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Safety, diversity & a strong economy – Participants at ‘Re-Imagine Laconia’ agree on priorities

LACONIA — A strong economy, diverse demographic and safe community were the highest priorities of the more than 75 people asked to "re-imagine Laconia" at an open house at the Opechee Conference Center last evening.

Hosted by the Planning Department and Orton Family Foundation, the event aimed to refine and rank what residents identified as the defining values of the city through a variety of outreach efforts that began last summer and were capped at a forum in October in anticipation of preparing the Master Plan. The values will inform the vision statement, one of the required elements of the plan, as well as serve as guides for setting the priorities and prescribing the steps in pursuing the plan.

More than half the group, 53-percent, were men. The average age of the participants, a quarter of who were retirees, was 57.4, and less than two-percent were students. Nearly half, 45-percent, live or work downtown while a fifth were from Lakeport and 15-percent from The Weirs. More than half had lived and worked in the city for more than 20 years and have been engaged in civic or public life as volunteers. However, two-thirds of those at the open house were not among the some 100 who participated in the forum in October.

In preparation for the open house, the staff of the Planning Department and members of the Master Plan Advisory Committee compiled and distilled the information collected earlier from interviews, surveys and other efforts into ten values. Community character referred to the preservation of significant places. A sense of community spoke to a "small-city feel." Connectivity highlighted the relationships between members of the community., A beautiful environment, strong economy and responsive government were all prized. Demographic diversity referred to a balanced community of all ages. Public safety was a priority along with offering a rich, diverse quality of life. Finally, there was support for telling a positive story by promoting the assets and polishing the image of the city .

With electronic keypads, participants at the open house were asked to score each of the ten values in terms of importance. Some commanded a majority as "very important" and most were deemed either "very important" or "somewhat important." But, three-quarters rated a strong economy and safe community "very important."
Most interesting, when participants were asked rank the values against one another by selecting the three of most importance and highest priority a strong economy, safe community and diverse demographic — all concrete, measurable factors – topped the list.

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 March 2015 12:46

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Abandoned State School property costs state $300,000 per year

LACONIA — The state of New Hampshire spent $550,215 maintaining and securing the former Laconia State School property on North Main Street in the current biennium  and expects to budget another $586,227 in the next biennium, according to figures reported by the Department of Administrative Services (DAS).

In addition, the agency spends approximately $60,000 a year maintaining the "Designated Receiving Facility" (DRF), two buildings at the northern end of the property holding six beds for individuals with developmental disabilities or acquired brain disorders found to have committed sexual offenses and to pose a risk to public safety.

Governor Maggie Hassan has directed the DAS to sell the property and included $2 million in proceeds from the transaction in her proposed 2016-2017 budget. In 2012, the state appraised the 200-acre tract and 26 buildings for $2.16 million, but declined the city's offer to purchase it at that price. When the subject arose at the governor's budget hearings last November, Michael Connor, deputy commissioner of DAS,  responding to Senator Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith) said that while the property remains for sale, it is not being actively marketed.

The terms of the proposed transaction are stipulated in House Bill 2, the so-called "trailer bill" that accompanies the biennial budget, which directs the commissioner of the DAS to execute the sale. The transaction would be subject to the requirements of RSA 4:40, the statute governing the sale or lease of state property, which stipulates that it must be first be offered to the municipality or county where it is located.

The property consists of 202 acres bounded by North Main Street to the east, Meredith Center Road and Eastman Road to the north and Ahern State Park to the west and south and divided roughly in half by Right Way Path. Among the 26 buildings on the site, the appraiser found less than a handful salvageable and estimated the cost of demolishing the rest at more than $2 million.

The governor's budget has created an opportunity to renew its effort to acquire the property. Last week Mayor Ed Engler said that he would advocate for the city acquiring the property if it were offered for the appraised value or less.

The future of the property has been a bone of contention between the Senate and the House. Speaking at the governor's budget hearings in November, Linda Hodgdon, commissioner of Administrative Services, said "we would love some direction from the Legislature because so far we have been getting competing direction from the Legislature. We have some folks that are upset that we are not fixing more roofs there," she continued. "We have other folks that are upset that we are doing anything there." Connor added that when the matter came before the Capital Budget Overview Committee "there was a lot of consternation" and explained "Half the group felt that we shouldn't be investing in the buildings at all. We should be divesting ourselves of them immediately. A lot of other people felt that we should just hold on to it."

Senator Chuck Morse (R-Salem), the president of the Senate, has pressed to sell the property in order to spare the state the annual costs associated with it. Senator Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said yesterday that she shares Morse's concerns about the cost of state ownership. In the House Representative Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett), chairman of the Public Works and Highways Committee, has been at the forefront of resistance to disposing of the property.

