Quick Update from Kentucky

I’m in Kentucky for a week, so don’t expect any Berlin news this week. Just kidding, the Reporter has a stringer filling in, and I’m hoping to make some calls to continue on stories I started earlier.

I wanted to mention something I noticed on the drive down here: there are tons of old mining towns in West Virginia that look similar and worse than Berlin, except they have a four lane interstate running right through them. A number of people have said they think a highway would change Berlin, supposedly for the better; after driving past numerous downtowns that mirror Berlin I’m even less convinced. People on the highway, it seems, see these towns as way stations, not destinations. It takes more than an interstate to turn a community around. Berlin could build itself as a destination, but it isn’t the asphalt and four lanes that would do it.

Have a good week. I’ll probably check in again, but it will be from afar. It’s going to be 75 degrees and sunny all week. Nice.

Budget Line Item—$42,000

George Sansoucy has come up for three council meetings in a row now, and with each mention the cost to the city looks like its climbing higher. Tonight it was about negotiating a payment in lieu of taxes with Laidlaw and Clean Power Development; last time it was because his assessing contract cost had gone up. The state offers the same service for free, but unfortunately it results in lower tax revenues. But now it’s starting to look like the cost of collecting the taxes is going to have a significant impact on the budget.

Originally the budget line item for utility assessment was $16,000. Now it looks like it will be $42,000. The previous year was $16,000, but that number doesn’t reflect the true cost of his services.

Over the last three years the city paid Mr. Sansoucy $186,145, according to the city manager’s office. And none of those years was a full revaluation year, which the city manager said was in the range of $100,000. That $186,145 is $95,000 for FY2008, $41,255 for FY2009, and $49,890 for FY2010. It includes the cost of Mr. Sansoucy defending his numbers in court, I was told today, so it is more than just the utility assessment. In FY2009, according to this year’s proposed budget, the actual expenditure for utility assessment was zero.

I’m looking further into what this service costs the city, going back to the last full utility revaluation. It’s one of those stories that require a little more digging, but hopefully in the end they bear a bit more fruit. Sometimes these are the most fun.

SEC Speech

Update: Part two is now up. I’ll be uploading the full audio as well, since YouTube trimmed a bit off.

This is the first part of Mayor Grenier’s presentation. The second part is still making its way though my computer; processing HD video takes some time. I’ll get it up in a bit, so people who missed the meeting can see what was said. It caused a stir, so I’m hoping it’ll serve as reference for anyone who missed it.

Part One

Part Two

Danderman

It’s budget season in Berlin. I’ve been putting in my nights at city hall, listening to the discussions and pouring over my binder. The budget is the most important thing the city council does, and this year councilors a tough choice: increase taxes or cut services.

Berlin doesn’t have money to spare, largely because of contractually agreed-upon salary and benefit increases. It seems likely municipal employees will come to the table to negotiate, but those negotiations still won’t make the difference. The city needs more cuts if it is going to keep taxes flat.

Enter Councilor Robert Danderson, the city’s most effective budget scrutinizer.

When it comes to city dollars, no one is as meticulous as Councilor Danderson. He asks tough questions, examines line items and cross-references communities, all to see if he can squeeze water out of a stone.

His approach is rough, almost bullyish, and he asks the questions everyone else is too tactful to ask.

Councilor Danderson is a political lightning rod. He doesn’t stop talking, even when other people are talking, and he barges his way into conversations with controversial views. He asks whether specific services or agencies are needed at all or if the city could do without them. Such direct questioning seems harsh, but it forces departments to justify their expenses. It ensures the money is going somewhere useful. Right now, when the city is struggling, his approach becomes an asset.

It’s an asset because he doesn’t have any real power. He is only one of nine, and he plays bad cop while the rest of the council is good cop. Last night, at the police department budget review, Chief Peter Morency got ridden up one side and down the other by Councilor Danderson. But Chief Morency was well prepared, and his answers showed the department is working to control costs. The rest of the council enjoys the benefit hearing wide-ranging explanations about expenditures, without getting into political battles with the departments. The city, meanwhile, gets a well-vetted budget.

Although last night looked like it was about more than just fiscal responsibility: as I understand it, Councilor Danderson and the police commission have some history. It was before my time, but it explains the fevered pitch of his questions.

But he did the same thing with the outside agencies, without the distasteful sneer. (Actually, the sneer came back when Northern Forest Heritage Park came up.) He did the same thing with administration, and with the school department, and with every department that has come before the council. The owner of the ambulance service, which is a private entity the city contracts with, said he’d been warned about Councilor Danderson.

If his reputation as a budget hawk engenders a little fear in departments it might be a good thing. It may convince them to do their homework, to make sure all the fat is trimmed before they come to the council. It may, in the long run, save the city money, something everyone in Berlin is desperately trying to do.

While political tension builds around other issues, one thing every councilor can agree on is the need to trim budgets. Councilor Danderson is a divisive figure. His tenure as Berlin’s mayor and the political moves that won him his council seat have proved distasteful for some, but over the next three months he may be invaluable. The city needs to figure out how to save several million dollars, and Councilor Danderson is the city’s best tool for doing that. Sometimes it’s good to be needed.

