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Property tax bills will be late this year because new law creating logjam in Concord

CONCORD — Towns and cities may find themselves facing cash flow crunches before the end of the year because of a change in the state funding of public schools.

Yesterday the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration (DRA) announced that it would not begin setting municipal tax rates before November 7. Typically DRA begins setting tax rates in the middle of October.

The agency explained that the delay is the result of legislation enacted in 2012 that requires the New Hampshire Department of Education (DOE) to calculate the amount of state aid distributed to school districts on the basis of their enrollment in the immediately prior school year, not the enrollment of two years prior. In other words, the state aid distributed in the 2013-2014 school year will be calculated from the enrollment in 2012-2013 school year, not the 2011-2012 school year. .

The DOE has informed the DRA that it will not complete the calculations to measure school enrollment and apportion state aid until November 7, almost three months later than in the past.

Since the law assures school districts that state aid will not be less than 95 percent of their allocation in the prior year, the DRA considered using that figure to begin setting municipal tax rates at the usual time. The agency rejected this alternative, concluding that it would lead to unnecessary increases to local tax rates.

But, the delay in setting tax rates poses challenges.

"The real pinch is on cities and towns," said Geoff Ruggles, finance director in Gilford. He explained that normally in October town officials begin meeting with DRA staff in the first half of October, when an "unofficial" tax rate is set. He estimated DRA dealt with between 20 and 30 municipalities a day. DRA confirmed the rate within two or three days. Then the warrant is prepared and signed by the selectmen, after which it is reviewed by the tax collector, who manages the printing and mailing of the tax bills. Ruggles said that the process generally takes about two weeks.

Ruggles said that if the process begins in October, there is sufficient time for cities and towns to parade to DRA set their rates, mail their bills and collect the taxes required to replenish their diminished coffers and fund operations for the coming six months. But, with the delay he feared that there will be a queue of municipalities at the door of DRA on November 7, causing one bottleneck, which could be followed by another at the mail houses as cities and towns scramble to begin the collection process as their cash flow shrinks.

Meanwhile, municipalities must pay their county apportionment, which in Belknap County is as little as $405,419 in New Hampton and as much as $2,655,238 in Laconia, no later than by December 17. Ruggles said that if the process is slowed significantly some towns could be faced with having to borrow to make the payment and fund other obligations.

Although Ruggles sadi he could not recall a municipality defaulting on its payment to the county, Glen Waring, the finance director of Belknap County, said, "I'm concerned."

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 October 2013 02:45

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Laconia would largely spend $1.8M no-interest loan fixing up LHS

LACONIA — School district officials announced Tuesday night that Laconia is the only district in New Hampshire to express any interest in an additional interest-free federal loan for $1.8 million earmarked for school renovations.

The loan fund is administered by the N.H. Department of Education.

The proposed QZAB or Qualified Zone Academy Bond is limited to inside upgrades for existing school buildings and doesn't allow for new construction.

Six and one-half million dollars of QZAB money was used to pay for part of the just-completed Huot Regional Technical Education Center project at Laconia High School.

Facilities Committee member Malcolm Murray provided the full School Board with a prioritized list of renovations and upgrades that could be done within the High School — the building school officials determined to be most in need of renovations.

Facilities member Mike Persson explained that all of the other school buildings in the city have had significant upgrades in recent years, with the exception of the high school.

The Tier 1 priority, said Persson and Murray, are health and safety issues and installing a sprinkler system and air handlers in the high school are at the top of the list.

Other health and safety concerns include removing the asbestos from disturbed areas in the former science area on the upper floor and installing a radon removal system on the ground floor.

Tier 2 priorities were identified teaching and learning spaces. The Facilities Committee said upgrading the suspended ceilings in most of the class rooms and repairing the aluminum panels on the exterior windows were the top priorities in this category.

Tier 3 priorities were overall facilities improvements and the restoration of the concrete pillars on the front of the high school, suspended ceilings in the corridors,
and removing the carpeting from the hallways and installing hard flooring.

Yesterday, Business Administrator Ed Emond said if the district were to borrow the QZAB money, some of the projects from each category would likely mesh together. As an example he said adding sprinklers to the school would disrupt the ceiling tiles so it would make sense to do both as part of the same project.

In order to qualify for a QZAB interest-free loan, school districts have to meet three criteria: a 10 percent match of local funds, a so-called "Zone Academy" must be created, and a working collaborative with community partners must be established. The district must also have more than 35-percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and Laconia easily exceeds that threshold.

Under a 1997 federal law, a Zone Academy must create programs to enhance the curriculum, increase graduation rates, improve employment opportunities and better prepare students for the workplace or higher education. Laconia started a Wellness Academy to qualify for the Huot Center-related loan so that obstacle has already been cleared.

Emond said the Laconia raised $1.050 million in cash and in-kind donations from the community for the Huot Center project, $180,000 of which can be used as a 10 percent match to attract the new funds.

The next step is to bring the loan proposal to the City Council for approval. The council will have to approve the additional interest payments of $78,260 per year for the next 23 years beginning in 2015 — a payment that may or may not fit into the self-imposed loan service cap — $3.2 million per year —  set by the city, which may have other priorities for bond and interest payments in the future.

