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Chasm opens on new Belknap Commission over budget issues

LACONIA — When the chairman of a three member panel finds himself in a minority of one, he should be looking over his shoulder and that is where Richard Burchell of Gilmanton, the new chairman of the Belknap County Commission, found himself when he and his colleagues — Dave DeVoy of Sanbornton and Hunter Taylor of Alton — appeared before the Laconia City Council this week.

Two months after taking office, the three Republicans, all new to the commission, are at loggerheads over the 2015 county budget, which will be adopted by the Belknap County Convention next month.

DeVoy and Taylor have chosen to support their budget by increasing revenue projections. Burchell, who doubts actual receipts will match their estimates, proposes trimming personnel costs by $329,192 by eliminating eight full-time positions. When the commissioners addressed the council, Burchell informally presented his plan, prompting DeVoy to counter that by a vote of two-to-one "this is not the county commissioners' budget."

The rift emerged on February 13, when DeVoy and Taylor met with the county administrator, finance director and department heads, throughout the day to discuss the budget and cuts that were asked for convention Chair Frank Tilton (R-Laconia). Burchell, who anticipated DeVoy and Taylor would raise projected nursing home revenue to get to the target, was at the county complex but absented himself from the meeting.

"It struck me as superficial," Burchell said yesterday of his colleague's decision. "They're rushing down the road to solve our problems by sweetening the revenue stream."

DeVoy recalled that when he and Taylor tackled the revenue estimates prepared by their predecessors "we asked 'why put the numbers so low?'" He said that they reviewed the history of nursing home revenues during the past four years and decided to increase the projection to what he called "a good number" and to hedge by raising the appropriation for contingency to $200,000. DeVoy said that notes of the meeting, with all the figures, were e-mailed to Burchell as soon as they were drafted.

Five days later, on February 18, Matthew Logue, director of the Belknap County Nursing Home, wrote to Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, expressing concern that the introduction of phase two of the state's Medicaid Managed Care plan could cost the nursing home $2.2 million, or 24 percent of its annual revenue. The letter confirmed Burchell's suspicions of the revenue estimates on which the majority hinged its budget. He said that Logue regularly consults with his counterparts in other counties, officials of the New Hampshire Health Care Association, which represents 90 long-term care facilities, and the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

"It's not just Mr. Logue who is concerned about nursing home revenues," Burchell said. He added that he met with Kenney, Logue and Rep. Mike Sylvia (R-Belmont), a member of the convention's executive committee, all of whom echoed his concerns about projected revenues.

DeVoy pointed out that Logue is primarily concerned about the impact of the introduction of the second phase of the Medicaid Managed Care program on July 1, 2016, which has no bearing on the 2015 county budget. He said that he has met with Logue, who did not question the revenue estimates he and Taylor prepared.

Burchell said that the county will not know the actual revenue figures to expect until June. "It will be too late to right the ship," he remarked, "and then we will face some very unappetizing choices." In particular, he questioned whether the commission would have sufficient funding to undertake renovation and construction of the county jail. Noting that DeVoy and Taylor set aside some $440,000, he called their decision "fatuous" and claimed, "the money doesn't exist."

Burchell took a different approach to the budget. He proposed eliminating the position of county administrator, two positions in the finance department and one position on the maintenance crew. In addition, two full-time positions in the County Attorney's Office and one Registry of Deeds would become part-time positions and and two instead of three new corrections officers would be hired. "I couldn't start off like that without a need," he said, referring to his expectation of a revenue shortfall.
DeVoy and Taylor did not learn of Burchell's alternate budget proposal until the day before the commission was scheduled to address the City Council.

DeVoy suspected that Burchell was using the prospect of diminished revenues as leverage to shrink and restructure the county administration, an agenda he nurtured as a member of the convention for the two years before his election to the commission. Alluding to the tension between Burchell and county officials, particularly county Administrator Debra Shackett and Finance Director Glen Waring — whose positions he would eliminate, DeVoy suggested his plan smacks of "retribution".

"I'm not interested in settling old scores," DeVoy said. "I want to do the right things for the county." He said that he also has concerns about the county administration and, like Burchell, favors a "business model", but "being in office for six weeks is not enough time to make those decisions. You can't make decisions without talking to people," he stressed.

With the commission divided, the budget will be decided by the 18 members of the convention, who like the commissioners are all Republicans,. Burchell said that Rep. Tilton has informed him that the convention will work from the revenue estimates prepared by DeVoy and Taylor. Nevertheless, he said that he has and will seek to muster support for his position among members of the convention.

"I don't have a handle on where it stands," Burchell said, referring to votes on the convention.

Last Updated on Thursday, 26 February 2015 01:13

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OD suspected in death

LACONIA – Laconia Police are investigating the untimely death of a 34-year-old man who was found Wednesday morning in his Girard Street home by a work colleague.

Capt. Bill Clary confirmed that there was an untimely death at that location but said the exact cause has not been determined.

Laconia Police logs indicate the call came to them just before 6 a.m. yesterday and was initially reported as an "overdose".

Clary said until the N.H. Medical Examiner and the toxicology reports are complete he can't say whether the victim died of a drug overdose or because of something else.

Last Updated on Thursday, 26 February 2015 01:05

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Lakeport landmark sold; auction canceled

LACONIA — Gerry Horn, the owner of the large, frame building at the corner of Union Avenue and Clinton Street in Lakeport that houses a small theater, yesterday confirmed that he has accepted an offer for the property and cancelled the public auction scheduled for Wednesday, March 4.

