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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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.


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Gilford students reaching out to Veterans Home residents

GILFORD — Students in all four grades at Gilford Middle School spent more than an hour Wednesday morning working on a community project designed to brighten the holiday season for residents of the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton.

''We're looking to establish authentic connections with veterans,'' says Beth Zimmer, the fifth- and sixth-grade guidance teacher at the school, who said that the goal for the school is to reach out to the veterans in the months ahead.
Yesterday students created table decorations for 30 tables at the Veterans Home for Thanksgiving, and for 30 tables for the Christmas season. Among the decorations created yesterday were pumpkins, placemats, Christmas trees and origami gift boxes which will be placed under the trees.

In another form of outreach, 20 to 25 students each month will visit with veterans over the next four months.

Zimmer said that the focus on veterans began with a Veterans Day assembly organized by the school's social studies teachers, who presented a video slide show about the veterans and how they are cared for.

''Many students have grandparents and relatives who may need long-term care and this planted the seeds for a closer look at what that means. It will be a good experience for the students to interact with veterans,'' said Zimmer.

Jo-Ann Belanger, an eighth-grade French and Spanish teacher, spent the morning working with students from all four grades in the middle school cafeteria, where the students were making Christmas trees from construction paper and decorating them.

She dressed for the Christmas holiday and even brought along some of her Christmas album songs to highlight the joyful holiday mood the project was creating.

''Some 37 eighth-grade students, more than half of the class, have volunteered to go the Veterans Home. That shows how much interest there is on the part of the students in this project,'' said Belanger.

Steven MacDonald, 14, who is the eighth grade, said that he is hoping to be one of those selected to visit the veterans.
''This is really fun, and it's for a good cause,'' said MacDonald as he worked on making the Christmas trees.
He said that his dad, Eric, is a veteran and is still in the military after having served for 18 months in Iraq.

Another student working on the Christmas trees, Teka-Marie Phillips, a 12-year-old sixth-grader, said that her dad, Paul, is a also a veteran and is a big supporter of veterans and of the school's project.

''We're a bunch of kids working together to create something special for veterans, and I think it's a great community project,'' said Phillips.

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