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Judge declines to order meeting but county crisis eases a bit

LACONIA — After the Belknap County Commissioners met with county department heads yesterday the fiscal crisis threatening operations eased somewhat despite the refusal of Justice James D. O'Neill, III of Belknap County Superior Court to compel the executive committee of the Belknap County Convention to consider transfers of funds before next week.

Last month, O'Neill prohibited the commissioners from either spending in excess of any line-item appropriation made by the convention or transferring more than $300 from one line-item to another without the approval of the Executive Committee. When appropriations for wages of part-time employees, overtime and medical expenses were exhausted, the commissioners feared for sufficient line-item budget room to staff the nursing home, county jail and sheriff's department and to provide inmates with required medications.

Anticipating that without transferring funds the staff of the nursing home would have to be halved at 11 a.m. on Friday, the commission asked the court to compel the executive committee to meet Thursday to approve the transfers. Yesterday morning O'Neill denied the request. However, he closed his order by reminding the convention and the commission that both are obliged "to responsibly fund the essential services at issue in this case.'" He went on to say that they can "work in concert" and offered to approve any agreement between them to transfer the funds required until September 29 when the executive committee meets to consider the commission's request for transfers. The commissions, then, would not be in contempt of the judge's order for transferring budged amounts between line items without them officially being approved by the executive committee.

In response, Representative Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), chairman of the executive committee, said last night that in response to concerns about providing medications to inmates, he has convened a meeting of the committee at noon tomorrow to address "this one particular item. It is an emergency," he continued, "and we recognize that." He said that he has contacted four of the seven members of the committee, who would constitute the quorum required to act.

In denying the commission's request, O'Neill questioned whether, in light of the separation of powers, a judicial officer could compel a legislative body to act in a specific way. Moreover, noting that the executive committee has scheduled a meeting on Monday, September 29, the judge found no indication that it has acted in bad faith so as to warrant direction by the court.

Likewise, O'Neill declined to relax his original order and allow the commission to transfer enough money to fund essential services until the executive committee meets on Monday. He said that the commission was unable to specify just how much was required to fund services through the weekend.

When the commission addressed what they called "the imminent and dire consequences" of the court orders with department heads yesterday, Commissioner Ed Philpot of Laconia said that "we have been told we cannot do our job," but insisted "we can't violate the court order in letter or in spirit."

Commissioner Steve Nedeau of Meredith agreed, saying "I don't know what we can do other that follow the order of the court."

John Thomas, the third commissioner, was traveling abroad and unable to attend the meeting.

Charlotte Flanagan, administrator of the nursing home, said that the full-time employees of the nursing home have volunteered to work overtime and assured the commissioners that adequate staffing can be funded until Monday. "I'm very grateful to our staff," she said.

However, Dan Ward, Superintendent of the county jail, remains concerned, especially about his ability to provide inmates with medications and treatment ordered by the court, which Tilton has agreed to address for the short term. He said without the requested transfers of funds he cannot ensure inmates, at least one with diabetes who requires regular insulin and others needing cardiac medications, will receive the medical services and supplies they need. He reminded the commissioners that the medical needs of inmates changes almost daily with the jail population. Failure to provide medicines, he said, represents "gross negligence" and the first person refused medication could appeal to the federal court.

"We can't put someone in a life-threatening situation," interrupted Sheriff Craig Wiggin. "If it comes down to a question of public safety, I'll do what has to be done and worry about it later.

"We're not going to let anyone die," Philpot said.

Ward told the commissioners that although he expects the jail can be adequately staffed, "I can't hang a 'no vacancy sign on the door," and cautioned that changes in the number or mix of inmates could place severe pressure on available personnel. He explained that if necessary the jail would be locked down by curtailing visitations, suspending programs and confining inmates to their cells. He said that he has notified both the county sheriff and Laconia Police to be prepared to provide assistance and said that in the event of a significant emergency he would summon the Belknap Regional Special Operations Group.

Wiggin said that lack of funding for overtime is weighing on the ability of the Sheriff's Department to provide dispatch services, but he does not expect they will be interrupted or curtailed. He also is short of funds for vehicle maintenance, but anticipates no immediate problem. Neither Barbara Luther, Registrar of Deeds, nor County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen foresaw urgent funding issues.