SEC Heat

I’ll be posting video of Mayor Paul Grenier’s presentation to the SEC on Tuesday shortly. It’ll also go up on the Reporter’s Facebook page. It is his complete comments, from those approved by the city council to those of Burnham Judd, which he read, to his own comments, which he shared with the SEC.

There have been some grumblings about his comments, how they were presented, and the fact the other councilors from the coalition that ran together last fall also got up to speak. I’ll be delving into that in next week’s paper, but suffice to say I heard from several councilors that the relative Monday night tranquility is over.

So stay tuned for the video. I have to split it in half to get it on YouTube, so it doesn’t run over the ten minute requirement, but I’ll get it up shortly.

Subtle Splits

City council last night went late last night because they had to return to the work session to discuss what Mayor Grenier will say tonight in the council’s name at the SEC hearing. That discussion broke down along predictable lines for a time, until the speech was reduced to language that was amenable to all councilors. It was an interesting debate, one that seemed largely Mayor Grenier versus the former council members.

Not that all the former council members are opposed to Laidlaw. Councilors David Poulin, Tim Cayer and Tom McCue are pretty staunchly opposed, but Councilor Ryan Landry has a more subtle positions: he said he needs more questions to be answered before he can get behind the project.

Councilors Mark Evans and Lucie Remillard are both in favor of the project (or, to more accurately represent Councilor Evans, he doesn’t feel the city has the right to dictate what a private landowner does with their property), but they spoke up against any effort to bowl over the minority opinion. Councilor Evans even objected to the tone Mayor Grenier was using because he said it didn’t convey respect for divergent viewpoints.

Councilor Robert Danderson raised some points in favor of the project, but he also said he had concerns about how either biomass company will survive in the current energy market. He is concerned about the project, he said, but he’s more concerned no development will occur and Berlin will continue on its downward slide.

Councilor Rozak largely kept his mouth closed. He only commented that he would like to see a sheet listing the jobs and corresponding salaries Laidlaw will offer, and that he wanted to hear the council’s opinion on the revised language of the speech. He did not get caught up in the discussion, particularly when it got heated.

The exchange got my 600 words my writeup about council this week, so if you want more pick up the Reporter. What I found interesting about the night was a few hours earlier. During some routine business Councilors Cayer, Landry, McCue and Poulin voted in opposition to removing a resolution from the table. They then voted in opposition to killing the resolution. The resolution was for a grant for a local agency that withdrew their request, so I’m not exactly sure why this happened. Then, a few resolutions later, Councilors Landry, McCue and Poulin voted against another resolution. This one I could understand the opposition, but understand that every other vote was unanimous last night, and there were perhaps 30 votes.

I’m going to try to find out what’s going on. It seemed to me an opposition coalition was forming last night, but that may be completely wrong. It was an interesting chain of events, however, and hopefully I’ll be able to explain it better in the coming weeks.

SEC update

While Tuesday will likely be the big event in Berlin, the Laidlaw review started in earnest on Thursday in Concord. At the pre-hearing conference the SEC outside counsel went over the schedule and petitioners’ plans for testimony. The Reporter will have my full story (finished it earlier today, 750 words). It will likely get lost, however, as the Berlin hearings are the night before my paper comes out, but there was some important discussions there that should come out.

SEC outside counselor Michael Iacopino brought up an interesting problem for people worried about wood: fuel supply has not traditionally been part of the SEC’s mandate. When a coal powered facility opens in New Hampshire the SEC doesn’t ask where they are getting their coal, he said, and if an oil or natural gas plant were to open they wouldn’t ask then either. So it is imperative, he said, that petitioners point out why the issue they are raising falls under the SEC’s purview. Look at the law, he said, and make sure it is there.

The statute that creates and tasks the SEC does talk about “the overall economic growth of the state, the environment of the state, and the use of natural resources” when describing why the legislature created the SEC, but it is unclear how that applies to wood.

Transmission raises similar issues, since ISO New England doesn’t fall under the SEC, and therefore the committee cannot force them to do anything. There may be forces beyond the committee’s control in in these proceedings, and two of the key issues people are concerned about may be among them.

Transmission and wood supply were the most repeated concerns raised by potential intervenors. Now the attorneys are going to have to go to work, to formulate convincing arguments as to why the SEC should concern itself with these issues. Since the law doesn’t clearly include either of these in their jurisdiction it may take some legal gymnastics to make the arguments stick. I’m interested to see where that goes.

But for people concerned about the appearance of the project, the attorney representing the public, Senior Assistant Attorney General Allen Brooks, said one of his concerns was whether the project will fit within the community. He wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be an eyesore, he said. Whether it is or not depends largely on how you feel about the project overall, I imagine, so that will be a tough issue to sort out cleanly. But the public counsel has certainly heard the concerns of some Berlin residents. Now we’ve got seven more months to see where this all goes.