County legal battles cost taxpayers $70,000+ in 2014

LACONIA — Belknap County's legal bills for 2014 topped $70,000 and nearly $32,000 of that amount remains unpaid.
On Monday the Executive Committee of the Belknap County Convention declined to take up a request for transferring $31,852.54 from one line item to another to pay the county's outstanding legal bills, all of which have been received since October 31.
Committee members noted that the transfer requests were not signed by new commissioners Dave DeVoy (R-Sanbornton) and Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton), both of whom said they had not had time to study them.
''We'll be happy to give you a few weeks to study them,'' said Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith), newly elected chairman of the Executive Committee. The committee twice last month turned down requests for transfers to pay those bills.
Commissioner DeVoy said ''it is my intention to pay the bills once we get them sorted out.''
The unpaid bills all relate to disputes between the former Belknap County Commissioners and the Belknap County Convention and its Personnel Committee. There are two bills for $6,856.98 and $1,080 from the Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella law firm, which represented the commission in it's challenge to the convention's successful attempt to win a temporary injunction prohibiting transfers between budget line items of greater than $300 without approval of the convention's Executive Committee.
There are also two bills from the Upton and Hatfield law firm, which represented the Personnel Committee in its handling of Mathew Logue 's appeal of his firing as Superintendent of the Belknap County Home by commissioners in late August. Those bills are for $4,973.58 and $1,325,30.
There are two bills from the Drummond Woodsum law firm which represented the commission at a hearing on Logue's dismissal and on an appeal of the Executive Committee's reinstatement of Logue. Those bills are for $12,223,28 and $4,220.90.
There is also an unpaid bill from the Wescott Law firm for $1,172.50 relating to a personnel issue.
Legal bills which have been paid through the end of the year total $39,574.59 and many of those relate to the year-long struggle between the former commissioners and the convention over line item budget authority.
The convention's legal fees, originally budgeted at $5,000, shows $18,000 having been spent, including $7,317.95 to Upton and Hatfield LLP regarding litigation filed by former Rep. Ruth Gulick and other members of the convention's Democratic minority which sought to overturn a decision made to allow Rep. Guy Comtois to vote by telephone on a crucial vote on the 2014 budget.
Legal fees charged to the convention's account also include payments to the Donahue, Tucker Ciandella law firm for budgetary authority issues of $1,272.32 in March, $814.73 in April and $5,746 in October.
Upton and Hatfield was paid for three different Personnel Committee billings of $514 and $1,446 in August and $294 in September.
Legal expenditures charged to the administration totaled $16,754.59 for a budget listed at $17,000.
Those expenditures included payments to the Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella law firm for budgetary authority issues of $216 in May, $3,251.94 in August and $4,797.52 in October. There is also a payment of $3,414.26 to the Drummond Woodsum law firm for a Personnel Committee issue in October.
Of the $5,000 budget for nursing home legal expenses there are four bills from Wescott Law PA for personnel issues for $597.22, $341.25, $402.50 and $1,029 and $2,504.03 from Drummond Woodsum relating to the Personnel Committee.
Convention chairman Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) said ''we'll have to sort these out'' and said that money that the Executive Committee agreed to transfer in November was intended to pay The Upton and Hatfield law firm for its $4,973.58 and $1,325,30 bills for its work on behalf of the Personnel Committee.
When the Executive Committee met on December 1 to take up the proposed transfer of $28,000 to pay legal bills the request was denied by a 6-3 vote after former County Convention Chairperson Colette Worsman (R-Meredith) questioned why the Personnel Committee's attorneys hadn't been paid but while attorneys representing the commissioners had been paid.
County Administrator Debra Shackett told the committee members that the oldest bills had been paid first.
Worsman maintained that the transfer of $8,000 to the convention's legal line made on October 27 was intended to pay the Upton and Hatfield firm.
But Shackett, County Financial Director Glenn Waring and former Belknap County Commissioner Steve Nedeau (R-Meredith) maintained that the convention lacks the authority to direct the commissioners on what bills should be paid.
Members of the newly-elected Executive Committee George Hurt (R-Gilford) and Brian Gallagher (R-Tilton) have expressed reluctance to vote on budget transfers for legal fees until they have more information about the fees and under what authority they were incurred.

Norman Lyford harvesting ice on Squam Lake for 70th consecutive year

SANDWICH — The annual ice harvest which will fill the antique ice boxes at the Rockywold-Deepahven camps on Squam Lake next summer got underway yesterday at Squaw Cove, a few miles up Rte. 113 from the camps.
Taking part for the 70th straight year was Norman Lyford, 88, of Ashland, who first started working on the ice harvest with his father, Colby, back when they used horses to pull the blocks of ice from the lake and haul them to ice houses.
''We used a one-lunger engine with a saw like you'd use for cordwood. It had a wide belt which ran the saw,'' said Lyford, explaining that a one-lunger was an engine with only one cylinder that made a distinctive pop and chugging sound while running.
The three-day harvest will see about 3,600 blocks of ice, weighing between 125 and 150 pounds each, cut from the ice and pushed and pulled through a 16-inch wide channel where they are winched up a ramp and layered into the back of a pickup truck, which hauls them away 15 blocks at a time as a new pickup truck comes onto the ice to handle the next load.
John Jurczynski, manager of the Rockywold-Deephaven camps, oversees about a dozen workers during the three-day harvest and says that about 20 years ago the camps tried to switch to electric refrigerators but got no support from their customers, who wanted the old, historic ice boxes instead.
He said that the ice harvest tradition stretches back over 100 years at the camp and usually takes place in mid or late January, when the ice reaches a depth of at least 12 inches on one of the two coves used as harvest sites.
Ice harvesters use a 36-inch motorized ice saw attached to a sled-like undercarriage to cut 40-foot-long, 16-inch wide ice blocks which are then sawed across the long cut at 20-inch intervals. They use power saws to complete the cuts, using power saws with no lubrication on their chains to keep the lake water free of contaminants.
The blocks are then pushed with long hooked poles across the open water to the narrow channel where they are lined up for loading.
Helping push the blocks along was CeeCee White of Sandwich, whose husband Dave was working with a power saw, and will spend all three days at the harvest.
''We get to keep about 150 blocks of ice for our ice house,'' says White, who says that she and her husband use an ice box instead of a refrigerator at their home, which produces its own electricity and is not connected to the electrical grid.
''We've been taking part in the ice harvest ever since 2002 and think it's a great tradition,'' says White.

