Chocorua trail property owners say ‘Sled dogs, yes; snowmobiles, no’

By ROGER AMSDEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN

TAMWORTH — Sled dog races will continue to start on Lake Chocorua and mushers will be able to use the same trails they have used in the past, but those trails will be closed to snowmobilers in the near future and removed from the snowmobile trail maps published by the New Hampshire Trails Bureau, according to Alex Moot, president of the Chocorua Lake Conservancy.
He said an article published in The Laconia Daily Sun on Feb. 7 about the possibility that this year’s Tamworth Sled Dog race might mark the end of a 90-year tradition was not fully accurate.
“The property owners referenced in the article have not closed the trails on their property to the annual Tamworth Sled Dog Race, and have never communicated this intention to either the Tamworth Outing Club or New England Sled Dog Association,” said Moot.
He said one of the owners, who wishes to remain anonymous, grew up watching sled dog races every winter and is an enthusiastic supporter of the Tamworth Sled Dog race.
“The property owners are now in direct contact with a TOC representative to reassure him that the Tamworth Sled Dog race can continue to use the trails on their property and to work out any race logistics,” said Moot.
He said that, over the past several years, the property owners have been experiencing increasing problems with snowmobile users on their property straying off the trails, leaving trash behind, peering into the windows of their house, and intruding upon their family’s privacy in various ways.
Moot said the owners are also concerned that the snowmobile trails on their property are being made broadly available online through snowmobile trail maps published by the New Hampshire Trails Bureau, since those maps attract multitudes of snowmobile users from all over New England and far beyond. He said that their names and home address were also listed online in one instance.
He said the owners contacted the Trails Bureau and asked if the snowmobile trails on their property could be removed from online trail maps but remain open for use by residents of Tamworth and surrounding towns.
“Unfortunately, the Trails Bureau told the owners that, if the snowmobile trails were removed from the state’s online maps, the state would need to close the snowmobile trails to all users, including local residents of Tamworth and nearby towns. As a result, the owners felt their only option was to reluctantly ask the New Hampshire Trails Bureau to remove the snowmobile trails on their property from its online trail maps, which apparently has the unfortunate consequence of the trails being closed to all snowmobile users. However, the owners have communicated to the Tamworth Outing Club that they are fine with local snowmobiles using the trails to groom the trails for the annual Tamworth Sled Dog race.”
The outing club has partnered with the New England Sled Dog Club in holding the race  since 1937.
The NESDC was founded in November 1924 at a meeting at the Wonalancet Farm and Inn, owned by Arthur Walden and his wife, Kate. Walden, who developed the Chinook dog breed, was the first president of the club.
This year’s Tamworth race, which was originally scheduled for late January, was postponed to the weekend of Feb. 24-25 due to poor trail conditions.

 

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State representatives debate financial management of Gunstock Mountain Resort

By MICHAEL KITCH, for THE LACONIA DAILY SUN

CONCORD — After hearing a bill to regulate “disorderly houses,” the House Municipal and County Government Committee this week turned to the controversial proposal backed by some Belknap County lawmakers to vest the county convention with greater control over the management and operation of Gunstock Mountain Resort.

House Bill 1702 would require the convention to approve the strategic and business plans along with the operating budget and capital investments proposed by the management of the resort and endorsed by the Gunstock Area Commission. Sponsored by Rep. Valerie Fraser (R-New Hampton), the bill was introduced amid deadlocked negotiations between members of the county convention and the Gunstock Commission over renewing a memorandum of agreement specifying the terms under which the resort would transfer a share of its profits to the county.

Under the memorandum of agreement of 1998, which expired last December, Gunstock transferred $175,000 a year to the county. In negotiating to renew the memorandum, the commission has offered  to transfer $175,000 together with three percent of net operating income, on condition that the sponsors of HB 1702 withdraw the bill.

Underlining the intent of her bill, Fraser opened the hearing by offering an amendment that would add “to provide financial support to the Belknap County general fund” to the purposes of the statute that established the Gunstock Area Commission in 1959. She did not share her amendment with the commissioners and, after outlining her proposal, refused to take questions from the committee.

Representative Marc Abear (R-Meredith), a cosponsor, explained that the amendment also struck language describing the commission as a “body politic” from the statute, which he said was a stumbling block in negotiating  a memorandum of agreement. “If this bill goes forward,” he told the committee, “there will not be two body politics. There will be only one — Belknap County.”

Moreover, Abear explained that, since the county must guarantee Gunstock’s debt, the county property taxpayers are at risk in the event of a default.  
 
Although the bill has not been reviewed or discussed by the entire delegation, Abear noted that an “informal poll” indicated that 11 of the 18 members of the delegation supported the bill.

One of them is Rep. Norm Silber (R-Gilford) who, after confessing he was “a little punch drunk” after spending hours in the Election Law Committee, called the operation of the resort “a law unto itself” and “a shell game,” adding “it’s got to stop.” He said that “the Gunstock Commission doesn’t give the county what the statute requires,” questioned whether “it’s a proper role for government to be running a ski area,” and claimed “a private operator would turn over more money.”

Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), the longest-serving member of the delegation, referred to its “very cooperative, successful relationship with the Gunstock Commission” and said “this bill is not the preference of the delegation.” The delegation, he added, has two responsibilities with respect to Gunstock: appointing the commissioners and approving any borrowing. He asked the committee to report the bill “inexpedient to legislate” and not to convene a study committee.

Tilton was echoed by Rep. Tim Lang (R-Sanbornton) who dismissed the bill as a “sledge hammer” swung by members of the delegation to gain advantage in negotiating the memorandum of agreement.

“Kill this bill,” he urged the committee. “It’s not needed.”

