Judge finds probable cause for negligent homicide in traffic accident


LACONIA – A Laconia Police officer who was the first responder to the scene of a fatal crash on Parade Road earlier this month testified yesterday that she had "never seen anything like" the scene she saw.

"The debris field was a mess, there was stuff everywhere," said Officer Holly Callanan during her testimony at a probable cause hearing held for Ryan Mears, 26, of Kingston in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division.

Mears, who police alleged was driving while intoxicated, is charged with one count of negligent homicide the death of Tiffany Nieves of Laconia and one count of second-degree assault for the injuries to a second passenger, Jeremy King, stemming from the Nov. 2 crash.

Judge Jim Carroll found there was probable cause for the charges and bound the case over to the Belknap County Superior Court for possible indictment.

Callanan testified yesterday that a N.H. Medical Examiner pronounced Nieves dead at the scene, saying she died instantly from a torn aorta, a lacerated heart and lung, and a fractured skull. She said she found her laying across the area between the back seat and the front seat backs.

She also said King had been partially ejected from the car and was hanging from the passenger side window. She said he was conscious, but unable to communicate.

She said an open bottle of Jack Daniels was found under Nieves' body in the back seat and a cracked bottle of Crown Royal was in the passenger front seat. She said the seal had been broken.

Callanan said she first observed Mears from the passenger side of the car and testified yesterday that he was pinned between the steering wheel and the seat of his car. She said the airbags had deployed but it didn't appear either he or King were wearing seat belts. He told her at the scene he was driving the car.

Under direct questioning, she testified the Belknap Regional Accident Investigation Team responded to the crash, but her preliminary assessment was the car was traveling at a high rate of speed.

As part of the "car autopsy" she said the airbag control module serves the same role as a "black box" does on an aircraft and that police and a car specialist in Center Harbor were able to recover it and download the information. Callanan said police don't have the results yet.

Callanan went to the hospital at 2:04 a.m. and spoke with Mears. She said he was wearing an oxygen mask and his speech was slurred but he would occasionally lift his mask to talk and she could smell alcohol on his breath. He knew he had been in a car accident.

She also said he initially told her he and King were playing pool at Shooters (a Belmont restaurant) and he initially said he had one shot of Jack Daniels and one beer. He told her he had taken cocaine before he went to the bar.

She testified that when she asked him a second time, he told her he drank three shots of Jack Daniels and two beers.

He signed a consent form to have his blood taken, she said, but the signature was barely legible although he had no apparent injuries to his arms, wrist or hand.

At 3:53 a.m. the lab technical drew Mears' blood and Callanan arrested him at 4:09 a.m. and read him his rights. She said he signed a felony administrative license form. She said she returned to the police department and secured the blood in the evidence room and obtained her application for a search warrant.

When she went back to LRGH, he had been moved to Concord Hospital. She said she contacted the judge and he amended the warrant for Concord Hospital.

She went to Concord with the warrant, arriving a 8 a.m. She said the next blood draws were taken at 8:45 a.m. which was about seven hours after the crash.

He was read his rights again at 9:04 a.m. and agreed to speak with her, saying he didn't know how much he drank, saying maybe it was three or four beers and three shots. She said when he signed the Miranda form, his signature was clear and on the line.

Callanan said since the crash she has interviewed a woman who said she was at the Baja Beach Club in Gilford with Mears, King, and Nieves and that she recalled he drank one shot and one beer.

The woman told Callanan they left Baja Beach Club in separate cars and went to the Funky Monkey where he had additional shots of Jack Daniels. She told Callanan that they left Funky Monkey at 1:30 a.m. but there was some issues with King at last call and that Mears and King had "last call in their vehicle."

Mears was represented yesterday by Atty. Mark Stevens.

He asked Callanan whether the driver's window was down and how she was able to speak to Mears. She answered that she didn't recall, but said her first contact with Mears was through the passenger window. She recalled the windshield was "spidered" but intact.

He also asked if she recalled whether or not Mears was given any pain medication while he was at the hospitals. She said he was hooked up to intravenous bags but she didn't know what was in them. She said he still had I.V. drips in Concord Hospital, but not as many.

Callahan said she didn't asked him if he was medicated, how much cocaine he had had or what time he had his last drink.

When asked what time he had his first drink, she testified it was around 7 p.m.

When asked, she also testified that Mears had blood on his face and was not wearing a seat belt.

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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."


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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.

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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.

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