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Democrats trying to ensnare Forrester in Bragdon controversy

CONCORD — While State Senator Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith) toured her district with Commissioner of Agriculture Lorraine Merrill yesterday, the New Hampshire Democratic Party nipped at her heels, charging she is "neck deep" in the controversy arising from the hiring of Senator Peter Bragdon (R-Milford), then president of the Senate, to lead the Local Government Center.

Forrester countered that she had done nothing wrong and indicated that any suggestion that she had was based on a lack of understanding of the time line connecting related events.

In a statement released Thursday, Democratic spokesman Harrell Kirstein claimed that documents obtained from the LGC reveal that Bragdon spoke with Forrester about seeking the $180,000 per year position three days before he appointed her to a study committee charged with reviewing the conduct of the LGC and studying changes to the statute governing it. The information, he said, contradicts earlier explanations of the circumstances leading to the committee assignment offered by Forrester and Bragdon.

"Forrester and Bragdon owe the people of New Hampshire a full explanation — and this time an honest one — of their recent conversations about the LGC," Kirstein declared.

Local Government Center is a quasi-public organization that oversees a health care trust, a workers' compensation trust and a liability and property insurance trust for member municipalities. It is embroiled in litigation with numerous municipalities over $36 million is surplus funds it collected and has an appeal pending before the state Supreme Court.

Bragdon was originally one of five people targeted for recruitment by LGC's board for the executive director position. He began working at LGC on August 14. At first he intended to remain as Senate president but later agreed that was inappropriate. He will, however, keep his Senate seat.

A string of e-mails between Bragdon and George Bald, interim executive director of the LGC, indicate that Bragdon first took an interest in succeeding Bald following a recruitment conversation between the two on July 11. "It was a pleasure talking with you earlier today . . . quite an unexpected turn the conversation took," Bragdon wrote, adding that he attached his resume.

Bald replied "I am glad you are giving this some consideration."

The exchange of e-mails resumed on July 16, after Bragdon returned from a forum of state senate presidents in Seattle. After discounting concerns about conflicts of interest and indicating he could serve for 18 months or more, he remarked "I happened to be on the phone with Senator Forrester a few minutes ago, and given her background as a former town administrator, as well as having worked with people like Don Jutton at Municipal Resources, Inc., I thought I'd mention the conversation you and I had. Her reaction could not have been more positive to the idea."

Three days later, on July 19, Bragdon — or Bragdon's office — wrote to Forrester formally appointing her to the study committee.

"No wonder she was silent about the massive and inherent conflicts of interest in Bragdon's new LGC job," Kirstein wrote. "She knew about it nearly a month in advance and said nothing. What did Forrester and Bragdon discuss on July 16th?" he asked, calling Forrester's appointment "a clear breach of the New Hampshire General Court's Ethics guidelines."

When Kirstein originally leveled the charges earlier this week, Forrester said that she was not aware that Bragdon was contemplating the position with the LGC when he approached her about serving on the study committee. She said that she could not recall just when this conversation occurred, but insisted it was before she knew of his interest in the LGC job. Likewise, Bragdon told the Concord Monitor that he appointed Forrester before he began considering the position. "Obviously I would stay from that," he was quoted to say, "and most likely if there were legislation that came from that I would recuse myself from voting."

Presented with the documentation released yesterday, Forrester clarified that she and Bragdon had separate conversations about the committee assignment and the LGC position. Again she insisted that when Bragdon verbally asked her and she agreed to serve on the study committee she was not aware of his interest in the LGC position, but could not recall just when that conversation took place, only that it was before she learned he was speaking with LGC.

"I don't know whether he was or he wasn't," she said. "It did not come up. He asked me if I would serve on the committee and I agreed."

We had two conversations," Forrester continued, confirming that Bragdon spoke to her about the position with LGC, presumably on July 16 as Bragdon's e-mail indicated.. "He asked me If he could use me as a reference and I said absolutely. Senator Bragdon is an ethical and honest person and I thought he was well qualified for the position."

Forrester rejected suggestions that Bragdon sought to "stack" the study committee, noting that the president of the Senate had only the one appointment and three of its five members are Democrats. "He had to appoint a senator. You tell me how that is stacking the committee," she said. Furthermore, she insisted "I can tell you with certainty that he didn't call me to tell me how to vote."

