Petition would kill ambulance fund

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Sanbornton Fire & Rescue emergency medical technicians Dan Chapman (left) and Duncan Phillips unload a cot with a cardiac monitor from the Sanbornton ambulance Thursday. (David Carkhuff/Laconia Daily Sun)


Sanbornton Budget Committee member pushes for warrant article

By DAVID CARKHUFF, THE LACONIA DAILY SUN

SANBORNTON — A special revenue fund for fire and rescue emergency medical services equipment, worth $273,004, could go into town coffers to help reduce the tax rate, say advocates for a petitioned article that would kill the fund.
"The idea was to shut the fund down, and that would eliminate the money for the second ambulance. By discontinuing the fund, that money would go back to the taxpayers," said Roger Grey, representative of the Concerned Sanbornton Citizens, a group pushing for the shift in funding.
Grey is a member of the Sanbornton Budget Committee and member of the Sanbornton Fire Department Regionalization Study Committee.
"There's a group of us who feel our town, a town of 2,900, doesn't need a second ambulance," Grey said.
By a vote at Town Meeting, the money could be allocated to other needs.
A public hearing on Tuesday will give voters a chance to review the petitioned article. The hearing is 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, at the Town Office Building, 573 Sanborn Road, Sanbornton.
Warrant Article 12 is titled, "Petitioned Article to Discontinue the 'Emergency Medical Services Fire and Rescue Apparatus, Equipment and Vehicles Special Revenue Fund' per NH RSA 31:95-d." Critics of the article say it would upend years of planning and leave the town vulnerable with only one ambulance.
Arguments for discontinuing the fund include the point that setting aside $50,000 in ambulance annual revenue could help lower taxes for the taxpayers and that using the current ambulance fund balance of $273,004 could reduce the tax rate and defray other town costs.
Fire Chief Paul Dexter said he couldn't understand absorbing the Emergency Medical Services Fire and Rescue Apparatus, Equipment and Vehicles Special Revenue Fund and redirecting the money to the highway department or for lowering the tax rate, as proposed.
Dexter said that $273,000 is only going to be "a feel-good thing for the first year."
"Then, there isn't another $273,000 next year to offset the taxes so then we have to ask the taxpayers for money to replace an ambulance," he said.
Proponents also argued that the town can draw on a Fire Truck Repair and Refurbish Capital Reserve Fund with an estimated balance by this budget year's end of $85,016 with an additional $10,000 added in next year's budget. They noted that the fire department also maintains a Fire Truck Replacement Capital Reserve Fund with an estimated balance at the end of the current budget year of $266,946, with an additional $70,000 added in next year's budget.
The Fire Truck Replacement Capital Reserve Fund, Dexter said, is designed to replace fire trucks. The $70,000 addition to this fund is based on a current plan for 20- to 25-year rotations of new fire trucks, he said.
The Fire Truck Repair and Refurbish Capital Reserve Fund, Dexter said, handles major repairs which can't be covered by his $13,000 vehicle repair budget in the fire department budget.
Proponents said discontinuing the ambulance fund "should put to rest, at least for the foreseeable future, the request for a second ambulance," which isn't warranted, they said.
Dexter said last year was a busy one for Sanbornton Fire & Rescue, with an increase of 14 percent for emergency calls and an increase of 30 percent for all service-related inspections and permits. The ambulance goes on all of the estimated 450 calls a year that the fire department runs, Dexter said.
Dexter said yearly mileage on the ambulance is 7,069 miles per year, according to a memo of questions and answers from the Sanbornton Fire Department Regionalization Study Committee.
When asked the justification for a second ambulance, he wrote, "On average we place the current ambulance 'out of service' 10 to 15 times yearly for maintenance issues like warranty recalls, preventive maintenance and emergency breakdowns, we average another 20 emergency calls for service which are simultaneous calls which we have to call in another town to cover the second call for transport of the patient, we still send an Engine to the scene since the engine carries lifesaving equipment to stabilized a patient until a transport ambulance arrives. Over the last two years we had another town transport patients 39 times."
Grey said, "Belknap County is fortunate to have an excellent mutual aid network, and if our ambulance is tied up, one of the surrounding communities would rush to our aid."
But Dexter said, "We draw from Tilton, Franklin, New Hampton, and they're having problems covering second calls, as we all are."
A second ambulance is part of the five-year plan for the department, Dexter said.
The fund is used annually to cover the cost of a billing company, which is paid $6,000 a year. The fund is automatically reimbursed through the billing company based on patient transports, Dexter said. The town receives about 95 percent of commitments outstanding, he said.
"It's like a capital reserve account we're developing for the future," he said.
The fund has been in place for 18 years. It was established back in 1999. In 2008, the fund was expanded to allow fire and EMS equipment and apparatus, Dexter said. In 2011, it was expanded again to allow vehicles, he said.
In the life of the fund, the town has accrued $961,129 of revenue over 18 years, with close to $687,029 in taxes deferred through use of the fund, Dexter said.
"If this article passes, then the money will be transferred to the general fund, and then moving forward, quite honestly we don't know what it will look like," Dexter said.
The town auditor recommended keeping those revenues separate from the general fund, Dexter said.
The Budget Committee voted 4-1, with Grey in the minority, to oppose the petition article. Selectmen also voted to oppose the petition article.
A warrant article for two full-time firefighters and emergency medical service technicians, for $139,800, is not affected by the revenue fund petitioned article.

