Thin City Council majority poised to keep 4 'SAFER' firefighters on payroll

LACONIA — The City Council on Monday night agreed in principal to trim some $200,000 from the fiscal year 2016 municipal budget recommended by City Manager Scott Myers in order to reduce the projected increase in the 2015 property tax rate for 36 cents to 25 cents, but wound up nearly halving the estimated rate hike while still funding the retention of four firefighters who were hired with grant money.

Myers proposed city expenditures of $22.9, a negligible increase of just $8,446 over the current year. However, revenues from sources other than property taxes, including the use of unreserved fund balance, are projected to drop by 7.1 percent, leaving $15.8 to be raised by property taxes. The budget of $32.6 million proposed by the school district, representing a 5.5 percent increase, is offset by $19.6 million in revenue, leaving $18.5 million to be raised by property taxes.

Together with the county tax assessment of and state education tax, the total amount to be raised by taxes is $41.8 million and the projected property tax rate is $22.76, 36 cents more than the current rate of $22.40.

The new budget takes effect on July 1 but the council is not expected to vote on final approval until it meets again on July 13, a timetable that is allowable under the City Charter.

Henry Lipman, who chairs the council's Finance Committee, began discussion by explaining that $20,000 of expenditures amounts to a penny on the tax rate and calculated that reducing the budget by $220,000, with the cuts shared evenly between the School District and city departments, would reduce the tax rate increase to a desired level of 25 cents.

Myers, who originally projected the assessed valuation of taxable property to rise 1.6 percent to $1,844.646.944, after reconsidering trending property values, suggested increasing the projection by an even $5 million, which he said would reduce his projected property tax rate by 36 cents to 29 cents. At the same time, he advised the council that there were no provisions in the 2016-2017 state budget that threatened revenues the city expected to receive from the state. With the adjustment to the assessed valuation, Myers said the council could meet the Finance Committee's target by cutting expenditures by just $100,000,

Although the councilors agreed to raise the assessed valuation, their appetite  for paring spending was not slaked.


The Cuts

The budget process has been overshadowed by the future of four firefighters, hired and paid for the past two years with a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which expires in October.
Retaining the four positions, which enables the department to staff each shift with nine firefighters — six at the Central Station and three at the Weirs Beach Station — is the highest priority of Fire Chief Ken Erickson.

Myers has recommended a plan to fund the positions for the next three fiscal years. LRGHealthcare, which contributes to the cost of ambulance service under a contract with the city, will bear half the annual cost of the four positions. The balance would draw on an account established in anticipation of the expiration of the grant, money budgeted to fund the positions through the current fiscal year on the assumption the grant would expire in May and $100,000 in unexpended grant funds. These funds would be supplemented by appropriations of $50,000 in 2016 and $45,000 in 2017 and 2018, representing total new expenditures of $140,000.
Anticipating the councilors may be evenly divided, Mayor Ed Engler said that he was prepared to cast the deciding vote in favor of funding the four positions as Myers proposed with the condition that the Fire Department's overtime budget be reduced by $50,000. This, he explained, would enable the positions to be funded without raising new money through property taxes.
A straw poll confirmed the council was split, with councilors Ava Doyle (Ward 1) David Bownes (Ward 2) and Lipman joining the mayor and councilors Brenda Baer (Ward 4), Bob Hamel (Ward 5) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) still opposed to funding the positions..
The council also agreed to shelve the purchase of new radios for the Fire Department for a year. The budget allocates $155,000 for the purchase, of which $85,000 is included in the budget and the balance drawn from the Motorcycle Week special revenue fund. The council halved the budgeted amount, which together with the $50,000 stripped from the overtime budget — actually several different line items — would reduce appropriations for the Fire Department by $92,500.
In May, the Finance Committee advised School Superintendent Terri Forsten that they expected the School Board to cut its budget by as much as $150,000 and both Lipman and Hamel repeated the request when the council met this week Speaking for the School District on Monday, Ed Emond, the business administrator, said that $150,000 could be eliminated from the budget by shelving budgeted contributions to a capital reserve fund for repairs at Laconia High School and a fund to offset future increases in health insurance costs.

Lipman asked if the cost of operations could be reduced, in particular if the special education account could be reduced. Emond reminded him that the funds were set aside for unforeseen expenses associated with a student whose identity was unknown. He noted that the district added one new position to teach law enforcement at the Huot Technical Center, replacing contracted services.

