Teacher contract would bust city tax cap

November opponents promised if Laconia City Council doesn’t go along with the plan


LACONIA — The School Board and the teachers' union approved a five-year contract Tuesday night that would put salaries at or above most other districts in the area and be contingent on a two-thirds vote of the City Council to override the property tax cap.

The City Council has to agree to fund the contract before it can take effect.

It also relies on voter approval of a modification of the cap so that the School District could make large budget increases in coming years.

By approving the spending plan, the School Board is exerting pressure on the City Council to make a politically difficult decision to raise taxes in an election year.

School Board member Mike Persson called for City Council members to override the tax cap for the new fiscal year and to schedule a city charter amendment vote in November election to modify the cap for the future.

"If they approve it, there could be a fairly smooth election cycle," said Persson, who made a presentation on the contract to the board on Tuesday night. "If not, most (city councilors) would face opposition in November."

Mayor Ed Engler declined comment on the tentative pact pending a May 22 school district budget presentation to the council.

The tax cap, approved by voters in November 2005, limits increases in property tax collections for the city, school and county budgets based on a formula tied to changes in the Federal National Consumer Price Index (urban) and new building permits less demolitions.

Under that formula, the School District could increase its 2017-2018 budget by $544,000. The new tentative contract calls for a budget increase of at least $850,000 yearly. The agreement can be terminated in any year in which the council does not increase the district's budget by at least that amount.

Persson said the contract seeks to offer competitive teacher pay to attract and retain quality teachers.

"Good teachers continue to leave and we cannot hire good experienced teachers to replace them," he said.

He said the spending plan could also attract more middle-class families to Laconia.

"The main driver behind middle class families locating to a city is the perception of the public schools' quality and the availability of strong co-curricular programming," Persson said.

In the first year of the contract, teachers at all experience steps are to get a $700 salary increase. Teachers at the top step are to receive an additional $1,000, resulting in a total increase of $1,700 for teachers in this category in the first year of the contract.

In the second year, all steps are to be given a $1,200 increase. Teachers in the top step would receive an additional $1,300.

The contract uses Gilford teacher salaries as a reference point.

More than 60 percent of Laconia teachers are four steps behind their proper steps because of step freezes in prior years, according to Persson.

"A teacher with a bachelor's degree and 12 years of experience earns $3,447 less than their proper step and $9,419 less than a Gilford teacher with the same experience," Persson said in his presentation.

Under this proposal, teachers who are four steps behind move up two pays steps in the first year.

By the end of the contract, all steps are to approximate 102 percent of the corresponding step on the Gilford projected base salary scale.

Yearly teacher pay in the district now ranges from $36,412 for a first-step teacher with a bachelor's degree to $73,250 for a teacher in the 18th step and with a master's degree plus 30 credits.

"The increases would put our scale at or slightly above most other area districts but still significantly below Concord and Inter-Lakes," Persson said.

He also noted that the contract is for a longer term than is typical.

"We recognized that we could not immediately fix the salary issues that had developed over 11 years and that a long-term contract was the only way to accomplish our objectives while reducing the burden on taxpayers," he said. "Although these types of contracts are typically only three years in length, we negotiated a five-year contract to reduce the annual increases to reasonable levels."

The new contract includes total annual increases in teacher pay of $720,351.

It also allows the district to offer increased pay for teachers in critical shortage areas, such as computer programming.

Persson said the tax cap override and the vote on tax cap changes are necessary.

"We understood going into negotiations that we would not be able to cut enough from our budget this year, or in coming years, to be able to fix these problems within the confines of the current tax cap," he said.

"We cut over $1.6 million from our budget last year and will be cutting up to $900,000 from our budget this year. Even with these cuts, we will still need an override of a few hundred thousand dollars to make the numbers work this year."

If voters agree to change the City Charter to allow the district to increase its property tax by $850,000 a year, future City Council override votes would not be needed.

"If the voters feel that it is a good investment in the city's future, they will vote to approve it," he said. "If they don't, they will vote against it and the district will need to re-evaluate its operations and, likely, will pursue the closure of one of our elementary schools and the elimination, or substantial reduction, of other programs. We hope that this won't be necessary but the district cannot continue down its current path without adequate funding to do so."

Warehouse fire means a few empty shelves at local Hannaford supermarkets


GILFORD — Bonnie Taylor of Laconia had planned to pick up a 50-pound meat order from the local Hannaford store last Friday, the day the impact of the company's South Portland Distribution Center fire hit home. Stores throughout the Northeast suddenly found themselves without the meats and produce they were expecting.