Price of gas below $2 at handful of local stations

LACONIA — Three of the 10 filling stations in the city reporting to the Gas Buddy website, which closely monitors fuel prices in the United States and Canada, are selling regular unleaded gasoline for less than $2 a gallon for the first time in nearly six years.

Yesterday Oasis Gas and Mini Market at the foot of Prescott Hill and Premium Mart on Court Street posted the lowest price of $1.97 per gallon, followed closely by Shop Express at the corner of Union Avenue and Gilford Avenue. Prices at eight of the 10 stations were below the average price in New Hampshire of $2.20 per gallon, 10 cents above the national average. Prices are also below $2 per gallon at the Irving stations in Belmont and Tilton and at the Citgo station at the Airport Country Store & Deli in Gilford.

In the past year the average price of gasoline in the state has fallen $1.20, from $3.40 to $2.20 per gallon, or by more than a third. In the last month , and has dropped n 50 cents per gallon in the last month alone and by more than a dime in the last week.

"It's a crazy market," said Dave DeVoy, who owns and operates the Gilford Mobil Mart. "We're changing prices every day." He expected every station in the local market to be selling at less than $2 per gallon by next week. He was at $2.02 on Tuesday.

With rapidly falling and frequently changing prices, DeVoy said that he aims to hold on to his regular customers by pegging prices to his major competitors, Irving and Cumberland Farms, maintaining his profit margins. He said that because stations like Oasis Gas and Mini Market and Premium Mart purchase unbranded gasoline for less than the cost of branded gasoline he cannot meet their price. But, he added that when prices fall sharply, consumers, who are paying significantly less to fill their tanks, are less likely to shop around to save a penny or two than they are when prices are rising.

Apart from tracking the competition, DeVoy said that the 2 percent he pays on credit card transactions also factors into his pricing strategy. "When I started in the business," he recalled, "20 percent of customers paid with credit cards, but today its 80 percent. For every dollar of gas I sell on a credit card, I get 98 cents."

Wholesale price declines, which have outpaced price cuts at the pump, have significantly reduced costs and raised profits to station owners. According to the Oil Price Information Service for the past five years retail prices have exceeded wholesale prices by about 17 cents, a difference that has stretched to more than 21 cents. Butt, discounting for credit card fees and other operating costs, the National Association of Convenience Stores reports that the net profit of gasoline sales averages approximately three cents,

DeVoy acknowledged that his costs have dropped, but cautioned that as prices continue to fall, he must price to avoid the risk of paying more for the gas he purchases than he receives for the gas he sells. "I can't sell below cost," he said flatly, "but I'll take low gas prices any time. The only ones getting hurt are big oil and big banks."

At City Council, mayor addresses ‘disinformation’ about Belknap Mill

LACONIA — When the City Council met last night Mayor Ed Engler took the opportunity to correct what he called "misinformation and disinformation" about the financial challenges facing the Belknap Mill Society and the position of the council with respect to them.

Chris Santaniello, president of the Belknap Mill Society has informed the council that it lacks the resources to sustain its ownership of the historic building and has offered the property to the city for an undisclosed price. The council declined the offer and urged the trustees of the society to seek alternative arrangements with other partners. A meeting of the members of the society will be held tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. at the mill to address the situation.

The mayor said that it has been said, both on the radio and in the community, that the council has agreed to act as "the buyer of last resort," which he insisted "is not a true statement. Engler repeated that the council has met with trustees of the mill and "discussed a number of alternatives," but stressed "there is a large difference between discussions and decisions." He insisted that the council has made no decision or taken any votes either in public or in private.

Likewise, Engler said that some have claimed that the two law firms renting space in the mill — Attorney Matt Lahey, a sole practitioner, and the Mitchell Municipal Group P.A. — pay "unfairly low rents," which is the root of the financial problems that beset the society. He said that he has read and analyzed both leases and has some understanding of the market for office space. Describing the market as glutted and soft, he said both tenants "could relocate for comparable, if not lower rents, than what they pay at the mill."

Moreover, Engler dismissed the suggestion that lack of rental income is the cause of the financial troubles of the society. He pointed out that until recently there were three tenants at the mill and the annual rental income was $35,000, a small share of the society's operating budget of about $200,000.

"Good, honorable people can have differences," the mayor remarked, then recalled the old adage that "everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts."