Independent evaluation of Belmont Mill concludes building is 'worth saving'

BELMONT – After a listening session facilitated by Castagna Consulting Group brought nearly 50 people to the high school to discuss the future of the Belmont Mill on May 9, Castagna released its final report to the selectmen a few weeks ago.

In it, Castagna identified some of the structural issues including a heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system that needs replacing, the floor softness in parts of the fourth floor and some mold issues within the entire building.

Castagna added the exterior brick work need repairs and there is a plan for that created by the companies hired to evaluate the mill and enable the town to put an amount on the bond issue.

They noted the doctor's office, Belknap Family Health Care, occupies the entire second floor and is looking to expand. The Lakes Region Community College is gone and the childcare center on the first floor is moving to larger quarters in another Belmont location.

Castagna also drew the conclusion that the Belmont town hall operates from some small cramped quarters and that the nearby former bank remains standing but empty "yet in control of the town". Castagna also recognized that the Parks and Recreation Department and the Police Department also work in limited spaces.

While a few people who attended the session recommended selling the mill, the report said that has its drawbacks because only the building can be sold — not the land under it — meaning a long-term lease would be needed.

Anyone purchasing or long-term leasing it must anticipate a $3- to 4-million repair and the federal grant used to refurbish it originally in the 1990s would need to be paid. The outstanding balance is $200,000.

The plus side, said Castagna, would be the town wouldn't have to worry about operating expenses and would no longer be a landlord. The down side is a new owner could tear it down unless the town negotiated a deed restriction.

Castagna recommendations are based in part on what it heard from town and from what it learned from the teams who examined the mill to determine how much money should be put on the March bond warrant.

"First and foremost, in my opinion," wrote the author of the Castagna report, " The mill building is worth saving."

"For an industry perspective, the cost for the repairs is economically viable," reads the Castagna report. But it will, said the report, take 7 to 10 years to become viable.

The reports highlights three options with Belknap Family Health Care, the worst of which is its complete departure from Belmont Village and something no one who came to the May session wants to see.

The best option for Belmont is to sell the building to LRGHealthcare of Laconia and let it become the owner/manager/landlord.

In the middle, the town could rent additional space to the Family Heath Care group, pay for necessary building repairs, pay off the grant, and renegotiate the lease so in the short term the repairs can be offset by rent.

The report drafters noted that if the doctor's office stays it is likely the senior center will stay as well.

Castagna also recommended establishing a facility maintenance fund. Selectman Ron Cormier said there is a capital facilities fund that has been used in the past for maintenance. He said if the mill bond passed, much of it would have gone to that project.

Castagna recommends a town facility committee that would hire professionals as needed for facilitation and vetting operations.

"Make the process transparent to avoid the inference of backroom deal making," said Costagna.

Following a resolution for the mill, the company told the town to then focus on its other building needs like town offices, the bank building, and the Gale School.

Candle produces fire scare at Laconia home

LACONIA — Firefighters carried a dish of burning candle wax from a home at 36 Dartmouth Street yesterday afternoon, averting what Fire Chief Ken Erickson said could have turned into more serious situation.

Shortly after 4 p.m. one of the three children in the home at the time called 911 when a burning candle set the gases emitted by the liquified wax afire. Erickson said that it was fortunate they did not try to douse the flames or move the dish, which could easily have spread the fire. The table holding the candle was covered with wax, he said, but there was no damage and no one was injured. "They did the right thing by calling 911," Erickson remarked.

Hassan says proposed state budget is ‘unbalanced’

LACONIA — "There's a lot of common ground here," Gov. Maggie Hassan said yesterday. "There's a good deal to be had here. "The governor, a Democrat, last week vetoed the 2016-17 state budget adopted by the Legislature and this week said, "we're making the rounds because I hoped we'd have an agreed budget and we don't."

During an interview at the office of the Laconia Daily Sun, Hassan, who was accompanied by state Sen. Andrew Hosmer (D-Laconia), a member of the Senate Finance Committee, took aim at the budget adopted by Republican majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives, which she called "unbalanced."

