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A nice surprise for Newfound School Budget Committee

By Thomas P. Caldwell

BRIDGEWATER — Instead of delving into the proposed budget for FY 2015-16 on Nov. 19, the Newfound Area School District Budget Committee found itself adding back items that the school board had cut earlier this month in order to meet the district's tax cap.

Superintendent Stacy Buckley and Business Administrator Michael Limanni explained that a new estimate from the N.H. Department of Education of the amount of equitable education aid (adequacy aid) the district will be receiving in 2015-16 was much higher than anticipated. As a result of the increase in revenues, instead of being close to the tax cap limit, the school board's budget proposal was $174,548 below the cap.

The first item the Budget Committee decided to restore was the $93,000 that the administration originally proposed for replacing the roof and drainage at Newfound Memorial Middle School. It was an item the school board had wanted to include, but cut when it appeared the proposed budget was about $600,000 above the cap.

With there having been some speculation about closing the middle school in light of a continuing drop in the student population and the resulting high per-pupil cost to attend Newfound schools, the Budget Committee discussed whether repairing the roof would be worthwhile. The unanimous decision was that it would be.

During public hearings on the possible closing of the middle school, participants had overwhelmingly supported the middle school. School board member Jeff Levesque of Groton described it as one of the better buildings in the district, despite the lack of maintenance in recent years. The Budget Committee expressed agreement, saying that it made sense to maintain the building.

In response to questions about how valid the $93,000 figure was, Limanni explained that the facilities manager brought in some local contractors to get estimates of what it would take to replace the roof and upgrade the roof drainage. "We didn't just look at the building and the square footage and pull a number from the air," he said.

There also was some discussion about adding back $10,000 that had been cut from a proposed $25,000 expenditure to repaint the halls and doorways at all of the schools (with the exception of the Bridgewater-Hebron Village School which is independently maintained by the village district). But with $15,000 remaining in the painting budget, the committee decided instead to fund the $10,960 that was in the original budget for refinishing the gymnasium floors at the middle and high schools.

The Budget Committee also voted to publicly support the negotiated contract with the Newfound Area Teachers Association by sending a letter stating as much to the media. The committee will review a draft letter at its next meeting on Thursday, Dec. 4, at 6:30 p.m. at the New Hampton Community School.

Between now and then, Budget Committee members were charged with reviewing the budget in detail so they will be able to bring their questions and proposals for changes to the Dec. 4 meeting.

During the public comment period at the end of the meeting, Bristol resident John Sellers told the committee, "You're definitely on the right track. You've got to spend money to save money. You need to spend today to save tomorrow."

 

Last Updated on Friday, 21 November 2014 02:00

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Dwindling fund balance could raise cost of borrowing for county

LACONIA — The fund balance, or accumulated surplus, is at risk of becoming the orphan as the Belknap County Commission and Belknap County Convention prepare the 2015 budget.

The fund balance consists of excess revenues and operational savings accrued during the fiscal year. It serves two purposes. First, the fund balance is among the factors weighed by agencies that rate the county's credit. For example, in 2103, when Moody's Investor Service reaffirmed the county's Aa2 rating, it noted that "sizeable fund balance growth" could raise that rating while "draw down of reserves" could lower it. The rating affects the county's cost of borrowing.

Second, each year a portion of the fund balance is applied as a revenue to offset the amount to be raised by property taxes. This year $1,775,000 was drawn from the fund balance, reducing the amount to be raised by property taxes from $15-4-million, which would have represented an increase of 11-percent, to $13.7-million, a decrease of 1.6-percent.

Between 2003 and 2011 the fund balance ranged from a low of $4-million to a high of $7-million, enough to sustain the credit rating and stabilize the tax commitment. Since then, however, the fund balance has shrunk, from $5.2-million in 2011 to $3.9-million in 2012 and to $3.7-million in 2013. The fund balance is projected to fall below $3-million by the end of this year.

