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11-5 Convention majority approves more conservative budget

LACONIA — After weeks of often acrimonious deliberation, the Belknap County Convention last night adopted the 2014 county budget, which appropriates $25,596,863, more than $200,000 less than last year, and raises $13,663,314 in property taxes, a decrease of 1.6 percent.

The convention reduced the budget recommended by the Belknap County Commission by more than $974,000, or 3.6 percent.

The budget carried by a margin of 11 to 5. Four of the five Democratic members of the convention — Reps. Beth Arsenault and David Huot of Laconia, Ian Raymond of Sanbornton and Lisa DiMartino of Gilford — dissented along with Republican Dennis Fields of Sanbornton.

The Republican majority consisted of Reps. Colette Worsman, Bob Greemore and Herb Vadney of Meredith, Jane Cormier and Stephen Holmes of Alton, Michael Sylvia and Charles Fink of Belmont, Frank Tilton and Bob Luther of Laconia, Richard Burchell of Gilmanton and Guy Comtois of Barnstead.

Democrat Ruth Gulick of New Hampton, who has challenged the validity of an earlier vote on the budget in court (see related story on page 9), abstained and Republican Don Flanders of Laconia was absent.

"I'm satisfied now," said Tilton. He said that the convention applied $1,775,000 of the county's undesignated fund balance to offset property taxes, less than the $2 million recommended by Belknap County Commission, and $65,000 less than the projected surplus in 2013. "We're adding $65,000 to our fund balance," he said.

Tilton said that the budget funds the salaries and health benefits of two additional corrections officers, addressing among the county's most critical needs.

Finally, Tilton explained that when the 2013 and 2014 budgets are adjusted for eliminating the appropriation for the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association from the county budget and billing municipalities directly, the increase in the amount to be raised by taxes is 2.3 percent. The increase matches the projected increase in the tax commitment permitted by Laconia's property tax cap.

Worsman, who chairs the convention, congratulated her colleagues for what she called "a tremendous job," conceding that "a 2.3 percent increase in taxes is not what any of us wanted to do."

Tilton proposed a motion reaffirming the convention's authority over line items in throughout the budget, which has set the convention and commission at loggerheads for the past two budget cycles. It carried by 10 to 6, with Republicans Luther and Fields joining four Democrats — Huot, Gulick, Raymond and DiMartino in dissent.

Speaking for the commission Steve Nedeau, the only commissioner at the meeting, read a prepared statement. He began by refuting a number of accusations that Worsman leveled against County Administrator Debra Shackett in an an e-mail to the commissioners.

Turning to the budget he reminded the convention that the commission is contractually bound to pay $3.1 million in health insurance premiums in 2014 and said that "to knowingly and intentionally underfund nearly $540,000 of that obligation, with no plan how to implement such a radical cut, and then claim no responsibility for your actions is certainly not acting in the public's best interest."

"We have continued . . . to cater to your attempts to micro-manage, to respond to your conjecture and accusations of both staff and elected officials," Nedeau continued. "We sit here meeting after meeting while you misinform the public (and each other), ignore anyone who doesn't support your view, and then take action, based on false information."

Nedeau said that "the arbitrary and reckless cuts to the county budget will unfortunately result in employee layoffs," explaining that reducing health insurance costs by over $500,000 is "not an option."

Raymond proposed including Nedeau's statement in the minutes of the meeting, but his motion failed on a tie vote of 8 to 8

"How can it not be included in the record?" asked Luther.

When the meeting was opened to the public, Dave Devoy congratulated Worsman on her leadership and assured her "the silent majority is with you." 

Hunter Taylor of Alton also endorsed the work of the convention, but chided both Republicans and Democrats, telling them "it's time you behaved like adults."

Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 March 2014 03:22

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Residents along remote Meredith roadway want to form village district

MEREDITH — Eight of the 10 property owners on Maple Ridge Road, a steep, winding graveled track about a half-mile long that comes to a dead-end 750 feet above the western shore of Lake Winnisquam, have petitioned the Board of Selectmen to establish an official village district that would improve and maintain the road.

Village districts in New Hampshire have taxing authority and are managed by an elected board of commissioners.

At a workshop this week, Marshall Hubbard, who moved to Maple Ridge Road in 1978, six years after the town approved the subdivision, told the selectmen that he tried to form a residents' association, but wound up maintaining the road himself for 20 years. Since the Maple Ridge Association was formed two years ago it has budgeted for the upkeep of the road.

David Desmarais said that by forming a village district, with the sole purpose of maintaining the road and authority to raise and appropriate funds, would ensure sufficient resources "year in and year out" to plow, sand, grade, gravel and ditch the road. "We want to take responsibility ourselves," he said, adding that the residents understood that an improved road would enhance the value of their properties as well as benefit the town by providing safe access for emergency vehicles.

Mike Poirier, who spent 30 with years with the New Hampshire Bureau of Emergency Management, pointed out that N.H. village districts qualify for federal disaster assistance administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Although Maple Ridge Road has suffered several washouts, he said that so far it has been spared a catastrophic event, but warned that "sooner or later it's going to happen."

"I drove Maple Ridge Road," said Selectman Lou Kahn. "I didn't drive all the way because I was frightened. I would not want a fire truck or an ambulance on that road." He said that the residents are "doing the town a favor."