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A second ambulance is part of a five-year plan for the fire and rescue department in Sanbornton, the fire chief reports. (David Carkhuff/Laconia Daily Sun)

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Laconia’s tax base shrinks, imbalance seen in types of property

By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — During the past decade, the city's property tax base has shrunk by more than 10 percent while the value of commercial property has diminished as a share of the total.

Although the total assessed value of taxable property in the city has risen for the past four years to reach $1,920,228,000, it remains 11.6 percent below the peak of $2,174,536 recorded in 2007.

The assessed value of residential property peaked at $1,816,321,000 in 2008 with the advent of the recession then dropped 17.6 percent to $1,495,744,000 in 2013 before climbing 7.3 percent to $1,605,415,000 in 2016.

The assessed value of commercial property reached its peak of $348,509,000 in 2007 then fell steadily for the next seven years before increasing to $291,464,000 in 2015 only to tumble to $282,976,000, its lowest point in a decade, the next year. Between 2007 and 2016 the assessed value of commercial real estate has fallen 18.8 percent.

In 2016, commercial property represented 14.7 percent of the total assessed valuation while residential property accounted for 83.7 percent, the largest share among the 13 cities in the state. Only in Berlin and Franklin does commercial property account for a smaller portion of the tax base.

The imbalance between residential and commercial property has a direct effect on the property tax rate, which is illustrated by a simple hypothetical example Mayor Ed Engler offered to the City Council.

Assume two municipalities, each with 5,000 households, which approximates the population of Laconia, where the average home price is $300,000 and the residential tax base is $1.5 billion. In one municipality, "A," the value of commercial property amounts to $78,947,358, or 5 percent of the total tax base of $1,578,947. The town raises $35 million in property taxes with a tax rate of $22.17. By contrast, in municipality "B" the value of commercial property amounts to $807,692,308, or 35 percent of the total tax base of $2,307,692,308. Since "B" has more property than "A," it has greater expenses and raises $40,000,000 in taxes, but with a larger tax base, its tax rate is $17.33. Homeowners in "A" pay $6,651 in annual property taxes compared to their counterparts in "B" who pay $5,199, a difference of $1,452, while raising $5 million more revenue.

The mayor has proposed rezoning the Commercial Resort District, which encompasses The Weirs, to set aside land for commercial development in an effort to redress the imbalance, which by lowering the property tax rate would encourage more competitively priced residential development.

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Auditors impressed with Laconia’s financial picture yearly report

By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — The Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the fiscal year ending in June 2016, presented to the City Council this week by Melanson Health, an independent auditor, pictures the city in sound financial condition.

Scott McIntire of the Melanson Health drew a distinction between the long-term and short-term perspectives of the city's financial condition and operations. For a long-term perspective he highlighted the net position, noting that total assets exceeded total liabilities by $62.2 million, which represents an increase an increase of $2.3 million over the prior fiscal year.

From the short-term perspective, McIntire said that the $57.7 million in revenues collected in the previous fiscal year topped the $57.1 million in revenues projected by $561,103. On the other hand, actual expenditures of $57.8 million were $249,504 less than budgeted, leaving an excess of revenues over expenditures of $810,607. With transfers from other accounts of $175,131, the positive balance came to $985,738. Less the $935,000 drawn from the unassigned fund balance and applied to the municipal budget, the city closed the year with an excess of revenues over expenditures of $50,738.

In other words, the excess revenues and operational savings were sufficient not only to offset the withdrawal from the fund balance but to add $50,738 to it. At year end the unassigned fund balance stood at $4,681,450, or 8.1 percent of total general fund expenses while the total fund balance, which includes $1.7 million in capital reserves, was 12.4 percent of general fund expenditures. McIntire said that the Governmental Accounting Standards Board recommends that unassigned fund balance represent between 5 and 10 percent of general fund expenditures.

City Manager Scott Myers said that the city's financial condition and performance reflects realistic projections of revenues and sound management of expenditures and credited department heads and their employees for closely controlling expenses. He described the unassigned fund balance as "a good number," explaining that a robust balance by easing the management of cash flow spares the cost of borrowing when the pace of obligatory expenses outruns the pace of tax collections. Together with the strength of the balance sheet, he said, that the healthy fund balance enhances the city's credit, especially with banks.

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