Of the $3.6 million dollars set aside for principal and interest payments in the 2013-2014 budget, the School District is responsible for $2.480 million. The 2013-2014 payment on the Laconia Middle School is $1.488-million and the payment of the two portions of the QZAB loans for the Huot Center project total $240,000. The interest on a Huot Technical Center supplement is an additional $17,500.

Should the City Council choose not to allow the School District to add $78,240 to the  principal and interest line, the School District could examine its internal budget and look for savings from its operating budget.

Superintendent Terri Forsten said representatives from the School District are scheduled to meet with the Finance Committee of the City Council at 6:30 p.m. on October 15.

Should the City Council approve the additional loan payments, Emond said there would be a least two public hearings. If approved, he said the projects would go to an engineering company, out to bid, and likely take place next summer.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 October 2013 02:38

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Ward 5 ballot box will be opened today

LACONIA — The 47 ballots cast on September 10 in the primary election for the City Council seat in Ward 5 will be recounted today at City Hall beginning at 4:30 p.m., as the result of a brief hearing before Justice James D. O'Neill III of Belknap Superior Court yesterday.

Dave Gammon, who believes former mayor Tom Tardif received enough enough write-in votes to earn a spot on the general election ballot, asked the court to order the recount. Tardif has yet to indicate whether he will be a candidate, saying that he would await formal notification from City Clerk Mary Reynolds.

"It's a family decision," he remarked.

The City Charter stipulates that the two candidates receiving the most votes for each office in the primary election shall advance to the general election in November. In Ward 5, incumbent City Councilor Bob Hamel, who ran unopposed in the primary, was declared the winner with 39 of 47 ballots cast. Although election officials reported no write-in votes for city councilor, a computer print-out indicates that three write-in ballots were cast in the race.

Gammon claimed that he, his wife and another woman cast write-in ballots for Tardif. Election officials reported that Tardif received three of four write-in votes cast for ward clerk, but none for city councilor. If Tardif received a majority of the write-in votes, he would be entitled to a place on the general election ballot, which he has ten days to either accept or decline. After the deadline for requesting a recount passed,

Gammon petitioned the court to order City Clerk Mary Reynolds, who otherwise has no authority to unseal and open the ballots, to conduct a recount. Attorney Laura Spector-Morgan, representing the City Clerk, endorsed the call for a recount, but also asked the court to require Tardif to decide whether or not to become a candidate "immediately upon completion of the recount."

When the parties appeared in court, O'Neill asked Gammon and Spector-Morgan to approach the bench, where he explained that, as in past matters to which Tardif was a party, he would recuse himself from the case. He asked Gammon and Spector-Morgan to draft an agreement to hold a recount then forward it to the Merrimack County Superior Court, which would order Reynolds to conduct it.

O'Neill said that a hearing on Gammon's request that the city reimburse him for his $278 in court costs would be scheduled in either Merrimack County Superior Court or Carroll County Superior Court at a later date.

Outside the courtroom, Spector-Morgan and Gammon reached an agreement, written in longhand, to recount the votes for councilor and ward clerk in Ward 5. When Spector-Morgan asked Tardif if he would make his decision once the recount was over he initially suggested he might defer his decision pending the outcome of the hearing on court costs. He said that Gammon should not have to incur expenses for protecting the integrity of a municipal election.

Later Tardif said that he would not tie his decision to the question of court costs.

However, when he and Gammon suggested that since Gammon paid to correct an error by election officials, the city should bear the cost, Spector-Morgan agreed to approach City Manager Scott Myers about picking up the tab. She noted that if the city simply paid his costs it would spare itself the costs arising from another court.

Reynolds said that she has drafted a letter to Tardif in anticipation that the recount will confirm he is entitled to a place on the general election ballot. She said that she will hand deliver the letter once the ballots are counted.

Reynolds said that the dispute has already delayed her preparations for the general election on November 5 by more than week. She said that if Tardif has not notified her of his decision by the end of this week, she will order the ballots to be printed and the machines programmed for Wards 1, 2, 3 ,4 and 6 on Monday. "I was trained to avoid paying the set-up fee twice," she said, explaining that to print and program for Ward 5 separately could add $500 or more to the cost of preparing election materials.

Reynolds said that she aims to print the general election ballots and distribute absentee ballots at least 30 calendar days before the general election.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 October 2013 02:32

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Police investigating toddler's fall down stairs in Belmont home

BELMONT — Police remained at the Concord Street apartment building last evening where a 2-year-old girl fell down a flight of stairs and sustained a head injury earlier in the day.

Although authorities are releasing no information, the door to one of the apartments in Building 2 of the Belmont Village Apartments is sealed with crime scene tape.

Police and emergency responders from the Belmont Fire Department were called to the home yesterday morning after a report of the child falling down the stairs.

Dispatches heard over the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Association radio and later confirmed by Fire Chief Dave Parenti said the child was unconscious but breathing.

Parenti said it appeared as though she fell from the second floor to the first floor. He said the stairs were carpeted as was the floor where she landed and there was no apparent obstacles in the stairway.

He said he immediately called for a DHART helicopter and had hoped it could land in Belmont but said it was refueling and would fly to Lakes Region General Hospital in Laconia.

Parenti said they took the child to LRGH where she was stabilized by emergency room personnel and then flown by helicopter to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

He said the child's mother was at work and she was being cared for by an adult.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 October 2013 02:19

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