Day off with pay - City loses in grievance of firefighter called to court for another town’s issue

LACONIA — City Manager Scott Meyers told the City Council this week that he was "disappointed" by the decision of an arbitrator requiring the city to pay the wages of a Laconia firefighter who spent a day in court on an issue arising from his employment with the Henniker Fire Department and having nothing to do with his employment by the city.

Firefighter Brennan Lorden was subpoenaed to appear in court on Oct. 8, 2014, a day he was scheduled to work. He requested leave, but was told by the Deputy Chief he would have to use vacation or personal time. He used personal time, but raised the issue with the union, the Laconia Professional Fire Fighters Association, which filed a grievance on his behalf. The grievance rested on a provision of the collective bargaining agreement that stipulates "no employee who may be summoned or subpoenaed shall be caused to suffer any loss of wages."

City officials found no record of an employee either requesting or receiving payment for time spent in court on a matter unrelated to their employment with the city and denied the grievance.

In her report, Diane Zaar Cochran, the arbitrator, noted that the union conceded "there is a thread of logic" in the city's position that leave for court appearances should be confined to matters arising from a person's employment with the city. But, Molan insisted that the agreement "says what it says." He also argued that although the court appearance was not related to Lorden's employment with the city, he had no choice, but was required to appear.

The city, represented by Mark Broth of Manchester, contended that it is difficult to believe that no union members have ever been subpoenaed about an issue unrelated to their employment with the city, yet there is no record of such a request in the 60 years the provision in question has been part of the collective bargaining agreement. He suggested the arbitrator find that "individuals knew better than to make such a request."

The arbitrator ruled that the provision is "absolute and unbending, plainly requiring that an employee 'shall not suffer' a wage loss if summoned or subpoenaed into court. She added that it makes no distinction between summonses and subpoenas arising from or unrelated to employment with the city. She remarked that the city's argument is "the more logical" and confessed "I was at one point tempted to deny the Union's grievance on the grounds that it could lead to absurd, nonsensical results." While upholding the grievance and restoring Lorden's personal day, the arbitrator invited the parties to "fine tune" the contract at the bargaining table.

Myers said that if a firefighter were called to court on an issue related to his employment with the city on a day he was not scheduled to work, the city would not be obliged to compensate him, since he would suffer no loss of wages. Clarifying the language of the collective bargaining agreement, he said, would be in the best interests of both the city and the union.

As of Dec. 31, the city spent $3,391.26 pursuing the case.

Gilford Budget Committee no longer in unanimous support of bond

GILFORD — The Budget Committee reopened its discussion to reconsider the 10-0 vote to support bonding $2.24 million to provide mechanical, electric, plumbing and HVAC repairs to the elementary school. Though the bond continues to have the support of the committee, it is no longer unanimous.

The motion was made after the public hearing Wednesday by member Norman Silber, who said he learned new information from School Board member Chris McDonough about his reasoning behind supporting gradual improvements over a one-time bond. McDonough also suggested waiting until a major bond is paid off in 2021 or 2022.

Silber said that, in light of this new information, he was no longer comfortable supporting the bond and wanted to fully explore McDonough's suggestions.

"The School Board and the SAU have run amok," Silber said yesterday. "The only way to impose is through the pocketbook." He made similar comments during Wednesday's committee discussion.

Other members, including School Board representative Karen Thurston, said the school district "has a responsibility to take care of the school." She said the reason behind the bond was to minimize the disturbances of a renovation project in the school by not spreading repairs over five years.

Budget Committee Chairman Kevin Leandro had said during the public hearing that if the school district had been planning for this for five years, they could have been saving money in a capital fund. However, he said he would still support the bond because it contains a maximum expenditure of $2.24 million.

Superintendent Kent Hemingway advocated for approving the bond for this year because the school district would have to wait a year to restart any process. "We will continue to find a way to get this work done."

Silber said he heard one speaker during the public hearing say that now is the time to because the economy has recovered.

"Does anyone here think the economy is good? This is the worst economic recovery in history," Silber said while some members of the board nodded their heads in agreement.

Members Bob Henderson and Richard "Rags" Grenier said they were not in favor of changing their votes and will continue to support the bond.

He noted the committee all agreed last week to support it and "the economy is the same [today] as it was last Thursday."

Charlotte Landeau said members were "flip-flopping" and were "no better than the [national] politicians who were running for office."

The vote to not recommend the bond failed by a 2-to-8 margin with Horvath and Silber voting in the affirmative.

Laconia School District faces budget challenge as tax cap kicks in

LACONIA — "It's going to be extremely, extremely difficult to do what we need to do," School Superintendent Phil McCormack told the Budget and Personnel Committee of the School Board to open discussion of the 2016-2017 school district budget. "We all have to feel some pain and I think we will," he added.