In 2012, the beginning balance of $5,261,501 was augmented by excess revenues and operational savings of $2,394,842, but $3,750,000 was used to reduce the amount raised by property taxes, leaving a balance of $3,906,343 at year end. In 2013, the fund balance was replenished with $2,148,812 in excess revenues and operational savings, but $2,350,000 was applied against property taxes, leaving a balance of $3,705,155 at year end .

This year, the fund balance is projected to grow by $1,050,000 to $4,755,155, of which $1,775,000 will be be used to reduce property taxes. The fund balance is projected to end the year with a balance of less than $3-million. In other words, in the fund balance is expected to have shrunk by more than 40-percent between 2012 and 2014. The decline reflects the use of fund balance — $7,875,000 in the last three years — to limit increases in the amount to be raised by property taxes.

With the fund balance projected to close the year with a balance of less than $3-million, there will be less capacity to continue offsetting rising property taxes to the same extent as in recent years. This week the county commission indicated that it may recommend a budget of of approximately $27-million in 2015, which would increase the amount to be raised by property taxes by ten-percent.

At the same time, the county is eyeing the prospect of renovating, expanding or rebuilding the county jail, a project that would financed by borrowing. The cost of the borrowing could hinge on the county's credit rating, which in turn could be affected by the fund balance.

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 November 2014 01:52

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County Commission Foresees Budget Increase

LACONIA — The Belknap County Commissioners, two of whom will be replaced in January, anticipate recommending a budget of approximately $27 million for 2015 to the Belknap County Convention next month. The budget would represent increases in proposed expenditures of about 5 percent, and in the amount to be raised by property taxes of 10 percent.

"Ten percent is is the most I'll go," said Commissioner Steve Nedeau of Meredith, the lone returning incumbent among the three commissioners. "If we can't, we can't." Nedeau suggested that greater expenditures would be required to ensure the county services and to fund necessary capital purchases and projects, but questioned how the newly elected county commissioners and convention would respond.

Commissioners John Thomas, a Belmont Republican, and Ed Philpot, a Laconia Democrat will be succeeded by Republicans Richard Burchell of Gilmanton and David DeVoy of Sanbornton in the new year. As a member of the convention, Burchell was a mainstay of the majority that trimmed nearly a $1 million from the 2014 budget recommended by the commission. DeVoy, who has followed county government closely for the past two years, has often endorsed the approach taken by the convention. Both were informed of the dates and times of the budget workshops, but neither has attended.

Moreover, Republicans will hold all 18 seats on the Belknap County Convention after making a clean sweep at the polls earlier this month. Among the 18 Republican representatives, seven are returning incumbents, nine are freshman, and two are former lawmakers. Four — Dennis Fields of Sanbornton, Dave Russell of Gilmanton, and Frank Tilton and Don Flanders, both of Laconia -- have served more than three terms in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

The budget will be presented to the newly elected convention at its organizational meeting on Dec. 8. The incoming commissioners take office in January.

Yesterday Commissioners Thomas and Nedeau made some adjustments to projected revenues from sources other than taxes cut more than $2 million from their initial budget. Capital projects, including funding for schematic designs of a new county jail and improvements to the existing HVAC system at the jail, and personnel costs, represented the lion's share of the cuts.

At the same time, the commissioners included a 1.4 percent cost-of-living allowance (COLA) for county employees in their budget. In addition, they chose to fund the purchase of four cruisers for the Sheriff's Department on the advice of Sheriff Craig Wiggin, who advised them that the alternative would be to increase funding for vehicle maintenance since the fleet would include a number of cruisers with 200,000 miles on the clock. The commissioners also added the purchase of a van for the Nursing Home to replace the antiquated bus.

At the end of the day, the total expenditures stood at $ 27.5 million, an increase of 7.4 percent, and the tax commitment at $15.4 million, an increase of 13 percent. Both Thomas and Nedeau aim to pare the budget by at least another $400,000 before presenting their recommendations to the convention next month.

