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Brenda Baer says this next term on council will be her last

LACONIA — City Councilor Brenda Baer, who is running without an opponent for her fifth consecutive term in Ward 4, confirmed yesterday that her next term will be her last. "Absolutely, positively," she said, "unless they find a cure for old age. You can't go on forever." She had made an offhand remark to the same effect the night before at the Belknap Mill where she was among the handful at the mayoral debate.

Baer, who is 87, said that she has undergone four surgeries in the last three years and insists while "everything is fine" concedes "it take something out of you."

Baer's tenure on the City Council has taken her full circle, turning on her relationship with the School Board and its supporters as the city invested some $40 million in building a new middle school and making major improvements to the Huot Technical Center and Laconia High School.

After losing her first bid for City Council to incumbent Jim Cowan by just 22 votes in 2003, two years later Baer was among the six candidates running in opposition to the proposed property tax cap and in support of the public schools. The slate of candidates was endorsed by "Laconians for Sensible Government," which mounted a well financed advertising campaign on their behalf. With Cowan eliminated in the primary, Baer carried Ward 4 by 14 votes over conservative Mike Verhoeks.

Baer backed construction of the new middle school in 2006, but soon displayed her independence by casting the lone vote against the budget in 2007 when she failed to persuade her colleagues to provide adequate funding for public transportation for seniors. At the same time, in a show of solidarity, she was among the five councilors seeking re-election to file together before the cameras at City Hall.

Although all were re-elected, in 2008, when the School Board sought funding to rebuild the Huot Regional Technical Educaiton Center, the council split, with Baer joining the block of four who withheld funding for the project. When she ran for re-election in 2009 she met with opposition from the same forces that carried her to office four years before. Mike Seymour and Marge Kerns, both of whom had chaired the School Board, ran for mayor and city council in Ward 1 respectively while Mayor Matt Lahey stepped down to run for the council seat in Ward 2 and Jack Terrill challenged Baer in Ward 4.

Shortly after the incumbent councilors again filed for re-election en masse, Baer, in a letter to the local newspapers, warned against the move by the School Board to take over city government. "Once they get in," she wrote, "you will never balance the budget and the school's spending will continue to skyrocket and you will have a new high school whether you can afford it or not." She said that she retired her debt to her former allies with the construction of the middle school. On the eve of the election Baer hosted a "Celebration of Solidarity," excluding Kerns and Terrill from those invited. Lahey called her rally "an exclusionary and divisive sideshow" and endorsed Terrill.

Baer edged Terrill by six votes to win a third term and was the lone dissenter when the council ultimately authorized funding for the renovation and expansion of the Huot Center. When Terrill challenged her again in 2011, Baer stretched her margin of victory to 110 votes.

Last year, as the council wrapped the $16.8 million financing package for the high school project by approving a borrowing of $1 million, Mayor Seymour recognized Baer, who remarked "Scrooge is up." She recalled that the budget for the project had swelled from $10 million when the council first approved it to more than $16 million and said that she initially opposed it. However, when the district was offered an interest-free loan of $6.5 million, she voted to accept it on the understanding that the funds would be spent on the Huot Center and high school. But, she said that since some $3 million was being spent on the football field, she would vote against any further borrowing.

And last week, when the School District sought the council's approval to accept a second interest-free loan, this time of $1.28 million to install a sprinkler system and air handlers at the high school, Baer again balked. She said that there was enough money to address these and other life-safety issues, but the School Board and City Council chose to spend on the playing fields.

"I've evolved," Baer acknowledged, describing her time on the council as "a learning curve." Initially opposed to the tax cap, she declared "thank God it's been in place. It has kept us from spending beyond our means."

"I've always been for the schools and I'm still for the schools," she insisted. "But, basically it's the money thing that gets to me."
The next to oldest of 14 children, Baer was raised in the midst of the Great Depression in Springfield, Massachusetts, where she said her father practiced law and her mother "ran back and forth to the hospital." She recalled that her father bartered his legal services, representing clients in return for necessities. "You didn't have anything," she said. "But there was always plenty and what you didn't have, you didn't miss."

After graduating from high school at 16, Baer went through a succession of jobs before becoming a secretary at the Indian Motorcycle factory, where she worked for Fritzie Baer in sales and marketing. She married his son, Bob, whom she met after he returned from racing motorcycles in Florida. In the 1950s, Fritzie became the manager of what was then the Belknap Mountain Recreation Area and is now Gunstock.