Hamel said that $150,000 was a small share of a $32.6 million school budget. He noted that the taxpayers have supported construction of a new middle school and improvements at the high school and said "it's time to give them a little bit of a break." Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4) said that the increase in the school budget "looks a little high" and told Emond "I'm sure you'll find the money. You always do."

Ultimately the council followed Lipman's suggestion to require the School District to reduce its operating expenses by $100,000 and, failing that, cut appropriations for the capital reserve and stabilization funds by $150,000.


The Savings

Altogether the cuts to the city budget amount to $92,500. However, Myers reminded the council that the subscription to Lakes Region Public Access-TV was under budgeted by $6,722. The council also approved Hamel's proposal to borrow $60,000 to replace windows at City Hall, which would increase payments of principal and interest by $1,200. Consequently the net reduction in the city budget would be $84,578, which represents 4 cents off the property tax rate. The requested cuts to the school budget would reduce the tax rate by at least 5 cents and at most 7 cents.

With the increase in the total valuation the budget cuts would decrease the projected increase in the property rate from 36 cents to at most 20 cents and at least 17 cents, sparing the owner of a $200,000 home at most $38 and at least $32 in annual property taxes.

When the mayor opened the public hearing on the budget at the same meeting, not a single member of public rose to speak.

Hellcat - 707 horsepower

By Adam Drapcho

TILTON — I consider myself a mild-mannered, modern man. For example, I have a farm share and I try to observe a mostly-vegetarian diet. My toddler has been to yoga. And yet, there are times when I'm reminded that, despite all of my forward-thinking airs, there are precious few genes that separates humans from our simian siblings. The most recent such reminder came when I heard the rumbling, window-rattling exhaust note of the Dodge Challenger Hellcat. 

The Challenger line of engines starts with the SXT models, which is fitted with a 305-horsepower V6. Step up to the R/T models and venture into V8 territory, where the car is motivated by either a big, honking 5.7 liter engine making 375 hp or, if the "Scat Pack" option is selected, a bigger, honkier 6.4 liter engine cranking out 485 horsepower. But, standing head and shoulders above them all is powerplant in the SRT Hellcat, which straps a supercharger onto the biggest of those engines. With the help of 11.6 psi of boost, the Hellcat engine is capable of 707 horsepower, making it one of the most powerful production cars money can buy.

It takes a fair bit of money to acquire all that power. At a base suggested retail price of $60,000, the Hellcat is more than double the cost of the most modest Challenger available. Chances are that dealers will see if the market will bear an even higher price, as the limited-edition will be hard for customers to find. The red Hellcat with optional black aluminum hood at AutoServ of Tilton is the second one the dealership has been able to stock this year; they've already sold a yellow one to a lakeside summer resident who owns a string of pizza stores in Massachusetts.

Both of the Hellcats that AutoServ has taken delivery of have come equipped with a manual six-speed transmission. Dodge makes an automatic available, but Paul Gaudet, Jr., one of the dealership owners, said he'd only order Hellcats with manuals. It is, after all, "the return of the muscle car," as he said, and he figures its buyers will want to experience driving it, including doing their own shifting.

He's right, the manual transmission on the Hellcat is one worth experiencing. The leather-wrapped shift knob sits on a steel shaft bent towards the driver. Both the shifter and the clutch pedal require a certain amount of heft in their operation — not enough to difficult, but enough to remind the driver that the machinery in the transmission tunnel is stout enough to handle the better part of 1,000 horsepower.

It's a muscular transmission befitting the car it's in. Like the rest of the Hellcat, it makes an impression. The Challenger has road presence in spades. Long and wide, and with that classic silhouette, even the most antisocial-looking motorcyclists yielded the fast lane on the highway before we were within a quarter-mile. In Hellcat form, the Challenger sports a chin splitter, hood vents, a trunklid spoiler and 20-inch wheels wearing Z-rated tires. If the looks weren't enough, then there's the soundtrack. The V8 rumble turns to a roar under throttle, which soon pairs with the supercharger's whine-turn-scream as the RPMs rise. It's an intoxicating duet. Downshift and goose the throttle and you'll want to slow down just to do it again. Don't let the song carry you away, though. With 707 horsepower, you'll be in felony speeding territory within a matter of seconds.

