Berlin, once again

I heard the news of the death of the Laidlaw Berlin Biopower project on NHPR last week, and the information has been trickling in ever since. I’m not sure what to think. I have always understood both sides of that argument — some people for it, some against, based on whether they needed jobs now or could wait for some better future down the road. Now it’s gone, the federal prison is on hold, and the state prison survived after some threats by the department of corrections. Where is Berlin headed? I wish I knew. I’m not there nearly as much as I was, but I still make it up there far more than I ever did before I worked there. And I still think about how to get back there. What will it be? Who will work there? I think it’s like most working class places — dying out. The fact is the socioeconomic strata that the mill supported has evaporated in the United States. Portland, Maine, and Portsmouth are clear examples of what happens next: they get turned into upscale apartments that the former working class residents can’t afford. Will that happen in Berlin? It already is, but it hasn’t become a trend yet. We’ll see if it reaches that tipping point. And we’ll see how the people that trend edges out react. It looks to be an interesting time, for sure…

Republican Candidates, the GOP and Ray

So obviously I caught up with Newt the other day. Next week Rudy Giuliani is scheduled to stop by. The campaign is warming up, and already people are looking to 2012 (including me).

I’m not originally from New Hampshire, and I didn’t go to college here. I only began studying the political landscape here in the last few years, when I started covering it. It’s still funny to me that the governor of this state only serves two year terms — I’m used to four. And then there is this thing called the executive council that oversees everything he does — I’ve never seen one of those before. And I haven’t been around during primary season before. I’m already looking forward to the next visit.

When I spent the day with Ray Burton, the executive councilor from the first district, he called himself a Rockefeller Republican, meaning someone who comes from the center-right, not the right-wing of the party. They are not the branch of the party currently in charge.

But that is a branch that typically does well in New Hampshire. Social conservativism doesn’t fit with the state’s libertarian streak. I’m interested to see in this Tea Party-powered election cycle how that plays out in this state. How will it play out for moderate Republicans like Jon Huntsman? What will a good finish in New Hampshire mean as its overly white, traditionally moderate electorate becomes more and more distant from national voters?

And what does that rightward influence mean for candidates like Burton? New Hampshire has seen a rise of fierce conservatives, as the House numbers prove. It will be interesting to see where it all ends up.

Ray Day

My alarm is set for 4:45 a.m., because tomorrow I’m hanging out with Ray.

Ray Burton has been has been the executive councilor from the North Country since the year I was born. He was actually there even earlier, but he took a break for a bit and only came back 30 years ago.

He and I got into a discussion about the Conway bypass a month ago after I called him with a few questions. I asked him if $400 million couldn’t be better spent in the North Country than to speed up traffic by 20 minutes.

“What would you do with it?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said, a bit surprised to be asked, “build the second wing on the state prison and fully staff it? I bet good paying jobs in Berlin would have more impact than a bit of road construction.”

The truth is, there isn’t $400 million for the bypass. There isn’t even $64 million for part of it. There is no big pot of money that can be spend on roads or on prisons, and the project is likely going to be pushed off even longer because of state funding problems. But that’s a different story for a different time. My discussion with Ray took a side turn there, and it ended with Ray inviting me to be his guest at the executive council breakfast and meeting.

“I’ll be there,” I said.

Budgets and Stuff…

Ever put together a $33 million budget?

Me neither.

The budget process for towns and schools in New Hampshire is officially broken. Honestly, having come from a city form of government before this, the way they deal with things in towns is crazy.

Here’s the problem: there is a proposed budget, and a default budget. The proposed budget is what the town hopes to pass, and the default budget is a fallback budget, where last year’s budget is only increased by contractually obligated amounts.

Normally the proposed budget is more than the default budget. If voters don’t like it they can reject it. If voters add to the proposed budget that’s fine, because if the body politik as a whole doesn’t approve they can always fall back on the default budget.

These days, however, are not normal. Budgets are being slashed in the midst of one of the worst state and municipal budget crunches in decades. (I listened to a story on NPR about how bad it is just tonight on the ride home.) 60 Minutes had a segment about it a number of months ago. Things really are bad, particularly on the state and local levels, where politicians don’t have a treasury that can print money to fall back on.