Horn declined to identify the prospective purchaser or to specify the terms of the offer. The property has an assessed value of $224,800.

Built in 1885, the three-story frame building sits on a 0.2-acre lot and faces Union Avenue. It was known as the Opera House Block for the theater on the second floor, which after staging plays, reviews, concerts and recitals as well as hosting dances, receptions and graduations and finally showing movies went dark about half-a-century ago. For some years the theater has served as storage space.

The Lakeport Post Office once operated on the ground floor, which was home to a variety of retail stores through the years. Most recently a pawn shop and second-hand store occupied the space. The International Order of Odd Fellows and Darius A. Drake Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of veterans of the Civil War, took rooms on the uppermost floor.

Horn, a retired pharmacist, operated a drug store on the ground floor.

There is about 4,500-square-feet of space on the ground floor and almost 9,250-square-feet of space on the upper floors.

Although structurally sound the wiring and plumbing dates from near the beginning of the last century. Nor is the building compliant with current building codes. Horn recalled that some years ago the Streetcar Company approached him about acquiring the building, but abandoned the project after learning that the cost of restoring the theater alone would be close to $1 million.

Astride a busy intersection with limited on-street and off-street parking, the location has handicapped commercial enterprises. The single story brick building next door, once home to a dime store, stood empty for several years before a restaurant opened more than a year ago only to close in less than three months.

Last month members of the Heritage Commission toured the building. But, Pam Clark, who chairs the commission, said since no application to demolish the building has been filed, the commission has yet to hold a formal discussion about its future.

Last Updated on Thursday, 26 February 2015 01:02

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Voters asked to keep Hebron Academy plan on track

By Thomas P. Caldwell

HEBRON — Voters who have set aside $100,000 each year for the last three years will be asked to do so again at the March 10 Town Meeting, bringing the total amount in the capital reserve fund for town office expansion to $400,000.
The Town Offices Expansion and Refurbishment Committee made a presentation on Feb. 17 to bring everyone up to date on their progress in deciding what to do with the former Hebron Academy that now serves as the selectmen's office. Presenting most of the information was Norman Larson of Christopher P. Williams Architects, hired last year to begin developing architectural plans for the building.
Larson explained that he has been involved with the Academy building since 2010, when the town received a grant from the N.H. Preservation Alliance to do an architectural and structural analysis of the building. That study found the building to be sound, but in need of some restoration work because of changes that had been made to the structure over the years, as well as deterioration of the floor joists from moisture. The building, built in 1839, had most recently served as an elementary school until the Newfound Area School District closed it in 1999, and playground equipment remains on the site today.
The historic preservation study came about after voters rejected a request for funding to design a new town hall, as recommended by an earlier committee, at the 2010 Town Meeting. With that plan shot down, the town was trying to decide what to do about the town offices that were spread through several buildings surrounding the Hebron Common, and the Hebron Academy appeared to be a good solution.
A grant from Plan N.H. allowed the town hold a charette in 2011 in which residents took at look at all the buildings around the common. Recommendations coming out of that effort included building an annex on the Hebron Academy and putting in a new foundation, with renovations and new foundations also being recommended for the library building and the town clerk/tax collector's office.
"Everyone wanted change," said Larson, "but they didn't want to see it."
It was after the charette that the Town Offices Expansion and Refurbishment Committee formed to see how those recommendations could be implemented, starting with the Hebron Academy building. Committee Chair Roger Larochelle said they agreed that active use of the building was the best way to preserve it, that they could consolidate town functions and still address the various needs of the employees, and that it is a prudent use of tax dollars to move forward with their plans.
Larson explained the space needs process, in which they calculated how much room each desk, filing cabinet, and counter would need, as well as storage and mechanical needs. The conclusion was that they would need to add 1,800-square-feet to the current 2,400-square-foot building to accommodate all town functions except for the library, which would remain in a separate building.
After looking at three options, for one- and two-story arrangements and an addition at the back of the building, the committee finally agreed on a fourth option which has all town business being conducted on one floor, with meeting space upstairs and storage in the basement. While there are preliminary sketches of what the space would look like, the next step will be to develop specifications so the town can put the project out to bid and get realistic estimates of how much it would cost to do the renovations and expansion.
At Town Meeting, voters will be asked to confirm the direction the committee is taking.
Most of those attending the presentation on Feb. 17 agreed with the plans to preserve the building by putting it in active use, but some expressed disappointment that it did not address all of the needs identified during the charter.
"I'm all in favor of preserving the building," said Ron Collins, "but it doesn't go after the other problems. Down the road, you will be asking for something else. With this plan, we don't get a lot for what we're spending."
Don Franklin, who had served on the town hall committee, said the cost of renovating a building is more than building a new one, and he said he still supported a new town hall. He suggested that the Hebron Academy would be better utilized as a library, which still would achieve active use without the need for extensive renovations.
"We came up a design with 3,000-square-feet on one level, and that was going to cost $750,000 with new construction," he said. "Renovations will be more expensive."
Some attending the meeting had practical suggestions. Bruce Barnard suggested digging a new well, and he noted that the turnbuckle in the roof is undersized and that it might be wise to replace it.
The consensus of the meeting was that consolidating all of the main town functions in the building would make town government more efficient, while the renovations would make the Hebron Academy more energy-efficient as well.
Town Meeting will determine whether Hebron voters agree that moving forward with those plans is the best use of their tax dollars.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 25 February 2015 11:11

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