Commissioners slam delegation for using surplus to cut taxes (555)


LACONIA — Two of the three Belknap County Commissioners Wednesday morning criticized the Belknap County Delegation's decision on Tuesday night to use an additional $605,000 from the county's fund balance in order to reduce taxes.
Commissioner Hunter Taylor, who pointed out that the cut amounts to about $15 for the average property taxpayer in the county, said that the money was "not wisely spent." Citing a sharp increase in heroin-related deaths, he suggested that the money could have been used instead to help deal with the drug problem.
"There are crises in our county. Instead of doing something constructive, the delegation decided to give $15 in tax relief," said Taylor, who also criticized lawmakers for not fully funding requests from outside agencies as "extraordinarily shortsighted."
He said that outside agencies like the Community Action Program, whose funding was cut from $86,905 to $60,000, provide vital services such as Meals on Wheels, rural transportation and senior companion programs, which enable elderly residents to remain in their homes rather than moving into nursing homes, and this helps save the county money.
Taylor also pointed out that the roof at the Belknap County Nursing Home has failed and that it will cost at least $550,000 to fix it, which he said would have been a wise use of the money which went to tax relief.
Commission Chairman David DeVoy (R-Sanbornton), who tried unsuccessfully Tuesday night to persuade the legislators to apply the $605,000 to pay for replacing the nursing home roof, said that the tax relief is only temporary as the county will now likely have to float a $550,000 bond issue to pay for roof repairs, which also cost $190,000 in interest for a 20-year bond.
Following DeVoy's Tuesday night presentation on the roof project, Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) questioned DeVoy's numbers on the bond, maintaining that it didn't need to be a 20-year bond and that a bond might not even be necessary as the county might be able to include the roof in its maintenance budget and pay for it all in one year.
The delegation approved a budget Tuesday night which reduces the amount to be raised by taxes by $873,374 from the budget proposed by Commissioners, with the bulk of that decrease coming from the use of an additional $605,000 from the county's fund balance to pay existing debt.
The fund balance, which some legislators refer to as the county's "rainy day fund," had been projected at $3.7 million in last year's budget but came in at $4.3 million at the end of the year. Legislators voted to increase the amount used to reduce property taxes from the $1.775 million recommended by the commissioners to $2,380,000.
The fund balance is made up of appropriated funds which are not spent and unanticipated funds which exceed estimates, which DeVoy said happened last year when the nursing home received nearly $1 million above estimates. But he said there is no guarantee that will happen again and said the county should look to the future and manage its fund balance wisely,
But Rep. Brian Gallagher (R-Sanbornton), who led the move to provide tax relief for county taxpayers and is a member of the House Finance Committee, told legislators Tuesday night that state revenues are running $40 million above estimates and that prospects good that there will be no cuts in funds going to county nursing homes.

Locals testify about agritourism at NH Senate subcommittee


CONCORD — There seemed to be overwhelming support at the State House for a New Hampshire Senate bill that would include agritourism under the state definition of agriculture but that would still allow autonomy to municipalities to enact reasonable ordinances that would regulate it at the local level.

Among those speaking in favor of SB-345 at Wednesday's Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee was District 7 State Sen. Andrew Hosmer, D-Laconia, who submitted an amendment that would strengthen local control by allowing local governments to limit the uses allowed under the definition of agritourism.

Lead sponsor Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, said Hosmer's suggestions were "redundant" but well meaning.

During his presentation, Hosmer said that in the past year he has become "quite familiar" with the rights of local property owners, but acknowledged that as a business owner, "like any business, you're either growing and evolving or you're going out of business."

He said on a last-minute whim last year, he and his wife attended a Farm to Table event at Timber Hill Road and found it to be a delightful event. He said it wasn't raucous and he left at 9 p.m.

But Hosmer also acknowledged the "balancing acts" that local land boards have to perform to make sure everybody's interests are properly served. He said there should be "reasonable parameters." Hosmer represents Gilford in the New Hampshire Senate.

Speaking against the bill was Gilford Planning Board member Norman Silber, who also voted against granting site plan approval to the Howes and Timber Hill Farm last month.

After hearing from the other property owners from the area near Timber Hill Farm and from others who don't live any where near it, he said because Gilford allows agriculture in all of its zones, he doesn't support a bill that could put the peace of mind of all single-family homeowners in peril.

Specifically to Gilford, he said he doesn't consider hosting weddings as agriculture or agritourism. He pointed to a private catering company, the fact that alcohol is served, amplified music and portable bathrooms with several hundred people. Silber went on to say that in Gilford's case the only connection to farming is that one spot on the property is pretty.