"Bob went to work with his father and we moved to Laconia," Baer said. "I arrived on New Year's Eve, 1956, right on the stroke of midnight." All three of the Baers worked at Gunstock until they were let go when the resort underwent a major reorganization and restructuring in the 1960s. The Baers remained in Laconia, sending their four children through the public schools. Brenda spent 10 years at Lakes Region General Hospital and also worked at the Laconia Clinic and Franklin Regional Hospital before retiring. A three sport athlete in high school, Baer has been an avid golfer well into her 80s.

Baer said that "maybe with two years to think about it, somebody will step out and run for seat."

Last Updated on Friday, 01 November 2013 02:57

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Pitman's appears to be arson target; 2nd time this fall

LACONIA — For the second time in a month, it appears Pitman's Freight Room on New Salem Street has been the target of an arsonist.

At 3:05 a.m. yesterday, firefighters again responded to the live entertainment venue and function hall to extinguish a fire that started and burned in the exact same area as a fire that that burned on September 28.

Firefighters also responded at the same time to three additional fires that were apparently set in two dumpsters and a wooden fence behind the Beacon Street West building (Streetcar Place) that houses Hector's restaurant and other businesses and offices.

"This is really upsetting," said Pitman's manager Maureen Bienairz-Pond as she surveyed the damage around noon yesterday. "This is my second home."

Last night there was supposed to be a Halloween party at Pitman's that was slated to be the grand re-opening. This weekend a blues band was scheduled to perform, but Bienairz-Pond said yesterday that all upcoming events again needed to be canceled.

At least three representatives from the N.H. Fire Marshal's Office and Laconia Fire Chief Ken Erickson and Deputy Charlie Boffo were at Pitman's yesterday morning.

The calls came in to Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid and were reported as two building fires burning at the same time — one on Water Street and one on New Salem Street. Red smoke could be seen billowing from the area as city police cruisers crawled slowly around the nearby streets and neighborhoods looking for anyone who may have seen or heard anything out of the ordinary.

Firefighters from Laconia, Gilford, Belmont worked for about an hour to extinguish the fires in what seemed to be an otherwise vacant city.

Erickson said yesterday that the smoke was so thick when the first firefighters arrived at Pitman's, the lieutenant in charged was barely able to see the building. He also said the smoke alarms didn't sound. The fire was reported by a passerby.

Firefighters quickly knocked down the flames that charred the porch on the railroad tracks side of the building – away from the street — and shot up through the heating system, that had just been replaced because of the September fire.

This time, the fire burned through a corner of an attached building owned by David Gammon, and Sheila and Steve Bartlett. The September fire didn't reach that building.

Erickson said the September fire set off the smoke alarms that alerted firefighters who were nearby because they were returning from a different calls. Last night, firefighters responded initially from the main, North Main Street, station.

Gammon, a former city councilor, said yesterday that he has no idea what's going on but said having someone apparently running around the city setting fires is very unsettling.

He said the only hidden place around Pitman's and the adjacent antique shop run by his sister is the back porch where both of the fires have been started. He also said that as far as his building is concerned, he knows it's going to get somewhat wet during the rain but said he will have to replace the corner of the roof and the flashing around the chimney.

Erickson estimated the damage done to both buildings at around $30,000.

Councilor Matt Lahey also went to see the damage yesterday and called the fires "disconcerting."

Counting the fires last night, there have been four multi-alarm fires in the city — starting with the September 22 three-alarm blaze that gutted the commercial building on the corner of Fair and Court Streets. A second fire during the same time charred a garage on Bay Street.

The next weekend a two-alarm blaze destroyed the former motel of the Christmas Island Steak House that had been slated for demolition. The same weekend, Pitman's Freight Room burned the first time and three other smaller suspicious fires were extinguished around the Water Street area.

Police Capt. Bill Clary is leading the city's investigation.

"We are obviously seeking the public's help," Clary said yesterday afternoon. "This is is priority for us right now and we're committing lots of resources to it."

"We're hoping we can find anyone who saw anything or anyone before or after any one of these fires," he said.

He said all angles are being actively investigated. He noted that spite, thrills, and financial gain are all possible motives for arson but declined to comment specifically about any of the recent fires.

Clary said there is up to a $1,000 reward for arrests and convictions that come from the Greater Laconia Crime Line at 524-1717 which is anonymous. Police can also be reached by calling 524-5252 or by going to www.laconiapd.org and clicking on the anonymous tip icon.

Last Updated on Friday, 01 November 2013 03:03

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With World Series on TV, few Laconia residents interested in mayoral debate

LACONIA — With Tuesday's municipal election fast approaching, the two candidates for mayor — Kailief Mitchell and Ed Engler — appeared at Belknap Mill last evening to field prepared questions before a half-dozen people, among them two city councilors, Mitchell's father and a student too young to vote.