Philpot said that during the court proceedings the day before he sensed "an undercurrent that the county was badly managed" in that the requests for transfers reflected the failure of department heads and commissioners to accurately project operating costs. He said that the costs change with the changing populations of the nursing home and jail and cannot be projected with precision.

"If they want someone to blame," Philpot said. "Blame me, but let's get past the blame and get on with providing the services we're here to provide."

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 September 2014 01:09

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Hassan's choice for regulatory panel has Newfound-based anti-wind farm forces up in arms

by Thomas P. Caldwell

BRISTOL — The Newfound Lake Wind Watch page on Facebook is abuzz with complaints about Governor Maggie Hassan's nomination of state Senator Bob Odell to one of two "public" seats on the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee, which reviews energy proposals for the state. Not only do they see it as hijacking the grassroots voice on the oversight committee, many think Odell's previous support of a wind project in Lempster proves he would not be an impartial voice.
The group, now known as New Hampshire Wind Watch, is mobilizing to kill the nomination when it goes before the Executive Council for confirmation on Oct. 1. By calling, writing, and e-mailing the governor and members of the Executive Council, members hope to convince them that Odell is not the right person for the job.
The N.H. Legislature, in redefining the SEC though Senate Bill 245, reduced the size of the panel from 15 to nine members, of which two were to be members of the public — and one of those must be an attorney. Hassan has not yet named an attorney but she nominated Odell, with Representative Amanda Merrill as alternate, to the other "public" seat.
"New Hampshire Wind Watch is appalled by the governor's selection," said Lori Lerner, president of the nonprofit organization. "It was evident throughout the many hearings and committee meetings leading to SB-245's passage that the Legislature wanted to invite greater public involvement of those who ultimately must live with the decisions of the SEC. We need fresh eyes on the SEC and the sense that the 'public' is really being represented. Senator Odell's nomination flies in the face of that intent."
Sen. Jeanie Forrester of Meredith, who was a sponsor of SB-245, agreed. "While I have a great deal of respect both for Sen. Odell and Sen. Merrill, both of whom I have served with, the intent of the legislation was to have the public interest represented."
The SEC originally comprised the heads of 15 state agencies. SB-245 recognized the impracticality of having department heads serving as judges on the energy projects being proposed for the state. Instead, under the bill, the departments would continue to provide the critical information needed to make decisions, but seven individuals nominated and vetted through the same process used for senior agency leaders would be used to appoint the panel. An additional two members would represent the public.
During the hearings, the lack of representation by the municipalities affected by the decisions was an important consideration. While the SEC has the authority to overrule local planning and zoning laws in deciding about the greater public good, the towns had no seat at the table during the discussions. SB-245 addressed the problem by requiring regional representation by two members of the public, one of which would be an attorney capable of reviewing the legal issues involved. The other public member also would be charged with considering local zoning ordinances and municipal master plans in reaching a decision on whether the project is in the public interest.
According to an analysis of the bill provided by Lerner last spring, Odell had asked Commissioner Tom Burack of the N.H. Department of Environmental Services whether the bill made "too radical" of a change. "Burack replied that it was 'evolutionary' change warranted by the changing energy marketplace and by the budget realities facing all state agencies."
In addition to changing the makeup of the panel, SB-245 requires an applicant to hold pre-application and post-application public information meetings, followed by a public hearing to give members of the public an opportunity to meaningfully participate in the process. It also requires applicants to pay a fee to cover the SEC costs associated with the project, including the cost of a staff director to manage the SEC's work.
Forrester said, "One of the things we heard throughout the process of all these pieces of legislation, starting with SB-99, was the lack of trust people had with Concord and the feeling that legislators, with the lobbyists and business community and developers, were not really acting in their best interest. So we thought really hard about the importance of having someone on the SEC that would put the public interest into the process; so there would be someone from the public.
"It started out with many more members of the public," she said, but they reduced the number to keep the panel manageable. "But the intent was to have someone at the grassroots level, like a planning commission member, a selectman, a zoning board member, who would represent the communities' best interest."
Addressing the stipulation that one of the public representatives be a lawyer, Forrester said it was not something she supported but "I was only one person, and you have to make compromises to get something passed."
She concluded, "Clearly what you're going to be hearing from the public is they are not happy with the governor's choice because it is truly not what they — or I — envisioned."

Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 September 2014 12:58

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Newfound board orders study of controversial K-6/7-12 education model

by Thomas P. Caldwell

BRISTOL — Clearly frustrated by the fact that no one had set up a projection system for the Monday meeting of the Newfound Area School Board and that information placed on the district website did not match the data that had been presented to the board, Bristol's representative, Ben LaRoche, offered a motion to move forward and change the configuration of schools to a K-6 model.
The motion came after a public hearing during which most of those in the audience expressed support for the current configuration that has students in grades 6-8 attending classes at Newfound Memorial Middle School. It was the second meeting at which residents overwhelmingly stood by the middle school concept.
Largely absent were those who have been calling for a change to keep sixth graders at the elementary schools, amidst charges that the middle school produces poor test results and exposes young children to drugs. Largely because of those concerns, voters in Bridgewater and Hebron had called for a study of the feasibility of withdrawing from the seven-town cooperative school district.
Because it was not the first time a member town has considered withdrawing, Groton board member Jeff Levesque had called for a public discussion of the possible closing of the middle school and changing to a K-6 and 7-12 educational model. At the first meeting, earlier this month, participants complained that the board had provided no reason to even consider such a move. In response, the board agreed to publish some of the data driving the discussion in time for people to digest it before the Sept. 22 meeting.
A slow response from board members about what to include for information, along with computer problems, prevented Chair Ruby Hill of Danbury from pulling together the key points in time for publication in the newspapers, so she arranged for the data to be placed on the school district website ahead of Monday's meeting.
Vice-Chair Vincent Migliore of Bridgewater had planned to go over the numbers while they were projected overhead during the meeting, but none of the technicians had followed through on the setup, leaving Migliore to speak without visual aids.
"People are giving opinions on what needs to be done at the middle school, but nothing will pass unless we put together a comprehensive plan that shows what we will accomplish," said Migliore.
Picking up on Hill's comment that studies take time and leave a lot of people wondering if the school board is capable of making a decision, LaRoche said that, to move things along, he would offer his motion to direct the superintendent to transition the district to a K-6 model. "I realize it's probably not popular," said LaRoche, "but I'm convinced some change needs to happen. We need a motion that focuses the direction and will allow us to come up with what the numbers are, what the problems are. It's very difficult to look at all the options and know what's needed when there are so many possibilities."
He added, "I find it a very frustrating thing, like the technology tonight. It's frustrating that I can find an obituary from 1894 on the Internet, but I can't find information on middle school costs, and then to have a member of the public come to us with a document from 2003 that was probably easy to find."
He was referring to a study the school district had done when John Graziano was superintendent which outlined all the maintenance that the district schools required. Bristol resident Steve Favorite brought a copy of the report to the meeting, but Superintendent Stacy Buckley said she had been unable to find the information at the central office.
Migliore said that adopting a K-6 model would effectively stall the movement to have Bridgewater and Hebron withdraw from the district.
LaRoche's motion went down in defeat after Buckley pointed out that having the numbers in time for the 2015-16 academic year would be impossible, since that budget is being developed now. "I would ask for time to do the study well and make sure we do it right," she said.
The school board spent almost an hour trying various motions that would explore a K-6 configuration but various board members had objections to each of them. While Hill said she supported a K-6 configuration, she had concerns about how to implement the change in a way that would have all of the schools "in the same place at the same time" rather than some schools making the change and others continuing with the current setup.
Levesque wanted to make sure that any plan included the means to keep the middle school open, even if it meant putting some elementary classrooms or the school administrative unit office there. Although he had brought up the issue of closing the school so the discussion would occur, he said he did not favor the closing.
Hebron member Don Franklin wanted to be sure that any study would give the newly formed facilities committee, of which he is chair, a chance to consider the best use of the buildings the school district maintains. The district as a whole maintains five schools with Bridgewater and Hebron handling the maintenance of the Bridgewater-Hebron Village School which those towns built and have been leasing to the school district for $1 a year.
While saying she already has had too little time to address academic issues, Buckley said it made sense to explore the change to K-6 but she would want to do it right so the district would not be facing oversized classes with a fluctuation in student population.
Buckley took the opportunity to say that talk of drugs at the middle school was overblown. She said there had been only two incidents with drugs last year, adding that drug use is a community problem, similar to other communities in the state. She created a stir in the audience when she revealed that a bag of heroin had been discovered in the elementary school parking lot.
Christine Davol of New Hampton was adamantly opposed to a K-6 change, asking how it would make things better for the district.
During the public comment period, Erin Camire of Bristol commented, "I've heard a lot about the cost of this and that. As a taxpayer, school safety and education are the most important. I will do everything I can to get my kids out of the school district if you go to 7-12, and so will a lot of other parents. You're worried about declining enrollments, but what will that do to your numbers? High school is intimidating enough for high school students; it's not for seventh and eighth graders. Listen to the taxpayers and the children, not to someone getting paid to do a study."
Levesque responded, "People said they're sick of hearing about the money, but without money, we can't make anything happen. Educating children costs money. To criticize us for talking about costs is not right."
In the end, the school board approved a motion directing the superintendent to come up with a plan to implement a K-6 configuration for the 2016-17 school year for board consideration in April.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 September 2014 12:50