In particular, Hassan took issue with the Legislature's decision to reduce business taxes at the expense of more important priorities, which she believes will cripple future budgets by sapping revenues by $21 million in this biennium, $65 million in the next and $90 million in the one after that. "Ninety million dollars is a big number," she said, equal to the annual budget of the New Hampshire Community College System.

The governor recalled that the bipartisan budget adopted in her first term sought to expand employment and opportunity while stemming the loss of young people and protecting the state's low-tax environment by investing in infrastructure, higher education, mental health and substance abuse programs. Hassan noted that in 2014 the growth of the economy matched Massachusetts to set the pace in New England, and surpassed the national average. At the same time, New Hampshire enjoyed the lowest per capita tax burden in the country and was ranked the seventh most "business friendly" state by the Tax Foundation.

This year, Hassan said, the budget "passed in a partisan way." She said that the budget "double-counted" funding in 2015 by increasing the transfer to the revenue stabilization or "rainy day" fund by almost $12 million and the projected surplus by $15 million. Such "gimmicks," she said, "used in emergencies have become bad habits and within months will require cuts to balance the budget."

The governor said that she is not opposed to reducing business taxes, but added that she heard from business leaders that the development of a skilled workforce is their highest priority. She noted that the state has forgone revenue because of changes to the tax code introduced in 2010 and insisted "this is not the time to cut revenue. In the abstract we'd love it, " she continued, "but under the circumstances they're making the wrong choice."

Hassan said that she has suggested raising vehicle registration fees and the tobacco tax as well as closing loopholes in business taxes to pay for reduced business taxes, but has been rebuffed by Republican who refuse to increase any tax or fee.

Hassan said that she is also troubled by the failure of the Legislature to fund the contract negotiated with state employees and to ensure the perpetuation of the New Hampshire Health Protection Program (HPP).

The contract, she explained, was negotiated before she delivered her budget address in February, but the Legislature chose not only to withhold the necessary funding but also to defer implementation of the contract if the money was available.

Declining to reauthorize the HPP, the governor said, has created uncertainty about the health insurance of some 41,000 enrolled in the program, some of whom receive treatment for substance abuse and mental illness. At the same time, it has unsettled the health insurance market, which weighs on businesses contemplating the future cost of health insurance for their employees.

On the heels of Hassan's veto, the Legislature adopted a continuing resolution, which ensures that state government continues to operate with funding at the level of fiscal year 2015, which ends today. Although Hassan said she was "encouraged" by the continuing resolution, she said that "we must get back to the table." Funding programs and services at 2015 levels, she called "kicking the can down the road" and urged lawmakers to "return to the table sooner rather than later."

Hands free - starting tomorrow, using a phone while driving will cost $100

LACONIA – At midnight, New Hampshire will become the 12th state to pass an outright ban on the use of all hand-held electronic devices by drivers in car on a public way.

The state's Hands Free Law was signed by Gov. Maggie Hassan on July 25, 2014, after passing the Legislature on May 7. The nearly one-year wait before the law taking effect was intended to give the state and local authorities an opportunity to wage a massive campaign to educate the state's drivers.

In signing the bill, Hassan said electronic devices used by drivers in automobiles represented "an increasing danger we must address."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of May 5, 2015, 11 states, Washington D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands had all passed similar laws. Most other states have addressed a hands-free policy for school bus drivers and for drivers 18 or under. In New England, New Hampshire follows Connecticut and Vermont in passing a total ban on the use of electronic devices while driving.

In New Hampshire, the first violation costs the driver $100 plus a penalty assessment of 17 percent. The penalty for subsequent offenses within two years is $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third. Both include the penalty assessment.

"I am 100-percent supportive of this law," said Gilford Police Chief Anthony Bean Burpee, who said his department, as have the others in Belknap County, has issued several press releases, has posted messages on both Facebook and Twitter and has gotten involved in the N.H. Police Chief's campaign called Driving Toward Zero – One Death Too Many.

