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.

Thanks for 40 years, Mike

This week has been very busy, likely indicative of what the entire budget season will be like. I went to two budget hearings, and then I headed to Concord for the pre-hearing for Laidlaw’s SEC review. While I was in my car on the way down my editor called to tell me that Mike Gaydo, the sports reporter for the Reporter for the last four decades, died the night before.

There are people out there who read the paper just for his stories. He wrote more than the paper could handle, covering every team in the region. His dedication will be missed. If you have any memories or reflections of Mike feel free to post them in the comments. The Reporter misses you already, Mike, as does Berlin, I’m sure.

Not Enough Space

The entire city of Berlin should have come to the council meeting tonight. It didn’t clear up as much as it should have, but it posed so many interesting discussions I could write an entire paper out of it.

George Sansoucy, the utility appraiser that assesses the city’s big, hard to assess properties, gave an hour and a half presentation. That alone could have been four stories (I had 400 to 500 words, and I had to squeeze everything else in too). It’s too bad there weren’t more people there to hear it.

He recommended the city get a payment in lieu of taxes, or a PILT, from the utility companies proposing projects in the city. His rational was that it provides a consistent revenue, and that the city could get good revenues for years, even after the assets have sunk in value. The city may start out getting a little less, but in thirty years the city winds up getting more than they would from the assessed value of a worn out biomass plant. Long term planning; that sounds exactly like what Berlin ought to be doing.

He also said there is no hope for district heating unless oil goes up three fold, but some of his comments about plant efficiency didn’t make much sense. Bill Gabler, from Clean Power, was there, and they were geeking out on technical specks (in addition to being an assessor, Mr. Sansoucy is a professional engineer) but their figures weren’t lining up. There was talk of efficiency, and how some plants are efficient at 60 percent, and others at 20 percent, but the engineers in the room couldn’t agree. So while that conversation was interesting it certainly wasn’t helpful in determining the possibility of such development.

And then there was the race, which isn’t even going to make it into the paper. After the fire department troubles hiring an assistant fire chief and Mr. Sansoucy, I didn’t have room to spare, but it appears a reality show is coming to Berlin to run a road rally, thanks to the efforts of representative Paul Ingersol. You can check out the organization here. The council had a few questions, but they seemed enthusiastic, because the event would get people into the city.

I was just having a discussion about how the city and the county need events, both on LPJ and recently in Berlin. This is perfect, but it needs more. Berlin has multiple petro-fueled events, from an ATV rally to a motorcycle rally to a rally race to an old car show. Sometimes I wonder if the North Country is trying to prop up some Emir in Kuwait. The events are key, but somebody has to start proposing something different. Or, to put it better, let’s have all these events, but let’s also try branching out. What about a film festival? Or multi-stage bicycle race? These aren’t things Berlin is familiar with, but maybe the city needs to look beyond the low-hanging fruit.

But I digress. The police department also stopped by to talk about replacing a telephone line to a radio tower that connects their dispatch center with their patrol cars. They pay $500 a month for the connection, which has gone out three times since December. It is antiquated, the police chief said, and the department needs council approval to shift funds around their capital improvement budget to pay for an upgrade. Again, that won’t make it in the paper because of space issues.

I look at the agenda each Monday and tell my editor how long I think my story will be for the council meeting. I am invariably wrong. There is always more going on at council than I can cover, and I often only get small parts and pieces. It’s a shame, but luckily residents have multiple sources from with to get their news.

But recently I’ve begun to doubt the ability of any paper, mine or otherwise, to truly do justice to these meetings. There is just too much going on for me to cover in 500, or even 5,000 words. I try my best, but there is no substitute for being there.

The turnout, however, is always low. I spoke to one man this weekend who is often there, and he said he doesn’t think the council values resident input. I disagree. I’ve seen councilors change their minds after hearing strong words during the public comments. What Berlin needs is engaged citizens, particularly those willing to share their views with their representatives.

It becomes like a soap opera, or maybe like “Desperate Housewives,” when you go week to week, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. I have grown to know and like the characters, to enjoy their personal quirks and to watch their interactions. They are nine people struggling together and against one another to right the listing ship that is Berlin. To pop in on one episode might seem boring, and some days things never pick up, but overall Monday nights are entertaining as well as informative at city hall. It surprises me that people would prefer to watch television, when real drama that affects them is going on so nearby.

So this is my impassioned plea: give it a few shots. Make it out to council, and not just for one episode. I know people who read LPJ care about politics, the city, and raising the bar on the debate, but most Monday nights no one is there. If even just for a few weeks the auditorium was packed, what a difference it would make.