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Council parks contentious Weirs zoning ordinance change

LACONIA — The City Council on Monday shelved a resolution asking the Planning Board to recommend amending the zoning ordinance to designate "vehicle dealership, sales and service" a permitted use in the commercial resort district, which includes almost all of the Weirs. The vote was unanimous.

The ordinance currently requires a so-called special exception to operate an automotive facility in the district.

The resolution was offered in response to decisions of the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) to deny special exceptions to John Ganong, who sought to display eight used cars on his property at 355 Weirs Boulevard, and Charles Gulbicki of Gulbicki's Towing and Auto Repair at 1193 Weirs Boulevard. Earlier the ZBA granted a special exception to Benson's Auto, Inc. of Franklin to sell vehicles from a lot at the corner of Rollercoaster Road and Rte 3 in the commercial resort district.

Originally peaking in support of the resolution, Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4) said there were two issues, the obligation of the council to serve its constituents and encourage local businesses. "It's a matter of fairness and loyalty to taxpayers," she said. The resolution, she explained, provided "another avenue," not only for Ganong but for any entrepreneur. Baer said that amending the ordinance was "the fair thing to do" and would "make it easier to do business."

Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5) agreed, adding that the Planning Board should also consider the uses that are permitted without a special exception in the commercial resort district, which include nightclubs and sexually oriented businesses.

However, Councilor Ava Doyle (Ward 1), whose ward includes much of the commercial resort district, said flatly "I can't support this," reporting that "everyone I've heard from is opposed to this." The Weirs, she noted, is home to significant investment in tourism and hospitality, but, also includes a number of undeveloped properties that would become inviting to automotive dealers. "We could end up with Crazy Harry's Last Ditch Car Dealer," she warned. Doyle suggested that the Planning Board be asked to consider changing the zoning ordinance to prohibit automotive dealerships in the commercial resort district.

"This is not the way to go," declared Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2), who said that amending the zoning ordinance to address a particular case is "a knee-jerk reaction to a single issue."

"We are here for one person," Baer countered.

"We listen to everybody," Bownes replied, adding that if there is a problem with the zoning ordinance, "we should address it comprehensively."

Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) said "I want a result, not a tennis match."

Mayor Ed Engler suggested tabling the resolution on the understanding that an alternative resolution will be drafted to request the Planning Board to review all the uses permitted, prohibited and requiring a special exception in the commercial resort district and to recommend changes to the council. But the council instead decided to defeat the resolution as presented and return to discuss a broader resolution at the next meeting.

In 2007, when consultants sponsored from the United States Environmental Protection Agency considered the future development of the city, they noted that 85 percent of The Weirs is zoned for commercial uses and only 15 percent for residential uses. Their report recommended "refining" the zoning by replacing the one district — commercial resort — with a number of smaller districts, each with defined uses. Nothing has been done in response to this suggestion.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 September 2014 12:43

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