Gilford Police photocopied the poster they got from the N.H. Police Chief's campaign on bright orange paper and started distributing copies about six weeks ago. A few of those bright orange posters ended up in the toilets at the Gilford Public Library, including one over the urinal in the men's room.

"We post everything we get," said Katherine Dormody said yesterday. She also noted that she is a big supporter of the law and was glad to help the police any way she could.

In Laconia, Capt. Bill Clary said notices were sent to every department – especially the schools as well as Twitter, Facebook, Laconia Links, and the Police Department's Web Page. He said School Resource Officer Steve Orton has worked with the students at Laconia High School and the schools themselves have worked hard to get out the message.

"This will make for much safer roads," Clary said.

Belmont Police Lt. Richard Mann said his department also piggy-backed on the state campaign. He said it has put a public service bulletin on an electronic sign on Route 3 because the man who owns it allows the town to put up public service announcements when it's not rented.

"I was shocked when I learned that 28 percent of traffic deaths in the state could be attributed to cell phone use," Mann said.

Mann also emphasized that the law states that all electronic devices, including cell phones, Global Positioning Sensors, tablets and iPods are illegal to operate while driving. Calling 9-1-1 in an emergency is the only exception.

"If it's original equipment in a car it's okay," said Mann.

Mann said Belmont will go forward with a no-grace-period approach.

"How can anyone say they didn't know about this?" he asked rhetorically. "Even my boys know about this and they're all too young to drive."

As a comparison, he said if people from Massachusetts get arrested with marijuana, New Hampshire police don't just say, "Okay, never mind."

Mann, Clary, and Bean Burpee all said good portions of their campaign were working with and through their individual school districts to get the word out to high school students, generally using the School Resource Officers. At Shaker Regional High School, Mann said various officers, but usually SRO Joe Marcello, attended driver's education programs to discuss the rules of the road with an recent emphasis on this one.

Smaller community police chiefs, like Stephen Hankard of Sanbornton, said his department posted all the state fliers and personally warned people who were stopped for any reason about the upcoming law changes. Since Sanbornton has an elementary school, he said a campaign in there really wouldn't have made a lot of sense, but that Winnisquam Regional High School had a lengthy campaign using Tilton's School Resource Officer Bill Patten.

All four officers said they work in towns or cities that have banned cell phone use for all municipal vehicles.

Laconia Police created a hands-free policy for all of their police officers that became effective at the beginning of this year. The other three police departments interviewed noted similar internal policies as well as town policies against using electronics while driving.

In Gilford, Bean Burpee said all of their front-line cruisers have either have Blue Tooth capabilities or have built-in hands-free devices. By next year, Bean Burpee said the department cruisers should all have factory-installed hands-free equipment.

Clary said he initially didn't want to get the hands-free option in Laconia's two newest cruisers, but decided at the last minute to get the package that also includes an additional safety device.

The drawback for Laconia is that the factory package only allows four cell phones to be programmed into it and more than four officers drive the front-line vehicles. For police purposes, "front-line" means the newest cruisers that are on the road virtually 24-hours a day. He said one cruiser is typically used by a minimum of three officers in three shifts during one 24-hour period and it's harder to schedule cruiser assignments when only four officers can use the hands-free system.

"I want to test it," he said, noting that if it makes sense, he'll begin ordering it for all of the newest cruisers to come. Clary also noted that many of his officers were already Blue Tooth-enabled on their own because of the internal policy change. He noted that except for certain outlying sectors of the city, if any information needs to be exchanged that can't be broadcast over the police radio, then it's just as efficient for the officer to come to the police station.

Hankard and Mann said all of Belmont's cruisers are equipped with devices that have been purchased from private companies and installed in the cruisers. As they go forward with new cruisers, both expect to take advantage of the hands-free package offered by Ford Motor Company.

Laconia Chief Chris Adams said yesterday that his department is not going to become "a ticket factory" on the first day of the new law. He added that because of the sheer amount of upfront public announcements, the nice guy approach wasn't going to last very long, though.

"There has been a massive amount of publicity about this and I can't imagine most people don't know about it," he said.

"I can well imagine we're going to be very busy Wednesday morning," he said.