Incidentally, that makes for the best sunshine. The press’ first obligation is to the people, but here is an opportunity for the people to bypass the media. Even if I could always get it right I don’t have room for it all. Instead, just show up. If you miss a week, grab the paper, and I’ll fill you in on what you missed. But unless you know the characters, the plot twists and the progression, my explanation will never be enough. It takes more investment than that. So come on out and enjoy your public officials. You are their bosses, come make sure they’re doing what you require.

Spring into Action

I’m approaching one year of working in Berlin, and one thing I’ve noticed is transitions take time. The talk about what it takes to reinvigorate the city has been going on for far longer than I’ve been there, but the changes have been slow to come.

Or have they? The transition will not come with a splash, in a way that people will recognize and point to. It will come in fits and starts, with small-scale development followed by larger development.

SaVoir Flair and Rumorz, for example, are recent additions to Main Street. They are surviving, and as more development comes (read: federal prison) they will do even better. They are the first seeds; signs that could be missed or ignored by the careless. They are harbingers of better things.

The fire department just inspected Fagin’s Pub to allow them to reopen—another business opens its doors. There are positive things happening, but it is difficult to determine when changes are really happening. When are things truly improving, and when is it just window dressing?

Berlin has things to offer. I was speaking to the city’s contract development director today (who acknowledges his days as such are numbered) and he commented on the city’s potential. I would say the same is true of all of Coös County, of everything north of the notches. The only thing missing a realization by the rest of the Northeast of what is there.

I don’t know how it starts. I think its with one person. Or two people. Or five. I think if a half dozen people who have never seen northern New Hampshire’s beauty are exposed to it, at least one of them will decide to come back.

I love to rock climb and ice climb—both of those activities are there. My wife loves to ski—that’s available too. Fishing, canoeing, camping, hunting, whitewater rafting—it’s all there, just waiting to be discovered.

But how do you get those five people, those 10 people, up for the first time?

My idea for free housing for college graduates got shot down, but maybe people will like this: a bluegrass festival at Northern Forest Heritage Park.

Berlin is an incredible place, and it is in need of great art, great culture and great creativity. Those sorts of things draw people, and those people spend money. People in the North Country often equate tourism with North Conway, and all the outlets, strip malls and big box stores that characterize it. I grew up on the coast of Maine, however, where there are towns like Bar Harbor and Rockport, not just Freeport. Brunswick, Maine, is on the Androscoggin as well, and its old mill buildings have been turned into movie theaters and photography studios. I see that in Berlin in another dozen years, because the prices and the pristine location are prime for it.

But how do you get from A to B? And won’t people be scared away?

Easy, and no. People will be scared away, sure, but not the ones willing to invest. Just like entrepreneurs see opportunity where others don’t, some of the people introduced to Berlin will see the opportunity there. It has already happened and is still happening. Each non-native who lives there is an example of this. Tim Cayer, Katie Paine, Racheal Stuart, Tom McCue—these are all people who picked up to move to Berlin, not to move away. They may be the first drops of rain, but there are surely going to be more people out there like them. Berlin needs to find them. Every one of them saw Berlin’s flaws when they moved there, and it didn’t scare them away. There are more people out there who would feel the same way—they just haven’t had the opportunity to find out that they do.

So if one out of five, or one out of 10, 20 or 30, will look through Berlin’s rough exterior to appreciate it’s core, how do you get those individuals up there?

Events. Berlin, and all of Coös County, is essentially Vacationland. It may be on Maine’s license plates, but it is true in the Androscoggin Valley and elsewhere. Berlin residents must realize the astounding beauty that surrounds them. I know they’ve had it all their lives, but they must. Northern New Hampshire is the kind of place the rest of the world would love to spend their vacations, but as far as Boston knows New Hampshire stops in Jackson.

Berlin has mountains, rivers, woods and cliffs. It offers so much, and yet it is always so quiet. I look at the events that happen in the region over the course of the year, and I realize how insulated the community is. Riverfire, and Thunder in the Mountains, and the Northern Forest Rally Race, and Drive in to the 50s are all great, but they appeal to Berlin. This is a premier location for other things, events that appeal to larger audiences. Where are those events? Where are the things that might pull in people from around the region, not necessarily of the type the region is intimately familiar?

I want a bluegrass festival. Or a jazz festival. Or blues. They do it in Rockland; why not in Berlin?

Or multi-stage adventure race, that traverses the Killkenny range and rafts the Magalloway? A multi-stage bike race from Grand Hotel to Grand Hotel? Or an art show along the Androscoggin?

I know it seems far fetched, but people who are introduced to Berlin seem to love it. Those who have preconceived notions often aren’t willing to hear about it, but when they see it for themselves their minds change. Berlin, and all of Coös County, has to get better at changing those minds. It has to get people there, show them around, and let them make their own decisions. It won’t require a four-lane highway; it will require making something worth coming for. That’s the challenge, and it’s something the region can handle. Berlin, I think, as the only city in the county, should take a leading role in the effort. It should show just what can happen with some action.