Specifically to SB-345, he said he doesn't think weddings are an accessory use.

"Weddings have nothing to do with agriculture," he said. "They (the Howes) have chosen to do this in the middle of a residential zone."

"If this bill passes, no one who owns a single-family home in New Hampshire is safe from encroaching commercial activities," he said.

Andrew, Martina and Zach Howe, the owners of Timber Hill Farm, were there and chose Andrew to speak for the family. He thanked Boutin for sponsoring the bill and said he and his family are very much in support of it.

Howe told the committee that he is "one of those farmers who has problem."

He said he's been farming for 40 years and his parents farmed the same piece of property, which has been a farm since 1741.

"Agritourism is in demand from our customers," he said. "They want to know more (about agriculture.)

Howe told the committee that while they have received a site plan from the Planning Board, it contains "significant restrictions to lessen the impact to our neighbors."

"It is not our intention to diminish their quality of life but recently my son returned to farming. But how do we support another family on our farm?" he said.

He said the spot he chose is the ideal spot favored by his customers, and the caterer has to serve food from his farm. The site plan review Howe recently received from the town set that minimum at 35 percent.

Howe said that the family doesn't have a food service license but they chose a reliable cater who is aware of the 35 percent restriction. "We're doing everything we can to abide by challenging restrictions," he said.

He also noted that the town is in litigation with one of his abutters and they are "being held up by them." Abutter Monique Twomeyis suing the town for actions taken by the Gilford Zoning Board of Adjustment when it refused to uphold a cease-and-desist order placed on the Howes by the town code enforcement officer. A hearing on a restraining order in Belknap County Superior Court is scheduled for March 7.

He reiterated that his family wants to be respectful to his neighbors but that he is just taking his business where the market is going.

"Farming is not what we do, farming is who we are," he said in closing.

SB-345 will be voted on in executive session and, if passed, will move to the full Senate for a vote.

Review goes ahead - County Sherriff’s Dept. to be questioned in wake of alleged sex crimes by former deputy


LACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners have agreed to move forward with a request from Belknap County Sheriff Craig Wiggin for an organizational review of the sheriff's department by an independent organization in the wake of the indictment of a former deputy with the department for multiple sex offenses.
The deputy, Ernest Justin Blanchette, 36, is being held on $100,000 cash-only bail or $400,000 corporate-surety bail for sex offenses allegedly committed against inmates who were in his custody when they were being transported by him from various jails and courtrooms in Belknap and Merrimack County.
Commissioner Hunter Taylor (R-ALton) said it was important that the department have policies and procedures in place "to prevent this from ever happening again, it is serious enough to have it looked at by an outside agency."
Commissioners agreed Wednesday morning to have County Administrator Debra Shackett talk with two consulting firms specializing in municipal affairs, Municipal Resources Inc. of Meredith and Matrix Consulting Group, a national consulting group with an office in Waltham, Massachusetts, about the process for conducting a review. They said the firm which is hired will report directly to them.
But Wiggin, who was not at the Wednesday morning meeting at which his request was discussed, said he has not discussed details with commissioners regarding his request and thinks it is premature at this point to undertake any review as there are ongoing court proceedings at which many of the people who would be interviewed as part of the review will be testifying.
He said that the review should be conducted "as soon as is practical."
Blanchette was indicted in October of 2015 by a Hillsborough County North grand jury for allegedly raping a woman in an abandoned house in Bedford while he was transporting her between the Belknap County House of Corrections and the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women in Goffstown in early July.
He now faces eight additional aggravated felonious sexual assault charges and one felonious sexual assault charge in five separate indictments, including three involving the alleged female victim in the Bedford case. He faces one charge of coercing a second woman into having intercourse in an unnamed cemetery in Laconia.
The three other indictments include five separate charges of allegedly coercing other inmates into having sexual contact with each other while he watched. In two instances, the state alleges he gave the handcuff keys to one inmate so he or she could perform sexual acts on the other.
The most recent charges were brought by Belknap County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen in Belknap County Superior Court.
Blanchette resigned from his position with the Sheriff's Department in August after having been placed on paid administrative leave on July 20. He joined the Sheriff's Department in October of 2011 and was a police officer in Laconia prior to joining the county force. Blanchette had received a meritorious service award in 2008 while an officer in Laconia and had served as treasurer of the Belknap County Sheriff's Relief Association until his resignation.
A Raymond High School graduate Blanchette served in the U.S. Marine Corps before joining the Laconia police force.
Blanchette is being held in a state correctional unit in the southern part of New Hampshire. His trial for the single Hillsborough count is scheduled for late April.