Last Updated on Friday, 23 August 2013 02:28

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County Attorney says she needs pay raise for prosecutor

LACONIA — Belknap County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen told Belknap County Commissioners Wednesday morning that her office is seeing an increase in heroin use in the county, as well as increasing problems with "spice", a synthetic compound which mimics the affects of marijuana.
''Drug abuse is a big issue for law enforcement,'' said Guldbrandsen, who said that officials had hoped that the recent conviction of a major oxycodone dealer in Belknap County Superior Court would cause a drop in drug abuse.
She said that spice, which is widely available in convenience stores, poses a problem as the change of one molecule can shift it from ta banned to a legal substance.
She said the county drug court program is working well and that there have been seven participants, several of whom are making progress in turning their lives around.
''It's a resource intense program,'' she said, pointing out that it involves the court, law enforcement and social service agencies.
Guldbrandsen said that her 2013 budget for medical services, including autopsies, is already over expended but that funds were available in other line items to cover the costs.
She also said that she would be asking for a pay increase for one of her department's prosecutors in the 2014 budget.
Asked by Commissioner Steven Nedeau (R-Meredith) if it was ''gift'' given that most county employees aren't receiving pay raises, she said that she needed to be able to offer competitive salaries in order to keep experienced employees with the her department.
''Experienced litigators can go to private firms and make over $100,000. It's important that we keep them whenever possible. The cost of having to train a new person far outweighs the cost of increasing an existing employee's salary,'' she said.

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 August 2013 02:16

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Belmont wants to use part of mill space for welfare office but will need federal OK

BELMONT — Town officials are considering relocating the General Assistance Office to the space on the second floor of the Belmont Mill that was vacated last winter when the Lakes Region Community College Culinary Arts Program was forced to relocate.

The college used the space on the second floor for offices and a classroom.

Town Administrator Jeanne Beaudin told selectmen earlier this week that she is checking with the Community Development Finance Authority to see if relocating the welfare office is an acceptable use of the space that was renovated using a $1 million USDA Community Development Block Grant.

Beaudin explained that because the Belmont Mill was restored with a federal grant there are accepted uses for the space in the building and according to the terms of the grant received by Belmont, at least 51 percent of the total renovated space must serve low-to-moderate income people.

"We're not supposed to use the space for town facilities," she said, saying the selectmen are hoping the estimated $200,000 needed from the town to fix the structural deficiencies in the mill would be an acceptable token of good will for a change of use, in the eyes of the federal grant administrator.

Initially, officials thought they would be able to relocate the Department of Parks and Recreation to the second floor space but said it would be difficult to quantify how many people who participate in town-sponsored recreation program were low-income. Beaudin believes the general assistance program meets the criteria of the grant.

If the CDFA gives it seal of approval, it is likely the Recreation Department would use the bottom floor of the Corner Meeting House and the former Winnisquam Fire Station could be vacated.

Should the CDFA not agree to the program shift, the other alternative is to reimburse the federal government in the amount of $21,600, which is calculated by dividing the total grant of $1 million by 20, or the years in the payback period. That leaves $50,000 annually that must be paid back over the next six years because the grant is 14-years old. Seven percent of $50,000 represents the amount of total space that would be used by a non-qualifying agency or $3,600 which is multiplied by the six years remaining in the payback period, or $21,600.
Beaudin said she expects an answer regarding the change of use from the CDFA before the next selectman's meeting. She said she is also meeting with the directors of General Assistance and the Parks and Recreation Department to see if the proposed new spaces are a good fit for their clientele.

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 August 2013 01:54

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Having Belknap County towns pay directly for belonging to Mutual Fire Aid will find some paying more & some less but it's complicated for Tilton & Northfield

LACONIA — With Belknap County likely to strike the annual appropriation for its 11 municipalities belonging to the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association (LRMFAA) from its 2014 budget, the cost of membership would rise for some and fall for others while Tilton and Northfield, who share a fire district, could fund themselves haggling over the tab.

The LRMFAA manages emergency communications, coordinates mutual assistance and provides training programs for 36 municipal fire departments operating across 1,500 square miles in all or part of half the state's 10 counties. The organization originated in 1951 with a handful of towns in Belknap County, but has never been an agency of county government., although all 11 of its municipalities belong to the LRMFAA.