So what have local lawmakers done? Slashed budgets. The proposed budgets for both the town of Conway and for SAU 9 were less than last year. Some of that was voluntary, and some of it was by force. Some departments did as they were requested by the boards overseeing the budgets, and some had their budgets cut without their approval. It got ugly at times.

But New Hampshire is about local democracy, so those cuts had to go before the voters. The voters with something to lose came out, and in both cases the cuts were restored. In the case of the town the cuts were restored and then some, but the towns budget is about one-third of the school, so less people got up in arms about it.

But therein lies the problem—remember the fallback budget, the default budget? It’s last year’s budget plus contractually obligated increases, right? So it’s last year’s budget plus a little. No big deal. But then take the proposed budgets, the cut budgets, and then add back the voters requests. Suddenly that proposed budget becomes last year’s budget, maybe plus a little. All the sudden there is no fallback. There is no option for people to turn to should they not approve of the proposed budget. There is one choice for voters, which equal to no choice.

Or there was a choice, but that choice was to show up to the deliberative portion of town meeting to fight for cuts or increases. Now that choice has passed, and there won’t be another shot at it.

But think about it: the newspaper says Budget Committee Cuts, If Passed, Will Eliminate 60 Jobs at the School. Who will come out for that meeting? The person who wants those cuts? No, they think “my elected representatives are doing what I want them to do, no reason to raise concern.”

No, it’s the people who want to fight the cuts that come out. That’s what happened with both the town and the school—people opposed to the cuts came out, and people in support of the cuts stayed home.

I know what you’re thinking, “maybe the town doesn’t really support these cuts.” But last November’s election argues that. Every election in the region went to conservatives. It seems strange all those same people would be looking to raise their taxes. And all the budget committee members and all the selectmen were struggling to be frugal—one would think the elected officials would be representative of the people that put them into office.

But the votes for both the town and the school were overwhelmingly in favor of giving them more money. That seems hard to believe, that a town would so wholeheartedly endorse higher taxes.

And if the voters who showed up at the meetings aren’t representative of the electorate as a whole, it’s too late now. The people will have two choices—vote for a little increase, or vote for a larger one. That, to me, is a broken system.

And it’s funny, I’m not against increased spending personally. But when I go to meetings (and I go to a lot of them) I hear a lot of citizens concerned about spiking property taxes and increases in local spending. I would wager it’s roughly equal to the number of people willing to watch their taxes go up for more services. But that isn’t the impression Conway’s form of government gives. It, unfortunately, has built-in assumptions about perpetually increasing budgets and a legislative format that brings out the special interest groups at the expense of the general public. It gives a disproportionate amount of power to the few, albiet at the fault of the many who don’t show up.

It’s been interesting to watch, but I’m not sure it’s good democracy. And that’s what it’s meant to preserve.

Just in case you missed the link, here’s the 60 Minutes segment about state debts:

Back Up North

I spent the day in Coös, working on videos for New Hampshire Grand. It’s always refreshing to get up there. I was talking to someone today at Mount Prospect as I yo-yoed up and down the hill. They were saying they wouldn’t mind if there was no growth and if all the ATVs and snowmobiles went away. It was interesting to hear that from someone I know wants to see the region succeed. This person’s vision for the region, however, differs significantly from many other residents.

The Cascade mill got sold yesterday to a new company. That company has ties to Laidlaw. NHPR called me to see if I could dig into it, but I was digging for my Conway work and couldn’t get away. I read the transcript on NHPR.org from the story they ran, but it didn’t fill in the details. Probably because at this point the details are still sketchy. I would love to have the support I have now and be reporting there, but right now that’s not in the cards.

It is strange, however, to see some of my more regional stories grace the cover of the Berlin Daily Sun. The BDS was my competition, in theory, for a year and a half, although it’s reporters were colleagues and friends. I guess the Reporter is stripping down to even more limited access—the reporter who replaced me was let go and won’t be replaced. There are now two reporters and my former editor putting both the Reporter and the Coös County Democrat together, with the help of some freelancers.

So who watches the region? I think about the story I just wrote, about the Conway police spending money they maybe shouldn’t have. (It’s all a matter of opinion. I stay out of that business and just report what they bought and when.) Who can do that in Berlin? Who can do that in Lancaster? Groveton? Colebrook? I wonder what will happen if the papers there don’t keep going.