Without introducing new programs or expanding existing ones, expenditures are projected to increase by $526,000, which consists of $390,000 for health insurance, $60,000 for workers compensation, $26,000 for payroll costs, $15,000 in transportation expenses and $35,000 in utility charges. At the same time, business administrator Ed Emond anticipated that reductions in state education funding and tuition at the Huot Technical Center could shrink revenue from sources other than property taxes by as much as $500,000.

In addition, the special education expenses are projected to run $480,000 beyond what was budgeted. McCormack said that nearly a third of the 183 students who enrolled in the district in August had special education needs compared to only a fifth of the equal number who left the district. Half the new students at one school qualify for special assistance, he said. By drawing on the special education trust fund and transferring monies from other accounts, McCormack expected to cover the shortfall by the end of the current school year, but noted "we will have depleted our emergency funding sources."

Finally, the collective bargaining agreements with the Laconia Education Association, the union representing the teachers, as well as those with unions representing the support and custodial staffs, expire on June 30. If new contracts are negotiated and ratified, funding for any increases in compensation and benefits would be included in the 2016-2017 school district budget.

Meanwhile, the school district, like the city, is bound by the tax cap.
The tax cap limits the annual increase in total expenditures funded by property taxes to the rate of inflation, measured by the Consumer Price Index — Urban (CPI-U), for the prior calendar year, plus an additional amount representing the value of new construction, which is calculated by multiplying the value of building permits less the value of demolition permits issued between April 1 and March 31 by the prior year's property tax rate.

This year, for the first time since the tax cap was first applied in 2006, the CPI-U is projected to be at or near zero. In other words, the only increase in the amount to be raised by property taxes will be that represented by the value of new construction. City Manager Scott Myers expects the value of new construction to end the year on March 31 at about $31 million, representing an increase of $688,200 in the amount to be raised by property taxes, or slightly more than half of the $1,289,636 increase of a year ago. Since the increase is shared between the city, school district and county, about 60 percent, or some $413,000, would be allotted to the school district.

Emond said that he has yet to calculate precisely how much expenditures must be trimmed to budget within the limits of the tax cap, but anticipates that the amount could approach $1 million.

McCormack told the committee that "we can't continue to do business the way we've been doing it, with the financial situation we are faced with." The administration, he said, has begun considering options, which, as they are analyzed and refined, it will report to the committee.

To open discussion, McCormack offered two options: restructuring the three elementary schools and reconsidering the minimum standards set by the New Hampshire Department of Education, which he emphasized are "only at the conceptual stage."

For example, McCormack said that preschool through second-grade pupils could be enrolled at the two smallest elementary schools while third grade through fifth grade would be taught at the largest. He acknowledged this would require "significant reshuffling of personnel and resources," but teaching all fifth-grade pupils at one school could improve the transition to middle school while reducing operating costs.

"I think we'd be creating a headwind for ourselves," said Scott Vachon, who quickly dismissed the suggestion. He described the elementary schools as "community schools," and said flatly "I just couldn't do it."

Likewise, Mike Persson noted that each school has its own PTO, sense of pride and fundraising effort.

"The parents are invested," he said, "and it's not just an emotional attachment."

He also questioned the impact on transportation costs.

Turning to the minimum standards, McCormack suggested carefully reviewing programs and services "above and beyond what the state requires" in seeking to trim expenses. Persson agreed with reviewing programs "not core to our mission," while stressing that "cuts must not jeopardize the educational achievement of our students.

Furthermore, McCormack remarked that "cutting some sports is obviously on the table."

"I'm certainly not going to ignore the educational aspects of any decision," McCormack assured the committee. "But, we've been dealt a hand and we have to play it. We will not solve this problem by entering into with blinders on."

Vachon reeled off a long list of items he suggested might offer savings, including purchasing policies, advertising budgets, transportation costs and summer school programs as well as copyrighting and selling school logos and eliminating yearbooks at the elementary and middle schcols. Moreover, he said that he also had proposals for reducing personnel costs that could only be discussed in a nonpublic meeting.

Persson turned from expenses to revenues, suggesting that the district consider charging a fee for sports and drama for those who could afford to pay and seeking grants and public-private partnerships. He also proposed adopting a "cooperative fundraising model" by which monies raised by different groups and concession sales would be pooled and distributed according to merit and need much like the Greater Lakes Region Children's Auction.

"Fundraising is not going to solve this budget problem," McCormack said, "but it may help. It is dangerous to put a lot of faith in fundraising." He reminded the committee that the district "has been very successful at grant writing and securing grant funding."

McCormack closed by stressing that he expected the administration and the committee to work closely in developing, refining and weighing different options. "We want this committee to know what's happening," he said. "There are some very difficult decisions to come at all levels that you may have to hold your nose and vote on."

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