City Council aims for economic growth

By Michael Kitch

LACONIA — Fostering the growth of the local economy and righting the balance of the demographic profile while improving the performance of municipal government emerged as the major objectives when the City Council and department heads held a strategic planning session at the Central Fire Station yesterday.

The session, like those in 2011 and 2013 was facilitated by a representative of the New Hampshire Public Risk Management Exchange, known as Primex, the city's property and liability insurance carrier.

In contrast with the earlier sessions, which features enhancing the appearance of the city and protecting the quality of its water resources, this year much of the discussion turned on what can be done to promote a stronger economy and healthier demographic.

Noting that population growth drives economic growth, Mayor Ed Engler suggested that the city could position itself as a competitive housing market by adjusting its zoning regulations and expanding its municipal services to widen the opportunities and lower the costs of residential development. Competitively priced housing, he suggested, by attracting young families, could reverse a demographic trend, which has reduced school enrollment by 20 percent while increasing the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunch to about 60 percent. "We must raise the overall level of prosperity in the community," he said. "This is a demographic issue."

At the same time, there are several immediate issues that bear directly on the economic prospects of the city. The most pressing is the future of the downtown parking garage, which requires a major investment by the city if Genesis Behavioral Health is to purchase the privately owned portion of the facility. Furthermore, city officials will have to decide whether to make an offer for the former Laconia State School property on North Main Street, which the state will offer for sale in April.

A number of initiatives bearing on the economy are already underway, including the extension of the downtown riverwalk, restoration of Weirs Beach, renovation of the Colonial Theatre and improvements to Lakeside Avenue. Meanwhile, the City Council expects to make recommendations for changes to the existing boundaries and permitted uses of the commercial resort district, which encompasses most The Weirs, to the Planning Board. The district includes 28 lots covering 446 acres, or 96-percent of the vacant or undeveloped property zoned for commercial use in the city.

Rick Alpers, who facilitated the session for Primex, said that a full report will be prepared, listing the strategic priorities and means for pursuing them, which will serve as a compass for the council and departments for the next two years.

A different point of view on the Gilford School District Meeting

GILFORD — School District Superintendent Kent Hemingway said yesterday that he estimated about 150 to 160 voters were at the the Feb. 2 deliberative session of School District Meeting and that about a third of them were district employees. He said the balance were other members of the community.

Hemingway made his statement in response to an article that ran in the Daily Sun regarding the people's rejection of the 1.5 percent pay cut to nonunion staff and the estimate of a budget committee member that there were about 50 people there aside from the members of the school district and administrators who needed to be there.

— Gail Ober

Commission plans to use jail bond funds for nursing home roof


LACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners told members of the Belknap County Convention this week that they would like to use a portion of the $8 million bond issue approved last year by county legislators to fix an ongoing problem with the roof of the Belknap County Nursing Home.
Commission Chairman David DeVoy (R-Sanbornton) told the convention when it met Monday night for a work session on the budget that the commission is working out the details of a contract with Bauen Construction of Meredith as construction manager for the project, which calls for a guaranteed not-to-exceed maximum price of $7.3 million for the 18,000-square-foot, 64-bed facility.
He said the $7.3 million includes repairs to the existing jail as well as the new construction, and that leaves $700,000 which commissioners would like to see used on the county nursing home roof.
'"The roof was done 10 years ago but it failed," said DeVoy, who said that the county signed on to a class action suit against the contractor but received only a small settlement.
He explained that the county has received two estimates for the roof: $550,000 for a metal roof and $750,000 for the kind of shingled roof the nursing home currently has.
DeVoy suggested the best course of action would be move ahead with replacing the nursing home roof while construction of the community corrections center is underway, which would mean that a roofing contractor would be on site and able to handle both jobs, which he anticipates would produce considerable cost savings for the county.
He said that the same approach should be used with paving contractors in order to allow the county to repave the current access road and front parking lot at the Belknap County complex while paving which is part of the community corrections project is taking place.
Rep. Brian Gallagher (R-Sanbornton) noted that the bond issue numbers which were presented to legislators last year included a $700,000 contingency fund and asked "if the roof is included, do you still have a $700,000 cushion?" DeVoy said that the $7.3 million maximum price includes a $700,000 contingency.
Gallagher questioned why that information wasn't available at the time of the vote and DeVoy said that the information wasn't developed until recently. "We went with the $8 million. That's what we were presented with," said DeVoy, who added "our goal is to build it as cheaply as we can."
Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), chairman of the County Convention, said that he liked the approach of having a construction management company which could deliver a guaranteed maximum price and wondered when the guarantee would be put in writing.
DeVoy said that the contract is in the hands of the attorneys and is currently bring reviewed by Primex, the county's insurer, and the commission's attorney, Paul Fitzgerald of Laconia.
Commissioners also explained their decision to have a receptionist on duty seven days a week, as well as in the evenings until the front door is locked, at the Belknap County Nursing Home.
Currently, visitors to the nursing home can walk into the facility any time that the door is unlocked and make their way through the facility without checking in at the front desk of the business office, a situation which commissioners decided should not be allowed to continue, in part for security reasons.
"Anyone can walk into the nursing home without checking in. These are the most vulnerable people and we have no security checkpoint," said DeVoy. He said that the county plans to have receptionists on duty from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. every day of the week and have added about $45,000 in funds to the nursing home budget to fill those positions starting April 1.
Rep. Roy Howard (R-Alton) wondered if it was possible to fill those receptionist positions with work release inmates and DeVoy said it isn't practical, as it would put them "in a prime position to get contraband into the jail."