I have faith the region will survive, if for no other reason than the willpower of the people who live there. But the transition will be jarring. It already has been. Still, when I grabbed the rope-tow on Mount Prospect and chatted with the dozen people skiing and riding I knew there was no place I’d rather be.

Muckraking

Every once in a while you get to do a story you’re really proud of. It isn’t about the quality of the photos, or the interesting video you captured, or the interesting audio you put together. In those stories, it’s the reporting that matters.

This is one of those stories.

I dug around a little and found out the Conway Police Department had been spending their surplus money on equipment. They had blown their $4,000 equipment budget by more than 500 percent one year, and by more than 200 percent another, spending money that otherwise would have gone back to the town to offset taxes.

The moment I looked at the budget breakdowns I realized I had something. It was like seeing an old friend—I smiled so hard I almost laughed. It isn’t that I think they police were wasting taxpayer money—they didn’t buy anything not intended for police business—but I knew in this economic climate it wasn’t going to go over well that they were spending $20,000 or more in the last few days of the year.

Digging is something you do in your spare time at a paper the size of the Sun. There are too few people and too much going on to really be dedicated to it. But there are more staff at the Sun than there were at the Reporter, and more people look to this paper to address their concerns since it’s the only one in town.

I’ve received several calls from readers thanking me for reporting on this. People wonder where I got the information and who the insiders was. One of the police commissioners wanted to know the same thing. But the entire story was built from the town finance records and the police commission meeting minutes. It isn’t a big conspiracy, it’s just putting the puzzle pieces together.

But what’s next is even better. This is phase one, but since I’ve been looking around I found phase two. There is more in store for the next installment, just wait.

T-Minus…

…something like 25 days.

I got confirmation from USF–Iraq my paperwork is complete on their end. I still have one more thing to do, get my visa from the Iraqi government, but otherwise I’m good on that end. At least, that is, as far as paperwork is concerned.

My ballistic goggles are supposedly on their way, along with some ballistic sunglasses. I’ve made arrangements to rent a bulletproof vest for two weeks for something around $200. With that comes rifle plates and a kevlar helmet. The $200 figure may be wrong, but regardless its significantly less than the $2,000 buying that stuff would cost me.

I’m starting to realize I’m actually going. I am looking at dates for meetings I’m supposed to cover and realizing I won’t be here for them (tonight it was a public hearing about the transfer station). I am looking forward to having some time to dedicate to improving my radio reporting and how I tell stories with sound, which this period should allow me.

I was interviewing someone for a follow up piece about long-term pass holders at Wildcat today, and they mentioned they’d heard my piece on NHPR on the Cascade mill. And yesterday I got a comment on Facebook from a friend and former Memorial Hospital board member about how much they liked my article on health care in the Sun. I’ve been busy lately, and it’s had an impact. People are noticing stories.

But at the same time I’m trying to squeeze stories like that of the Cascade mill into a day of reporting, and then further squeeze it into four minutes. That’s tough. I colleague commented that they expected more from my mill story, because of the depth and severity of the situation. I can see that perspective. I talked with someone today who was instrumental in getting Fraser involved the last time the mills were in trouble, and he didn’t think this proposal has a chance. That’s a hard story to tell, though it may be true, and yet at this point it’s only one person’s opinion. I’ve said before I think the North Country needs a documentary, not a sound byte, because the interwoven future, past and present are so complex.

But that’s hard to do with a full time job. That’s hard to do with a daily deadline. That’s why I’m looking forward to a different kind of daily deadline—the kind connected to a radio deadline. The breadth of the stories waiting to be told both here and elsewhere are breathtaking. This trip will be a good “boot camp” for that work.

News Country

Lots going on up north. NHPR had my story alongside one from Chris Jensen about the Laidlaw project, and how the office of the consumer advocate at the PUC was not in favor of the deal. The North Country dominated the news cycle. Heck, the Androscoggin Valley dominated the news cycle. Berlin/Gorham dominated.

Well, in case you missed it, here is Chris’ story about the former pulp mill, and here is my story about the (former?) paper mill.

And if you just want to listen, click below.

Gorham mill sale