Rejection of Newfound school budget sets district up for lawsuit


BRISTOL — By a mere four votes, residents of the Newfound Area School District rejected the proposed budget on Tuesday, which means the default budget, which is $277,762 less, will take effect.
It also sets the school district up for a lawsuit because of disagreement over capital expenditures included in the default budget.
Voters in Danbury, Hebron, and New Hampton supported the $23,813,595 budget, but tallies in Alexandria, Bridgewater, Bristol, and Groton showed opposition. The total count was 761 in favor and 765 opposed, resulting in a default budget of $23,535,833.
Under the statute governing official ballot towns, there is an option to hold a special school district meeting to address the budget in a situation like this, but the option has rarely, if ever, been used. Typically, the default budget is allowed to take effect.
School Board Chairman Jeff Levesque said the board will be deciding what approach to take at its next meeting, on March 26.
The default budget is intended to keep municipalities and school districts operational by continuing the spending included in the last approved budget, with adjustments for “debt service, contracts, and other obligations previously incurred or mandated by law, and reduced by one-time expenditures contained in the operating budget.”
School officials argue that the $800,000 that voters approved last year to replace the high school roof is not a one-time expenditure but, instead, the first year’s spending in a capital improvement plan extending 10 years into the future.
The $712,300 in new capital expenditures that they included in their calculation of the default budget is thus justified, they say.
Superintendent Stacy Buckley said the school district attorney agreed, saying that the definition of one-time expenditures is “appropriations not likely to recur in the succeeding budget, as determined by the governing body....”
Bristol resident Archie Auger, who had made the motion to add the $800,000 last year, maintains it was a one-time appropriation and, therefore, should not be included in the default budget.
He pointed out that the capital improvement plan had not even been approved by the School Board at the time of last year’s district meeting, and voters have never been asked to approve the plan.
Even with a capital improvement plan in place, each year’s projects must go before the voters to appropriate the money, unless voters agree to fund a particular project over a period of time, in which case it becomes a contractual obligation.
Levesque had refused to schedule a special meeting to discuss Auger’s concern in time to adjust the default budget if necessary before Tuesday’s vote, prompting residents and selectmen of the member towns to threaten a lawsuit against the school district.
When the School Board met on Monday, it tabled a discussion on the default budget because Auger was out of town and could not attend the meeting.
Bristol resident Paul Simard, one of those opposing the way the default budget was calculated, said he is waiting to speak with Auger before committing to a lawsuit, but he said, “I’ve got my checkbook ready!”

Legislative action
Newfound's default budget is not the first one to be questioned. Several towns and school districts have faced criticism for the way they calculate the default budget, and Hillsborough County Superior Court recently ruled that the $60,000 that Weare officials had placed in that town’s default budget had to be removed because Weare voters had never approved the spending.The New Hampshire Legislature is looking to tighten up the law to avoid that kind of dispute.
House Bill 1307 would amend the definition of a default budget to stipulate that money taken out of a proposed operating budget also would be removed from the default budget.
HB 1396 would allow the governing body to increase the default budget by qualifying capital expenditures, providing it is certified by a third party as being “a non-deferrable issue of safety, code compliance, or protection against property loss.”
HB 1652 would require a town or school district to provide greater detail about how the default budget was calculated, including the amounts excluded as being one-time expenditures from the previous year. It would remove a provision of the current law that allows a community to hold a special meeting to revise a budget.
The state Senate also has a bill, SB 342, that would require written documentation of the specific cost items that constitute an increase or decrease in the default budget.

Newfound elections
Newfound Area School District voters elected Heidi Milbrand in a three-way race for Bristol’s representative to the School Board, with current School Board member John Larson receiving 375 votes and Erin Camire receiving 264 votes.
In uncontested races, Sharon Klapyk was re-elected as Danbury’s representative with 1,025 votes, and Levesque was re-elected as Groton’s representative with 943 votes. Jason Roberts received 108 write-in votes for Hebron’s representative.
Ruby Hill received 1,087 votes for Danbury representative to the School District Budget Committee and Don Franklin received 960 votes as Hebron’s representative. No one ran to represent Groton.
Edward “Ned” Gordon was elected moderator with 1,247 votes.
On other ballot questions, voters agreed, 1,096-400, to place $1 into the expendable trust fund for building maintenance and by 1,156-332 to allow the School Board to convey land and buildings on the Hebron Common to the town of Hebron.

County’s $90,000 victim-witness grant in jeopardy after cuts

03 15 Barbara Belmont

Barbara Belmont has been Belknap County’s victim witness advocate since 1991. (Roger Amsden photo)