Likewise, Rep. Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton) said, “we don’t need to meddle with the Gunstock Commission. We don’t need to micromanage Gunstock. We can’t even do our own county budget,” he continued. “I don’t know how we expect to do Gunstock’s.”

Reading from a statement expressing the commission’s opposition to the bill, Bob Durfee referred to the statute, which stipulates that the commission is “especially authorized and empowered to retain any profits from the operation of the area and invest the same for the purpose of future maintenance, operation, improvements of the area and for working capital.” At the same time, the statute provides that any funds on hand at the close of the fiscal year in excess of 25 percent of the “average gross income of the three immediately preceding fiscal years” not required to pay outstanding or service outstanding debt "shall be turned over to the county of Belknap if required by vote of the county convention.”

In response to concerns about the risk to county taxpayers expressed by Abear and insinuations of financial mismanagement voiced by Silber, Durfee told the committee that, every year since 1991, Gunstock has borrowed in anticipation of revenues, much as municipalities borrow in anticipation of tax receipts, and has never failed to repay the note.

The commissioners noted that the sponsors of the bill have repeatedly indicated that they aim “to extract as much money from Gunstock as possible to offset the county tax burden” and suggested that future investment in the resort be reduced or foregone so retained earnings can be applied against the county tax commitment. They warned that, if this approach were to prevail, “Gunstock will become antiquated and unable to adapt to the changing winter and summer recreational environment, and will not be able to maintain its competitive edge in the marketplace.”

The Municipal and Government Committee is scheduled to take executive action on the bill on Feb. 20.

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Four months of losses preceded LRGH cutbacks

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LRGH CEO Kevin Donovan (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)

By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Major cutbacks at LRGHealthcare, including an eventual end to delivering babies, came after the not-for-profit organization saw operating losses of $2 million from October through January, the first four months of its fiscal year, President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin W. Donovan said Wednesday.
The organization, which includes Lakes Region General Hospital and Franklin Regional Hospital, has been struggling with light patient volume combined with low payments. The cuts are intended to improve finances by $7 million annually.
“We didn't just pick $7 million out of the hat, that's because it's essentially 3 percent of our budget and we're expecting that that's the kind of expense we need to take out of the organization to get ourselves back on track and break even for the year, and maybe do a little bit better than that,” Donovan said.
Problems common
Mayor Ed Engler said the hospital is having the same problem as similar medical institutions. Many of those given care are on Medicaid or don't have any insurance at all.
“Most of us know that the Medicaid reimbursement rate is extremely low relative to the cost of service,” he said. “A hospital will go broke relying on Medicaid.
“It's tough. This is a $200 million corporation, the largest employer in the Lakes Region, with over 1,000 employees, and arguably our biggest economic engine. There's a lot at stake here.”
He said he has full confidence in Donovan and the LRGH Board of Directors, but he warned more changes could be necessary.
“It's hard to believe this is the end of the process, meaning that we need to be prepared for the hospital being purchased by another hospital corporation in the long term,” he said. “It's just a very difficult climate to operate in. You can deliver Grade A services, but who's going to pay for it?”

Making it to Concord
The decision to end the labor and delivery service effective May 30, which is expected to save $1 million yearly, spurred many comments on social media from people lamenting the end to 120 years of delivering babies at the hospital.
Prenatal and postnatal care will continue, but deliveries will be done at Concord Hospital, which is 45 minutes away.
One woman who commented on The Laconia Daily Sun's Facebook page said, “When I had my younger daughter 16 years ago, I wouldn't have made it to Concord from Laconia. She would have hopped out on the side of Highway 106.”
Donovan said every effort will be made to ensure public safety.
Last year, the hospital delivered 283 babies, down from 346 in 2015. But not all of these were from mothers who live in the Laconia area. About 50 of the yearly deliveries were from mothers who live in the Franklin area, which is as close to Concord as it is to Laconia.
For those who do live in Laconia, transportation to Concord will be one of the discussion points during prenatal care.
“We are also trying to make sure we have the appropriate safeguards in the emergency room setting so that if a woman does come into the ER and can't make it to Concord, or can't be sent to Concord because she is in active labor, we'll have the resources and we'll train up the staff to make sure they are willing and able to do the delivery.”
He said an obstetrics doctor would be on call to join the emergency room staff in such situations.
“Safety wise, we feel we can do a good job,” he said.
Administrative layoffs
Another cost-cutting move is the layoff of 16 administrative employees, which is to save about $1 million a year.
Donovan did not provide a list of the positions out of respect for the employees' privacy. One of those who was let go was a member of the senior leadership team.
“I felt strongly that if we were asking people around here to do more with less, we have to have some skin in the game as well,” he said.
Those laid off managed clinical areas, but were not involved in daily care of patients.


Open space
The closure of the maternity ward, will create more open space in a hospital that already has a lot of open space, Donovan said.
“There are some facilities that we have here that are relatively empty and maybe if we had a little bit more money available to us we might just kind of demolish a floor or two, or a building or two if we didn't need it,” he said.
He said he's heard and read comments from people who criticize expenditures made on physical improvements at the hospital, including a project to make the entrance to the building more aesthetically pleasing.
“I have to tell you, sometimes I find myself sitting here thinking that we have close to twice the average debt of what a hospital our size should have, and I have to admit that I sometimes find myself wondering where all that debt came from and unfortunately I don't have a perfect answer on that,” Donovan said.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development insures $117 million in the company's debt.

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A hallway in the hospital features photos of the babies born there. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)

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A typical maternity room at Lakes Region General Hospital. It will be in use until May 30, when labor and delivery services will be moved to Concord Hospital. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)

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