A mechanical failure in the refrigeration unit of a truck parked in a delivery bay on April 26 sparked a fire that destroyed the trailer and spread through the fresh section of the warehouse that serves most of the Hannaford stores in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Company spokesman Eric Blom said there were no injuries, and the fire was confined to a portion of the warehouse, but it meant rerouting perishables through Hannaford's Schotack, New York, distribution center.

Blom said the fire has meant late deliveries, with a low inventory of certain fresh items, and some out-of-stock products.

Gilford grocery manager Ian Davis said the impact was almost immediate. While nonperishables were not as greatly affected, Davis said, with the main grocery items still on the shelves, meats and produce were in short supply until the New York warehouse could get them to the stores. They also have been pulling in produce from a warehouse in the Upper Valley, Davis said, so "the grocery side is back in order," and they're making progress day by day in filling the meat and produce needs. Most produce was available by Tuesday morning, including berries and bananas. Only salads and fruit juices were still missing.

Initially, the shortage of supplies had a "massive impact" on business, Davis said. "Customers were turned away by the empty shelves."

He declined to reveal the financial impact of the shortages, but he said it was significant.

"Now we're moving forward, getting what we can, and it's getting better and better daily," Davis said, but he had no estimate of when the store will be fully stocked again.

Blom said it has been a moving target, but operations in the damaged building are mostly back to normal. Work continues on the fresh area, and the timeline for completion of that work remains unknown. He noted that there are two warehouses in South Portland, one of them undamaged.

Hannaford's has used some third-party sources, including local farms, to replenish the inventory, he said.

Taylor said she has been assured that she'll receive her order at the sale price in effect at the time she placed it, and she was "more or less" able to get everything she wanted on Tuesday. "The produce is low, but I managed to make do," she said, "and I got everything else just fine."

Other customers said there has been little impact on their shopping. Arlene Lavoie of Laconia said liked to stay with Hannaford for her groceries, and Janice Harper, shopping for clients in the Home Assist Program of Lakes Region Community Services in Laconia, said she was able to find everything on her grocery list.

"I came to Laconia from Center Ossipee," she said. "There's nothing there, so I'm very happy here."

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A few shelves were empty at the Gilford Hannaford's on Tuesday following a warehouse fire in the distribution chain, but most customers were finding everything they needed. (Adam Hirshan/Laconia Daily Sun)

Commission may guide State School property


LACONIA — The former Laconia State School property may have a commission similar to that which led the redevelopment of Pease Air Force Base as an economic powerhouse on New Hampshire’s Seacoast guiding its future development.
New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse (R-Salem) said Tuesday that the Senate Finance Committee recommended an amendment to HB 340 should pass, which would establish the Lakeshore Redevelopment Planning Commission to re-evaluate the Laconia State School property and move forward with redevelopment plans.
This legislation also repeals the current statute requiring the state to sell the property, which has long been unsuccessful.
“I am pleased by the Senate Finance Committee’s support on this proposal, enlisting the support of the community of Laconia to work on a solution aimed at economic development that will benefit the entire region,” said Morse.
The nine-member commission would have three members with either real estate or business experience appointed by the governor and Council, one member appointed by the Belknap County Commission with business experience, two members appointed by the mayor and City Council of Laconia, one member with business experience appointed by the Speaker of the House, one member with business experience appointed by the Senate president and a chairperson appointed by the governor.
The commission will be charged with conducting a comprehensive evaluation of the property and formulating a plan for potential alternative uses, including a change of ownership, as well as formulating recommendations regarding each existing building. It will also look at partnership models and agency structures, including a state authority similar to the Pease Development Authority.
“The former Pease Development Authority Commission that helped to redevelop and grow the seacoast’s economy served as the model for the Lakeshore Redevelopment Planning Commission outlined in this legislation,” said Morse.
The amendment empowers the commission to name a coordinator, who will be the chief executive officer of the commission. It also makes a capital appropriation of $115,000 for use in employing a consultant with real estate or business experience to possible sale of the property and an appropriation of $250,000 for the commission to carry out its duties.
“This new commission offers both a great opportunity and the resources needed for community leaders to work together with the state, including the Legislature and governor, to produce a plan for future use of the Laconia State School property.” said Morse.
He added “New members of this commission will have experience in business and real estate development and will be encouraged to introduce new ideas and proposals to be brought forward for the future of the Laconia State School property as a self-sustaining economic driver that will bring businesses and good jobs to the Lakes Region.”
Laconia Mayor Ed Engler praised passage of the amendment. “I commend Senator Morse for leading the way to taking an economic development-centered approach to the future of the former State School property. Who actually owns the property is not as important as what the owner plans to do with it and the Senate president clearly sees its potential as an economic driver for Laconia, Belknap County and the state.”