Selectman Peter Brothers questioned what administrative costs the town would incur by billing, collecting and distributing the property taxes raised by the village district as well as placing liens and tax deeds on delinquent property owners. Town attorney Laura Spector-Morgan said that the town would recover any enforcement costs when properties were conveyed.

Town Manager Phil Warren asked Spector-Morgan if the village district would impose administrative burdens on the town. "Not if the district is working properly," she replied.

"And if it isn't?" he asked. "It can become a mess," she said.

Spector-Morgan explained that the selectmen, having received a petition, must delineate the boundaries of the district and convene a meeting of the voters, at which they will vote to form the district and elect its officers.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 March 2014 01:33

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Democrats challenge budget vote by phone in court

LACONIA — The five Democratic members of the Belknap County Convention have asked Belknap County Superior Court to overturn the vote that thwarted adoption of the 2014 county budget recommended by the Belknap County Commission.

The vote was taken when the convention met in the midst of a heavy snowstorm on February 18. Only 13 of the 18 members were present when the meeting was convened a half-hour past the scheduled hour of 5 p.m. In addition, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, arranged for Rep. Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead), who was tending to a failing roof, to participate by telephone.

Noting the absence of several Republicans, Rep. Beth Arsenault (D-Laconia) offered a motion to adopt the commission's budget, which was second by Rep. Lisa DiMartino (D-Gilford). They were joined in support of the motion by their fellow Democrats — David Huot of Laconia, Ian Raymond of Sanbornton and Ruth Gulick of New Hampton — and two Republicans — Reps. Bob Luther and Don Flanders of Laconia.

The other six Republicans present — Reps. Richard Burchell of Gilamnton, Frank Tilton of Laconia, Michael Sylvia of Belmont and Bob Greemore, Herb Vadney and Worsman, all of Meredith — voted against the motion, along with Comtois, who voted by telephone.

With four Republicans — Reps. Dennis Fields of Sanbornton, Charles Fink of Belmont, and Stephen Holmes and Jane Cormier, both of Alton — absent, the convention deadlocked seven-to-seven and the motion failed.

The suit, naming Worsman and Cormier, the clerk of the convention, alleges that Worsman violated the provisions of the Right-to-Know Law bearing on members participating by telephone. The Democrats note that the convention was not required to allow one or members to participate by "electronic means" and claim the decision properly rested with the convention, not the chair. Moreover, they charge that no notice was given to the convention that Comtois would be permitted to participate by telephone nor was the reason he could not be physically present recorded in the minutes as the statute requires. Finally, contrary to the law, Comtois failed to identify anyone else present at the location from which he was participating.

Consequently, the Democrats claim that since "Rep. Comtois' vote was unlawful and in violation of RSA 91-A:2 " the vote should be overturned.

When the convention met last night (see story on page 1) Worsman sought to amend the minutes of meeting of February 18 to show that before the meeting was convened she and other members referred to the Right-to-Know law and discussed the procedure for allowing Comtois to participate by telephone. Huot reminded her that at the time there was no quorum and not all those who were present were party to the discussion. Arsenault questioned recording a discussion that took place before the meeting in the minutes.

"It's critical and germane," Worsman insisted with an apparent eye to the litigation.

When Worsman's motion to amend the minutes was put to a vote there was much confusion about who was and was not present when the supposed discussion occurred and therefore would be eligible to vote. Ultimately the motion failed five-to-four, with five abstentions.

Obviously troubled by the outcome Worsman tersely noted that the minutes were approved without reference to the discussion of the Right-to-Know law prior to the meeting.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 March 2014 10:29

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Justin Slattery is new executive director of Belknap Economic Development Council

LACONIA — Justin Slattery has been named executive director of the Belknap Economic Development Corporation. He succeeds Carmen Lorentz, who served in the position for three years before leaving recently to take the position as head of the New Hampshire Department of Economic Development.

The announcement was made by Sean Sullivan, chair of the BEDC board of directors.

Slattery has been on the job since February 24.

A native of the state, Slattery graduated from the University of New Hampshire and has worked in both public and private sector positions for more than 12 years working to build economic development opportunities in New Hampshire. He most recently was employed at the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development where he worked statewide on economic development projects and workforce development initiatives. He has served on several state boards and committees including the Governor's Advanced Manufacturing Educational Advisory Council and the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Advisory Committee.

Slattery's career started as an aide to Governor John Lynch. He has worked extensively in talent management and acquisition positions for several leading New Hampshire firms and was employed by the Workforce Investment Act program working on workforce development projects statewide.

As Belknap EDC executive director, Slattery will be responsible for the development and delivery of programs and services designed to promote economic vitality in Belknap County and the greater Lakes Region. He will direct the organization's budgets, grant administration, revolving loan fund, and strategic planning.

Belknap EDC was founded in 1992, and is one of ten non-profit regional development corporations in the State of New Hampshire. The organization operates a $3 million revolving loan fund that provides gap financing for local businesses and partners with the NH Small Business Development Center and SCORE to provide technical assistance to local businesses. Recently, the organization has focused resources on workforce development programs, developing strategies to retain and attract young talent to the region, and supporting creative entrepreneurs.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 March 2014 01:24

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