrees to new contract with nursing home union, setting up funding showdown with lawmakers

LACONIA — The Belknap County Commission yesterday ratified a one-year collective bargaining agreement negotiated with State Employees Association (SEA) on behalf of 80 full-time employees of the Belknap County Nursing Home. Funding will still have to be approved by the Belknap County Convention.

Contract talks with employees of the Department of Corrections and Sheriff's Department remain underway.

The 2014 county budget adopted by the Belknap County Convention level funded the employer share of health insurance benefits at $1,272,449 but nothing for wage increases or associated payroll costs. The costs of the contract include $267,343 more for health insurance, $22,361 for a cost of living adjustment of 1.6-percent, $35,759 for merit increases for eligible employees and $10,705 for associated payroll costs, for a total of $336,170.

The agreement provides for the employees' share of health insurance premiums to increase from 6.5-percent to 16.5-percent for a single person plan, from 5-percent to 15-percent for both a two-person and a family plan. However, the contribution would remain unchanged for employees who participate in three health management programs that include the health assessment, biometric screening and on health awareness program as defined by HealthTrust.

Norm O'Neil, county human resources director, told the commissioners that the agreement reflected the ongoing effort to engage employees in wellness programs that have been shown to reduce long-term health care costs. He said that HealthTrust has recognized Belknap County for its levels of participation.

Neil Smith of the SEA, who negotiated the agreement, noted that the Health Benefits Review Team, convened by the county administration, has become a model for addressing and managing the cost of health insurance benefits across the state.

In the same vein, the contract would forbid smoking or any other use of tobacco products throughout the Belknap County Complex beginning on July 1 of this year.

The contract provides a cost-of-living-adjustment of 1.6 percent, equal to the rate of inflation. together with merit increases averaging 2.1 percent, for which some 60 employees are eligible. O'Neil said that since employees went without wage increases in 2013, the raise represents an increase of 1.85 per year for the two-year period.

The agreement includes an incentive to reduce the use of sick time from 52 hours per year per employee to 40 hours. If the 80 employees together meet the target , each employee would would receive up to three days to care for an ill or injured family member. collectively meet the target, or two years.

Smith acknowledged the county convention's concerns about personnel costs, but recommended the commission present the cost items to the convention for approval. "We'd have the convention weigh in on this contract rather than wait," he said. "If it doesn't meet with success, we'll have learned something."

Smith said that contract negotiations on behalf of employees of the Department of Corrections were near agreement, but talks with the Sheriff's Department "as not as close as we'd like."

NOTES: Norm O'Neil, the director of Human Resources for Belknap County, tendered his resignation when the Belknap County Commission met yesterday. "I really don't like this," remarked John Thomas of Belmont, chairman of the commission, who went on to praise O'Neil for his contribution to strengthening personnel policy and improving employee morale since he was appointed in 2009. Echoing Thomas, Commissioner Steve Nedeau of Meredith offered "to put in a word for all the county employees you have assisted during your tenure." Neil Smith of the State Employees Association, with whom O'Neil has negotiated contracts, was so effusive in his praise for his counterpart that O'Neil asked him to stop. . . . . . County Administrator Debra Shackett reported that the increase in the cost of health insurance premiums for 2014 would be 6.2 percent, less than half the 13.4 percent anticipated, describing the news as "the silver lining" to the budget. . . . . . Shackett also announced that former Superintendent of the Corrections Department Richard Grenier, who in March was elected to the Board of Selectmen in Gilford, has been named to the Jail Planning Committee. Grenier has openly expressed misgivings about the direction of the process of planning for a new correctional facility.  

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 April 2014 12:23

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