Nedeau pointed out that the increase in the operating budget reflects the need to begin compensating for six years of austerity. Between 2008 and 2013 the operating budget rose by $212,379 from $26.2 million to $26.4 million, an increase of 0.8 percent, before shrinking by $787,753, or 3 percent, this year. During the same period, the amount to be raised by property taxes decreased by $386,793, or 2.7 percent, dropping by $221,802 this year.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 November 2014 01:54

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Arsonist faces 7 additional charges

LACONIA – A former Gilmanton man who pleaded guilty to three counts of arson earlier this year has been charged with seven more counts of arson, including one count for one of the two fires that occurred at Pitman's Freight Room.

Jason Clairmont, 34, of Mallard's Landing is facing seven separate counts of arson for three different fires – one on Sept. 28, 2013, at Pitman's Freight Room, a dumpster fire on Oct. 3, 2013, at 53 Beacon Street West , and a shed and lattice on Sept. 28, 2013, at 65 Beacon Street West, behind Hector's restaurant.

He appeared in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division yesterday afternoon via video conference from the State Prison where he is serving a 1- to 5-year sentence for his arson convictions from February 2014.

Of the seven total new charges, Judge Jim Carroll didn't find probable cause for three of them – one version of an account of the Pitman's Freight Room fire and two other fires behind Hector's building that damaged a shed and some lattice work.

Carroll ordered Clairmont held on $2,000 cash bail for two felony counts of arson and on $5,000 personal recognizance bail for two misdemeanor counts of arson.

In court yesterday, Clairmont's attorney, John Bresaw, said that all of the new charges should be dismissed because there is no new evidence. He said the seven new charges stem from the same five-hour interview police conducted with Clairmont in the days after a Jan. 25 car fire at Academy and Bowman streets. That same night there was a lattice fire on Highland Street. Clairmont pleaded guilty to both of those fires.

Bresaw said the affidavits supporting the newest seven charges were statements made by Clairmont that were cherry-picked by police from the interview and taken out of context.

He said the police "minced words" and that there is only one sentence to support charges for each new arson count. He said the two charges for fires behind Hector's restaurant weren't even referenced in the affidavits and asked that Carroll dismiss them. Carroll agreed in part, and though he didn't dismiss them, he ruled there was no probable cause. Carroll also agreed that one of the counts against Clairmont for the damage caused to "Dick Mitchell" (the owner of Pitman's Freight Room) fire lacked probable cause.

Carroll also agreed with Bresaw when he said that Clairmont's guilty pleas in February for the two car fires and the lattice fire are not evidence that he set the fires cited in yesterday's charges.

Bresaw also said that since he has seen no new evidence, the state should have charged his client with those fires when they charged him the first time.

Laconia Police Prosecutor Jim Sawyer said that the police initially charged Clairmont with two car fires and a fire on Highland Street because they needed to get him in custody.

"Because of what was happening, police were eager to stop this," Sawyer said, referring to a string of suspicious fires that took place from September 2013 until the end of January 2014.

Sawyer said the newest charges are distinct from the ones to which Clairmont previously pleaded guilty, and they are separated by time and month, even if the information from the newest affidavit came from the same police interview. He asked that Clairmont be held on $10,000 cash bail.

Clairmont is scheduled to appear this morning before the N.H. Parole Board. The minimum portion of his sentence ends in February. Yesterday, his attorney said Clairmont has had no infractions while incarcerated and was beginning the process of being paroled.

Facing new charges, Clairmont's ability to get parole could be hindered because he would need to post $2,000 cash bail on the newest charges and that he is not allowed to go onto New Salem Street, where he planned to tell the parole board he would live with his parents.

Pitman's Freight Room is next door to Clairmont's parent's house, and Sawyer objected strongly to Clairmont's desire to stay there should he be paroled in February.

Pitman's owner Dick Mitchell said yesterday that he has "mixed emotions" about his neighbor being charged with one of the fires that was set at his business.

"I feel bad for everyone concerned," he said. "I know him. He's my neighbor."

Mitchell said he doesn't know if Clairmont set the two fires at his business, but said if he did, he hopes he gets the help that he needs and that he is taken out of society so he can't hurt anyone.

"He could have killed me. He could have killed my business," Mitchell said, noting that it took him a while to get back on his feet after two successive fires.

"I just hope justice is served and the people of Laconia are served," Mitchell said.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 November 2014 01:02

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