It was the third time the pair were together on the same stage, including their appearance on WMUR-TV earlier this month, and their answers to the questions posed by moderator Robert Fisher, a former Democratic candidate for the New Hampshire House of Representatives, took well trodden paths.

Engler, the president and editor of The Laconia Daily Sun, said that he decided to run because "it matters very much who is the mayor of Laconia," explaining that when none of those he expected to run entered the race, "I did." Mitchell, an academic assistant at the Spaulding Youth Center, viewed his candidacy as "a natural progression," noting that he has served as a poll worker in Ward 5 for the past six years.

Asked to identify the city's strongest and weakest qualities, both pointed to its natural surroundings as its most important asset and its aging population as its greatest liability. Mitchell expressed concern that young people were leaving the city and not returning, while Engler stressed the high number of unemployed or under-employed.

Referring to this "underclass," Engler said that addressing the demographic problem held the key to reducing the abuse and trade of drugs.
Mitchell said that citizens represented "the first line of defense" and that the citizens police academy, where officers introduce residents to the staples of police work, would prepare them for this role.

Mitchell referred to the traffic pattern as "the major obstacle" to the revitalization of downtown. He said that steps must be taken to expand the tax base in order to provide the resources to address the traffic pattern. With respect to downtown Engler said "what we lack now is a specific plan of what we want our downtown to be." Once a consensus is reached, he continued, then "we can ask what do we have to do to get there." He stressed that in weighing the future of downtown the mix of housing must be considered along with the businesses.

Mitchell and Engler agreed that the redevelopment of the Allen-Rogers complex represented a significant benefit to the city. Engler took the question as an opportunity to note that the closing of the factory and loss of the jobs was a blow to the city and a reminder that "we're never going to replace those jobs." Instead, he emphasized the opportunity to develop the skilled workforce needed by advanced manufacturing firms in the region.

Mitchell repeated his opposition to a "Pay-As-You-Throw" trash program while offering qualified support for the mandatory recycling program introduced in July. He said that he would prefer a recycling program that provided tax incentives to residents based on how much they recycled, without explaining how it would operate. Engler said he had no "philosophical objections" to either program. He expected the mandatory program to meet the target set by the budget and to continue. But he said that it still costs almost $600,000 a year to dispose of trash, adding "in effect we're burning that money." Noting that other municipalities recycle a much larger share of their trash, he said there are opportunities for greater savings.

The two agreed that the former Laconia State School property represents a potentially valuable asset to the city, which should work with the state towards its redevelopment. Mitchell said the state should offer tax incentives to persuade businesses to locate there while Engler described a corporate office park on the site as "a game changer" that would not only provide employment but also right the demographic balance in the city.

In closing, Engler said that the candidates' positions on particular issues were less important than which of the two "is most capable of being mayor," to which Mitchell responded "it's going to be a tough decision."

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 October 2013 04:14

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Gilford School Board reaches agreement with union

GILFORD — The school district and the Gilford Education Association have agreed on and the union membership has ratified a 3-year collective bargaining agreement that will add $111,798 to the salary and benefits portion of the 2014-2015 school budget.

If approved at annual Town Meeting, the agreement will be in effect from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017 and affects 121 education professionals including teachers, guidance counselors, specialists and other professional staff.

Budget increases total another $257,911 in 2015-2016 and an additonal $260,323 in 2016-2017.

The contract amounts will appear on the SB-2 Official Ballot in March. According to state law, the voters can vote up or down on the dollar amount of the contract but the amount cannot be changed during the annual deliberative session part of the annual meeting.

According to Superintendent Kent Hemingway and School Board Chair Sue Allen, the new contract represents an average 3 percent annual raise for the next three years.

"Where the collaboration happened is with the health care benefits," Hemingway said, noting that every dollar increase in health care costs not only costs the taxpayers and employees money but represents money that leaves the community.

Savings of $156,056 in the first year in the benefits line represents what both described as a unified approach to the rising costs of health care.

Hemingway said the union and the administration jointly embarked on a health care review in preparation for the recent contract talks and all parties agreed and realized that rising health care costs were the single biggest driver of school budget increases.

He said the biggest change is the elimination of the current $1 mail-in prescription program employees have enjoyed.

The other significant health care change was an agreement to provide a Matthew-Thornton HMO plan on the menu of health care options. Hemingway said the Blue Cross Anthem plan is still available for employees who want to pay the additional cost but the basic insurance program is a different model.

Allen said the school district agreed to pay about 95-percent of the costs of the new base health plan in exchange for the HMO-type base plan.

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 October 2013 02:38

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