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 March 2015 12:08

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Newly-reorganized County Commission will hear jail consultant’s report next week

LACONIA — The Belknap County Commission yesterday held its first meeting since the stormy March 2 meeting at which the commission was reorganized.
The brief, cordial meeting at which Commissioner Dave DeVoy presided, saw commissioners hear a report from Belknap County Correction s Department Superintendent Daniel Ward regarding next Wednesday's presentation to the commission by Kevin Warwick of Alternative Solutions Associates on proposals for space and staffing for a proposed community corrections facility.
Ward said that Warwick, whose firm was hired for $40,000 by the commission to develop a program for a community corrections facility, will provide a slide presentation of his recommendations and answer questions about the process by which they were reached. The meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. at the Belknap County complex.
Commissioners also agreed to a request by Ward that he be allowed to adopt policies for the jail which he said are needed and are his responsibility under state law 43:24.
''The law is very clear on what my responsibilities are,'' said Ward, who said that the policies are separate from those contained in the county's policy manual.
County Administrator Debra Shackett said that the manual has procedures for departmental specific policies and asked commissioners whether that policy which was put in place in 2010 should be followed or whether Ward should be allowed to develop policies without direct authorization from commissioners.
Commissioner Richard Burchell, who was ousted as commission chairman at the March 2 meeting, said that he thought the former commissioners had abrogated authority to themselves which was contrary to state law and that it is Ward's responsibility to handle operational details specific to correctional facilities.
Commissioners agreed that Ward had the authority to develop the policies and asked that they be informed by e-mails of the new policies which have been adopted.
Ward reported to the commissioners that the inmate count at the facility had dropped to 81 and that arrangements had been made with Lakes Region General Hospital regarding pregnant female inmates which would allow them to give birth at the hospital.
Commissioners also granted a request from Sue Cagle of the UNH Cooperative Extension Service and Lisa Morin of the Belknap County Conservation District that they be allowed to relocate their offices from their current locations to the space at the Belknap County Courthouse which was recently vacated by the Restorative Justice Program. The Extension Service office is located upstairs over Greenlaw's Music in downtown Laconia while the conservation district office is located in the former federal building now owned by the Lakes Region Community Services Council near the Laconia Public Library.

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 March 2015 11:41

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County Convention’s across-the-board cuts to outside agencies come under fire

LACONIA — The Belknap County Convention's decision to impose a 5 percent across-the-board cut in funding for six so-called "outside agencies" came under fire at Monday night's meeting of the convention, at which it finalized the county budget.
The agencies were slated to receive a total of $441,409, about 1.5 percent of the $27 million county budget. The cut, which was passed on March 9 by a 12-5 vote, amounted to a little over $22,000.
The six agencies are the UNH Cooperative Extension Service, which was slated to receive $163,000, the Belknap County Conservation District, $97,304, the Belknap Economic Development Council, $75,000, Genesis Behavioral Health (the regional mental health agency), $34,2000, the Community Action Program, $60,905 and Greater Lakes Region Child Advocacy Center, $11,000.
The cut was proposed last week by Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith), who said that the convention, through gradual reductions of outside agency funding, should ''set them on a path of independence by setting a goal where we get out of the business of subsidizing them.''
At this Monday's meeting former Meredith selectman Miller Lovett recalled that Eliza Leadbeater, former executive director of the BEDC, had once called the outside agencies ''the crown jewels of Belknap County'' and said that an attempt to gradually decrease their funding and ultimately end it was ill-advised.
Lovett said that cutting county funding would result in an increase in local property taxes and said that the gradual reduction of state and county support for Genesis, which he said is being squeezed little by little, is part of ''the scandal we're on the verge of'' when it comes to mental health funding.
Former representative David Huot of Laconia expanded on that theme, providing some historical context to what Lovett had said was an emerging scandal. He explained that in the wake of the closing of Laconia State School in the 1980s New Hampshire developed a community mental health system which was ''second to none'' — with Genesis being one of the regional mental health centers.
He said that since that time state mental health programs have been starved for funding, resulting in the state being sued and agreeing to a settlement which provides for $27 million in additional state funding.
''If the state doesn't live up to the bargain, the people who brought the suit can go back to court in case in which there's no way we can win. And that will costs us a lot more than $27 million.''
He said that he viewed outside agency funding as an investment in the county and said all of the agencies provide services to the county's communities and are better funded at the county level than at the community level.
Paula Trombi of Meredith said she didn't agree with Vadney at all, which prompted him to respond that ''the people spoke loud and clear in the election and they want to cut spending.''
Rick DeMark of Meredith said that the work done by the conservation district and the extension service helps support agricultural activity in the county which he says provides a strong boost to the local economy, a view supported by John Hodsdon of Meredith, who has been involved with the Conservation District.
Jan Hooper of Center Harbor, former head of the Belknap County Conservation District, said it wasn't sensible to consider phasing out the agencies. ''Think about the ramifications. At some point your family may be affected.''
Center Harbor Selectman Richard Hanson said that he thinks the convention is mistaken in cutting agencies which he says provide needed services. ''I respect the desire to save money, but I don't think these cuts do that,''he said, maintaining that costs would be passed along to the towns.

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 March 2015 11:06

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