Parking meter plan expires - Laconia to study parking issues downtown instead

By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — The City Council shelved a proposal to install parking meters on downtown streets, build a parking garage alongside City Hall and ultimately demolish the existing parking garage, preferring instead to undertake a study of the need for parking in the center of the city.

Even before discussion opened Monday evening, Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2), the architect of the plan, withdrew the proposal to metered parking, which he described as "a work in progress" that "is not on the agenda tonight." With that, the council was left with the prospect of voting to construct a new three-story garage at a cost of between $4.7 million and $6.3 million and the ultimate demolition of the existing parking garage.

The public response was mixed. Despite Bownes's disclaimer, most favored replacing the parking garage with a new facility, but divided over the prospect of metered parking while several suggested conducting a study before making any decisions..

Dave Emond, director of operations at Lakes Region Community Services, said "The time is not right," and cautioned against "a rush to judgment," explaining that metered parking would place downtown businesses at a disadvantage with nearby competitors with free parking.

"We're not Boston. We're not Manchester," said Bob Soucy, who urged the council not to "nickel, dime and quarter people to death. We have to invite people to the city," he continued, "not turn them away."

Tom Barker, whose wife, Karen, described the parking garage as "a maximum security prison," agreed "It is quite a blot on our city." He said a new garage is a good idea and "I'm happy to pay the meters," but before doing anything downtown parking needs to be studied.

Breanna Henderson of Polished & Proper echoed Barker, calling for a study of the number of spaces and employees along with a projection of future needs for parking. She suggested that metered parking is "a generational issue," noting that younger people are "indifferent."

No one has spent more time counting parking spaces and canvassing public opinion downtown than John Moriarty of the the Main Street Initiative, who said he has found "overwhelming support for razing the parking garage. Likewise, he said that he favored construction of a new garage, even if the spaces were metered, "to get get rid of the garage." But, he said, "We actually do need to do a study," and endorsed a suggestion to spend $25,000 or $30,000 for a study.

Only Gail Ober of Lafayette Street expressed opposition to commissioning a parking study.

When the council turned to the issue, Bownes pressed his colleagues to authorize expenditures of up to $6 million to construct a new garage. He said that only after undertaking the restoration of the Colonial Theatre were the structural deficiencies of the parking garage discovered. After spending more than $100,000 on repairs, he said that any further investment in the facility would be "a big mistake."

Bownes said that by financing construction of a new garage in conjunction with the Colonial Theatre project the cost could be reduced by a third by drawing on New Market, which would include New Market Tax Credits, a federal program that provides incentives for private investments in low-come communities. He urged the council to proceed, claiming that if the project is delayed the New Market Tax Credits would be at risk and the construction costs would escalate.

"The landscape will only change for the worse," Bownes insisted. "This is our only option." Otherwise, he remarked, "we'll be forever stuck with that dungeon."

Councilors offered no support. Mayor Ed Engler said the debt service on a borrowing could not be carried without breaching the limit of $3.2 million in total annual principal and interest payments required to stay within the tax cap.

"That's why I proposed metered parking," Bownes replied.

Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4), who last week wrote a letter to the newspapers endorsing the project, withdrew her support, saying that she had "a lot of questions about the finances."

"Take a step back," said Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5). He said that a parking garage is not the highest and best use of the riverfront property next to City Hall, which he suggested was suited to commercial or residential development.

"We don't have a comprehensive plan," said Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3), who urged Bownes not to put the issue to a vote. Calling the proposal "premature," he cautioned against "pushing too hard, too fast" without a credible plan.

Engler stressed that the need for additional parking has yet to be demonstrated. He also reminded the council that although the council is in the process of acquiring the parking garage, the commercial spaces inseparably entwined with it remain privately owned. "We can't be talking about tearing down a building we don't own," he said.

Finally, Engler said that if the parking garage and the parking lot were replaced by a garage with 314 spaces as Bownes has proposed, there would be fewer parking spaces downtown.

When Hamel asked Bownes to withdraw his motion, he replied "No motion has been made."

With that the council agreed to convene a committee to study downtown parking. City Manager Scott Myers said $30,000 budgeted to fund service on a borrowing to repair the garage could be applied to the study.

City to cover LaconiaFest’s $63,130 shortfall

By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — When the music stopped at LaconiaFest, the city found itself $63,130 out of pocket when the promoters of concert series skipped town without paying their share of the cost of safety and emergency services.

City Manager Scott Myers suggested drawing on the fire stabilization account, which has a current balance of $145,191, to defray the deficit. However, Mayor Ed Engler suggested instead tapping into the Motorcycle Week account, which represents the difference between the revenues collected and the expenses incurred during the rally. Since the account was established in 2007, it has accrued a balance of $117,822.