LACONIA — The Belknap County Attorney’s Office has been awarded a two-year, $90,000 grant that will enable it to hire a second victim-witness advocate. But it won’t be able to accept the grant unless the Belknap County Delegation revises the $27.9 million 2018 county budget that it approved on Feb. 20.
That approved budget cut the $919,180 requested by the Belknap County Commission for the Belknap County Attorney’s Office to $854,476 and eliminated funding for the new position.
Belknap County Attorney Andrew Livernois said that the grant requires a 20 percent match from the county, which amounts to around $11,000 a year, before it can be accepted.
“We need that money in the budget in order to accept the grant,” said Livernois.
He says that the position is badly needed and that is why he applied last September to the New Hampshire Department of Justice for the grant.
Livernois found out last week that the request had been approved and he has been in contact with the Belknap County Commissioners about what needs to be done in order for the county to receive the grant.
He said he believes the commissioners will bring the grant issue to the attention of the delegation when it meets Tuesday at 9 a.m. to consider its 2018 budget. Commissioners have questioned the validity of the budget, citing procedural issues, and the delegation is meeting to resolve those issues.
Victim witness advocate
Victim witness advocates are professionals trained to support victims of crime. Advocates offer victims information, emotional support, and help finding resources and filling out paperwork.
The positions are state-funded in New Hampshire with a matching grant requirement for counties taking part.
First advocate
Belknap County got its first victim witness advocate in July 1991, when it hired Barbara Belmont, who will soon mark her 27th year with the county.
One of the first people Belmont worked with as an advocate was Florence Holway, who was 76 years old when she was raped on Easter Sunday of 1991 in her Alton home. Holway became a strong advocate for stronger rape penalty laws and went to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show, gaining national attention.
Belmont said that, when she first started working in Belknap County, there were only three people in the office — the county attorney, an assistant and a clerk.
Today there are five attorneys and two clerks and the workload has increased several times over what it was when she first started.
Last year, there were about 450 cases remaining open at the end of the year.
Belmont said it is her job to see that victims of felony crimes committed by adult offenders are treated with fairness and respect throughout the criminal justice process.
That involves working with crime victims and their families to ensure that they know what is happening with investigations, court dates and trials and the available resources, financial assistance and social services they may obtain.
She says that many of the victims she deals with, especially in physical and sexual assault cases, are traumatized and need emotional and psychological support from professionals.
If they lack insurance, they can receive assistance from the state’s crime victim’s assistance program.
She also puts them in touch with agencies that can provide temporary housing in a safe environment and makes follow up phone calls to make sure the victims remain informed about what is happening in the case.
She says a lot of her time is spent in the courtroom with victims and their families to help them understand what is happening and provide them with information and the opportunity for input on plea bargains.
Belmont says her workload has increased substantially with the advent of the Felonies First program in which cases go directly to Superior Court, bypassing District Court.
“We get involved a lot earlier in the process in working with the victims,” says Belmont.
A graduate of Plymouth State College, with a degree in social work, Belmont worked as a volunteer in a battered women’s shelter and can recall getting phone calls at 3 a.m. to help transport women to the shelter.
She says she is proud of the role she has played helping to establish the Lakes Region Child Advocacy Center, which provides services for children who have suffered physical or sexual abuse.
“It provides a safe setting where children can be interviewed about their experiences while being watched by a team of experts who aren’t visible to the child,” she said. “They feel safe in that environment. I can remember when we used to have to do those interviews in the courthouse and the children were intimidated and didn’t think they were being believed.”
The center is now in the former United Way office building on Water Street in Laconia.
She said dealing with people who are traumatized can be difficult to handle emotionally. But when things improve for them, it also is uplifting to know that she has played a role in helping them find a better life.
“It’s draining at times, but it has its rewards,” said Belmont.

03 15 belmont 2 1

Barbara Belmont, Belknap County’s victim witness advocate, talks with Belknap County Attorney Andrew Livernois, about her caseload. (Roger Amsden photo)

Delegation to clarify vote on county budget


LACONIA — Faced with a challenge on whether or not the 2018 Belknap County budget was properly adopted,  the Belknap County Delegation has scheduled two meetings next week to deal with the issue.

Delegation Chairman Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) says the delegation has scheduled meetings for March 20 and March 23, both at 9 a.m., in order to clarify the budget vote taken on Feb. 20 and re-vote if necessary.

He said that the second meeting will be held only if the delegation is unable to agree on a way to resolve the issue at its Tuesday meeting.

“I called two meetings with the thought that, if we can’t come to an agreement Tuesday, we’d have to wait at least another week because we’d have to post another meeting notice at least seven days before the next meeting. I didn’t want to wait that long,” said Vadney.

Belknap County Commissioners, pointing to what they say are procedural errors made by the delegation when it adopted a $27.9 million budget on Feb. 20, have questioned whether the county has a valid 2018 budget.

A letter  sent by commissioners to the delegation maintains that no final vote was taken on the budget and that the motion that was actually voted on by the delegation was one to cut off debate on a budget proposed by Rep. Marc Abear (R-Meredith).

“When the vote was concluded the Chairman treated it as a final motion on the 2018 Belknap County budget, not as a motion to call the question or a motion to use the Abear budget as a base for putting together the final budget,” the letter states.

The letter points out that the deadline for adopting a county budget is March 31 and unless the issues are dealt with by that time, there will be uncertainty over whether the convention has adopted a budget or whether the commissioners’ recommended $29 million budget should take effect.

Among the issues cited in the letter was whether the delegation had followed the correct procedure in allowing Rep. Valerie Fraser (R-New Hampton) to take part in the meeting by cellphone.

Another issue was whether conversations by members of the delegation with each other, which could not be heard throughout the room, violated the requirement that “each part of a meeting required to be open to the public shall be audible to the public.”

The letter also points out that there appeared to be an agreement at the meeting that, once one of the three alternative budgets that were being considered had won support from a majority, there would be an opportunity for amendments to be offered.

The letter says that, after the apparent budget vote, Rep. Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton) pointed out that the chairman had said amendments would be allowed. Vadney at first denied that he had said that and then said, “I’ve changed my mind.”

The delegation’s Executive Committee is also scheduled to meet on March 20 at 9:30 a.m. to review and approve a report for county’s annual report on spending from the contingency fund.