Backing off the throttle and returning to legal levels of velocity, you notice something. The Hellcat, for all its superlative features, is surprisingly easy to drive. Yes, the blind spots are large, and the car fills out a lane in the same way that a 20-ounce porterhouse fills a plate, but the beast is perfectly happy — comfortable, even — to purr along at part-throttle. If the EPA estimates are correct, it will get 21 miles per gallon on the highway. Not too bad, considering its power level.

So, at the end of the drive, I find my evolved mind rationalizing its primitive lusts. For such a special car, and for someone with the means, $60,000 isn't really that much money. And, yes, its fuel economy would be bettered by most quarter-ton pickup trucks, but the Hellcat isn't a car that will be driven every day. Drive a Prius during the week and your carbon footprint will still be better than most. Humans are a complicated creature and can't live on tofu alone. I think I'll have steak tonight.

'Game changer' – Impact of planned sale, renovation of Colonial Theater weighed

LACONIA — "A game changer" were the words most often heard following the announcement this week that the Colonial Theater, dark since 2001, would be renovated and reopened as a civic auditorium.

The Belknap Economic Development Council (BEDC) and City of Laconia have partnered to acquire the theater, together with the commercial and residential units on the lot at 609-621 Main St. and during the next 18 months arrange a financial package of $15 million to renovate the entire property, a project expected to be complete by Christmas 2018.

Randy Eifert, president of BEDC, said that when the agency decided to invest in redeveloping distressed property it considered several buildings downtown, but chose the theater, concluding that its renovation and reopening would have the greatest impact.

Jack Dugan, executive director of the Monadnock Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), recalled the experience of Keene where the revitalization of a theater — also named the Colonial —was the first step in the recovery of downtown. Describing the theater as "the centerpiece," adding: "... it is one of the first places we bring people. It's a selling point."

Dugan said that the theater, owned by a nonprofit corporation and operating 364 days a year, enhanced the value of other distressed properties and when the MEDC redeveloped two other buildings, "the momentum began to grow and private developers began to invest." Describing the theater as the "centerpiece," he said that downtown, with its specialty retailers and numerous restaurants has become "a third place where you're not at home or at work but comfortable when you're hanging out."

The construction of what Dugan called "high-end condominiums and rental units," has drawn affluent empty-nesters and young professional families to live within walking distance of downtown. "Success will build on itself," he remarked. "The snowball effect is amazing."

Russ Thibeault of Applied Economic Research explained that in the past downtowns were anchored by department stores which were then eclipsed by several generations of even larger, often discount retailers operating outside city centers where parking was plentiful. Theaters, or cultural and artistic centers, he said, have become the anchors of revitalized downtowns, not only in Keene but also in Concord, Portsmouth and Lebanon, where they have spawned boutiques , cafes and restaurants.

City Manager Scott Myers stressed the assurance that the Colonial Theater would not only change hands but also be restored and reopened within a specific period of time. He said that this signals there are attractive opportunities for potential investors, particularly in the current environment before interest rates and property values have begun to rise.

Myers noted that even before the announcement Charlie St. Clair invested $315,000 in acquiring the former Bloom's Variety Store at the corner of Main and Hanover streets that houses the Laconia Antique Center, and brothers Mark and Chris Condodemetraky bought the Piscopo Block at the corner of Main and Canal streets for $392,500.

These transactions came on the heels of the opening of the Holy Grail Restaurant & Pub on Veterans Square, which marked a major investment in the conversion of the former Evangelical Baptist Church and coincided with the renovation of a rental units on Main Street to house Wayfarer's Coffee Roaster, which opened this week.

John Moriarty of the Main Street Initiative, who purchased and rehabilitated 600 Main Street, has been associated with efforts to acquire and restore the Colonial Theater for years. He recalled that the late, Paul Normandin once reminded him that "it is not fair to think of the Colonial as savior of downtown Laconia. I realize other things have to happen," he continued, "but, renovating and reopening the Colonial will overcome a perception that has overshadowed downtown." He believes that "others will discover what savvy people have known, that downtown Laconia is intrinsically valuable and under-priced."

"It's a beautiful situation that will generate some positive momentum," said Kevin Sullivan, an agent with Coldwell Banker Commercial Weeks Associates, who owns property downtown. He called the Colonial Theater "the highest profile property in the entire downtown corridor" and said that the prospect of its renovation should increase interest in vacant space along Main Street and raise the value of nearby properties. "There is a positive buzz going around," Sullivan remarked.