By turning to the Motorcycle Week account , Engler said, "We can look the taxpayers in the eye because it won't cost the taxpayers a dime."

When the Special Event Review Committee granted LaconiaFest its permit it required the promoters to escrow $309,830 to defray the cost of police, fire and code enforcement services. The amount was based on projected attendance of 10,000 to 15,000 on the first Saturday; 30,000 on Sunday; 8,000 to 10,000 on Monday and Tuesday; 30,000 on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; 10,000 to 15,000 on the last Saturday; and 2,000 to 5,000 on Sunday. These numbers dated from April, when the promoters expected to book more performers of the caliber and appeal of Steven Tyler, Bret Michaels and Ted Nugent, who ultimately headlined the festival.

When they failed to book the acts they expected and advance ticket sales fell short of projections, City Manager Scott Myers adjusted the amount, asking that $90,000 be deposited by June 1. The date passed without payment. Myers halved the request for $90,000 on the understanding that it would be applied to the first weekend of the rally. Tyler Glover, the principal of Vesslar Global Partners LLC of West Jefferson, North Carolina, the parent company of LaconiaFest, paid $35,000, but no more.

Myers said that he asked to meet regularly with the organizers to determine the amount required on a day-to-day basis in light of advance ticket sales and estimates of tickets sold at the gate. He noted that projecting attendance became more difficult when the promoters stopped charging for admission and deeply discounted the price of tickets.

Myers told the City Council that he sent invoices to Glover and Mike Trainor, of the M2 Management Group, the principal promoters, in an effort to recover the city's costs.

Finance Director Donna Woodaman said Tuesday that she expects to close the books on Motorcycle Week in the next two weeks.

Tax cap blamed for low teacher salaries

LACONIA — "The current tax cap is preventing Laconia from successfully attracting middle class families to Laconia and is causing us to steadily lose the strong middle class that once was the backbone of our city," Mike Persson told the City Council this week.

Persson, a member of the School Board, was speaking at a public hearing on the municipal budget, which included deep cuts in school spending. "I am not happy with the city's proposed budget and believe that it is inadequate to meet the city's needs now and into the future," he said.

For middle class families, Persson noted, the quality of public schools is a major factor in their choice of where to live.

"Beyond our inability to expand programming to increase quality," he said, "the tax cap has prevented our teacher pay from keeping pace with other area districts and our current teacher pay is not competitive."

Persson distributed spreadsheets comparing the salaries of teachers in the Laconia School District with their counterparts in Gilford, Inter-Lakes and Concord and remarked that "my jaw dropped" at the comparisons. The disparities, he said, are widest in the middle of the pay scale, among teachers with between eight and 19 years of experience. With the tax cap, Persson said, the district cannot overcome the disparities and offer competitive salaries, even if all new monies were applied to compensating teachers for next five to seven years.

He suggested that young teachers will become experienced in Laconia then leave for more lucrative positions in other districts. As Laconia's most experienced teachers retire, he concluded, "We will be left with a revolving door of new teachers who we will spend money to train, to the benefit of surrounding districts." Offering several examples of administrators and teachers who have left the district, he said that "With cuts of over $1.6 million from the schools' 2016 programs and uncertainty of future budget cuts causing anxiety for our teachers, this trend is sure to continue."

Persson said that unless Laconia can compete with neighboring school districts for the best teachers and can invest in more expansive educational programming, the city will fail to retain and attract middle families.

"As middle class class families move out," he said, "they are being replaced by lower-income families," a trend raises the cost of social services, lowers property values and discourages investment and development. "The end result," Person warned, "will be that our tax bills will increase even though our property values are decreasing."

In urging the council to address these issues, Persson suggested they "amend the tax cap to ensure that it does not prevent us from making the investments that are needed to ensure our success."

Persson was echoed by Kevin Treat, who recently moved to Laconia from Merrimack. He said he was disappointed by the cuts to the school budget, particularly in light of the "low ratings of the schools" and the turnover of teachers and administrators. Like Persson, he pointed to the tax cap as the source of the problems.

Aaron Hayward said that despite a 27 percent increase, spending per student in the Laconia School District is the lowest in the Lakes Region by $2,000 or more. Since the tax cap was introduced, he said that teachers' salaries have slid from 49th in the state to 70th. "You are losing your best people," he said. "Period."

Dave Huot, a former district court judge and state representative, reminded the council that "the state of New Hampshire is not innocent in all this" and urged them to "advocate, make a statement." This year, state aid to the school district was reduced by $455,338 to reflect its declining enrollment. At the same time, Huot advised the council to "adjust the tax cap to where it is amenable to the changes taking place."

Councilors did not respond to these statements.

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