The LRFMAA is governed by a board of directors composed of the fire chiefs from the member municipalities, four of whom are elected to an executive committee. The executive committee prepares and adopts an annual budget then distributes the cost among the member municipalities.

The municipalities are assessed by a formula consisting of the sum of three factors. A fixed charge, representing 36 equal shares of one-tenth of the total budget, accounts for 10 percent of the assessment. A valuation factor, calculated by dividing 40 percent of the budget by the total assessed property value of 36 municipalities and multiplying the evaluation of each municipality by the result, represents 40 percent of the assessment. The remaining 50 percent of the assessment is based on a population factor, calculated by dividing half the budget by the aggregate population of all 36 municipalities and multiplying the population of each municipality by the result.

The 25 municipalities in Carroll, Grafton, Merrimack and Strafford counties are billed directly by the LRMFAA in accordance with the formula. However, Laconia and the 10 towns of Belknap County have long been treated differently. They are not being billed directly by LRMFAA. Instead, their total share of its budget is included in the county budget, apportioned among them based solely on their share of the total assessed property valuation of the county and paid through the county property tax.

In other words, the county acts only as a collection agency.

Although severing the relationship between the county and LRMFAA has arisen in the past, the issue came to a head this year when Meredith and Center Harbor asked to be billed directly. County Administrator Debra Shackett explained that if any municipality in the county is billed directly, all must be billed directly, since whatever amount is included in the county budget would be incorporated in the county tax rate levied on all 11 municipalities. "The towns that opted to be billed directly," she said, "would be billed twice, once by the LRMFA and once by the county. "

If the LRMFAA's budget is stripped from the county budget and the 11 municipalities are billed directly, they would pay the same total amount, but the shares would be distributed differently.

Based on the LRMFAA's requested budget, this year the share of the 11 municipalities was $554,037, distributed as follws: Alton $81,048, Barnstead $27,350, Belmont $34,381, Center Harbor $22,457, Gilford $88,631, Gilmanton $25,680, Laconia $106,731, Meredith $100,545, New Hampton $17,528, Sanbornton $22,072 and Tilton $27,614.

Billed directly, according to the formula applied by the LRMFAA, four towns — all with extensive waterfront —would have paid less while Laconia and six towns would have paid more. The assessment to Alton would have been reduced by $18,922, to Center Harbor by $4,721, to Gilford by $14,326 and to Meredith by $25,445.

On the other hand, the assessment to Laconia would have risen by $17,606, to Barnstead by $9,206, to Belmont by $18,290, to Gilmanton by $6,237, to New Hampton by $3,372, to Sanbornton by $4,527 and to Tilton by $4,176.

The prospect of direct billing by the LRMFAA has breathed fresh life into a lingering issue between Tilton and Northfield, which share a common fire district. While Tilton has been billed through Belknap County, Northfield, which is in Merrimack County, has been billed directly.

However, Glenn Smith, Northfield Town Administrator, said that the Board of Selectmen have consistently taken the position that the LRMFAA should bill the Tilton-Northfield Fire District, not the two towns. They note that the fire district, established in 1945, is a distinct entity, governed by an elected commission and annual meeting. The district, not the towns, he said, provides fire protection and emergency services. Smith described the different methods of billing the two towns as "an impediment to billing the district."

Pat Clark, who chairs the Tilton-Northfield First District Commission, agreed that the LRMFAA should bill the district, not the towns and acknowledged that removing the LRMFAA from the county budget presented an opportunity to address the issue.
The district, he said, is responsible for providing fire protection, ambulance service and a water supply to both towns.

Currently, Tilton bears 63-percent of the district's annual budget and Northfield 37-perecent. Clark conceded that if LRMFAA billed the district directly, Tilton's share of the district's budget would rise, estimating the increase would fall between $9,000 and $10,000. He noted that if billed separately, each town would pay a fixed charge, but the district would pay only once.

"It is a question of dollars and cents," he said, anticipating that billing the district would encounter resistance from Tilton. But, he said "put in context it is not a lot of money and it might help in mending fences between the two communities."

Clark said that since the two towns voted to join the LRMFAA, warrant articles in the both as well as a vote of the fire district would be required to affect the transition, which probably could not take place before 2015.

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 August 2013 01:46

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