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Pending state bills, Keene committee recommends putting body cams on ice
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A Keene committee is recommending the city hold off on potentially implementing police body and vehicle cameras as the state considers legislation that could provide funding for them.

On Thursday, Keene Police Chief Steven Russo gave a presentation to the City Council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee to break down the anticipated expense of a body-and-vehicle camera program. But with an expected price tag of nearly $300,000 in the first year alone, Russo suggested waiting until the N.H. Legislature decides on a pair of bills that would establish revenue streams to help local police agencies buy and use the technology.

“These funds are intended to provide grants to local law enforcement agencies in order to assist them with the purchase, maintenance and replacement of body-worn cameras and in-car video systems and ongoing costs of those,” Russo said during the meeting, which was held via Zoom. “Though neither of these bills currently appear to list funding, it is encouraging that funding sources are being looked at, as well as mechanisms to assist local law enforcement agencies in acquiring these high-cost systems.”

The committee voted unanimously to recommend to the full council that the matter of police cameras be placed on “more time.” This is a procedural designation that requires no immediate action.

The bills — Senate Bill 96 and House Bill 253 — are both in committee. In addition to helping fund camera systems, the House bill would require that officers wear them, while the Senate proposal would also mandate implicit bias training for judges.

Body cameras have been part of calls nationwide for police accountability and reform after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in Minneapolis police custody last May. Keene has been weighing the issue since the summer, when the council was presented with a petition calling for the city to require that officers wear body cameras.

A 30-day trial period wrapped in December after six Keene police officers wore the cameras while three more were set up in police cruisers.

The use of body cameras by police was also recently recommended by a state commission tasked with studying police accountability. The recommendation has been endorsed by Gov. Chris Sununu, who has already directed State Police to begin implementing a camera system.

Launching a body-and-vehicle camera system in Keene would cost just under $300,000 the first year and just over $840,000 over five years, according to Russo. He offered cost breakdowns for both body-worn camera systems and a combined body-and-vehicle camera system, saying that the cost difference between them was only $71,395.

“I’m not going to say this is a bargain, because none of this is a bargain,” Russo said. “However, the value added I think is well worth the $71,000-plus dollars. That is our opinion from using the systems.”

Two major budgeting factors must be considered, Russo said. First is the added training and overtime costs that would be associated with getting the program up and running. The other is that the introduction of body cameras is expected to increase right-to-know requests, for the footage.

According to Russo, as well as City Manager Elizabeth Dragon and City Attorney Tom Mullins, the city already receives a high volume of records requests, and is struggling to keep up with the demand. They emphasized that an additional employee — a paralegal or possibly even an attorney — would need to be in place before launching a camera system.

“We do get an unusual amount of right-to-know requests for the size of our community ...,” Dragon said. “Some of the issues that we face is just having the ability to process them. We often face criticism from the people waiting for their right-to-know requests, because it takes longer than they think it should, and there’s a lot of work involved.”

Mullins echoed this, noting that deciding what information can be released is a long process that is already a lot for his office to handle. Dragon said the city needs more help in this realm, even without body cameras, and this need will be considered during Keene’s upcoming budget discussions.

Mayor George Hansel said that having already done a lot of the legwork will put the city in a good position to obtain funding for police cameras when and if such money becomes available. However, he noted that the city’s budgeting process may not line up exactly with the bill adoption timelines.

Dragon said the city will still have an opportunity to appropriate funding for the systems if state assistance becomes available outside of the city’s normal budget process. She added that she’ll start working on a back-up plan in case that funding from Concord never materializes.

“I will look at contingency plans should the funding not become available at the state,” she said.

St. Bernard Catholic Church in Keene was all aglow on a chilly winter evening Wednesday. Heidi Schwieger of Munsonville

captured this shot from a window of the residence at the Horatio Colony Museum, where her daughter, Sofia Thornblad, serves

as executive director.

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Sununu calls for tax cuts, student debt assistance in budget proposal

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu is pressing for state lawmakers to reduce most of New Hampshire’s major taxes over the next two years — from business taxes to the meals and room tax to the state’s interest and dividends tax.

In an address Thursday laying out his proposed budget, the Republican governor called for a drop in the meals and room tax from 9 percent to 8.5 percent, a lowering of the business enterprise tax from 0.6 percent to 0.55 percent, and the complete phase-out of the state’s interest and dividends tax by 2026.

“Tax cuts for everyone,” the governor said. “Whether you are a small business just starting out, a family of four looking to enjoy a meal out, or are retired and enjoying life in the Granite State.”

Sununu advocated for sending a portion of the money collected from the state’s rooms and meals tax back to cities and towns — a total of $15 million a year in additional aid across the state. He pledged to maintain the education spending in previous budgets. In addition, he pressed for a move toward putting $30 million in excess money from the Education Trust Fund to allow for one-time grants to schools for capital projects.

“We’re not cutting education spending,” Sununu said. “My budget ensures that we spend more money per child on public education than ever before.”

The budget also contains significant policy proposals, including a plan for student debt relief program, a paid family and medical leave plan, and a plan to create a new Department of Energy in New Hampshire by merging the Public Utilities Commission with the state’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

The package of tax cuts is part of a broader strategy to alleviate financial pressures for businesses suffering under COVID-19 — and to make New Hampshire attractive to future businesses, the governor said. The moves align with the priorities of the newly Republican-led Legislature, whose leaders have pressed for tax cuts in their own time.

But Democrats objected to the cuts, which they characterized Thursday as benefitting major corporations that don’t need the help. Democratic leaders have expressed concern that reduced revenue to the state general fund could mean a downshifting of costs to towns for school costs, which they warn could raise local property taxes.

“In the next budget, it is critical that we ensure that the costs incurred by the state because of COVID-19 are not downshifted to our homeowners, renters, small business owners, and self-employed workers,” said Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat, in a Thursday morning “prebuttal” of Sununu’s speech. “Now is not the time to offer more protections and tax cuts to out-of-state corporations. Now is the time to make meaningful changes that put money back into the pockets of property taxpayers.”

In addition to lowering the business enterprise tax — which taxes a business based on how much compensation, interest and dividends it pays out — Sununu is also pushing to raise the threshold for who gets tax.

Unlike the business profits tax, which taxes just the amount of profit a business makes and typically falls on large, established businesses, the business enterprise tax tends to affect small start-up businesses as much as large corporations. Sununu’s budget proposal would limit those businesses hit by the enterprise tax to businesses that have an “enterprise value tax base” of $250,000 or more, which the governor’s office said would exempt 30,000 businesses from paying.

Sununu is also hoping to reduce the state’s interest and dividends tax steadily for five years until it is eliminated entirely, a proposal that’s gained traction among Republicans in recent years. Currently, that’s a 5 percent tax on interest and dividend income for those making at least $2,400 a year from stocks and other investments.

The interest and dividends tax is New Hampshire’s only effective income tax. Eliminating it, the governor argued, would help out retirees and seniors who invest in the stock market, as well as those with retirement savings investment accounts.

Democrats, meanwhile, have blasted the reduction as a giveaway to high-income residents of the state.

Sununu’s budget proposal includes the return of the governor’s preferred paid family and medical leave program. The proposed program would use the state’s 10,000 state employees to create a base pool of employees in the insurance plan, and then allow private sector employers to opt in to the plan.

For years, Democrats had been pressing for a mandatory program for all employers, which they said was necessary to broaden the pool and keep the program financially viable. But Sununu and other Republicans had criticized the mandatory 0.5 percent of wage contribution as an “income tax,” and Sununu had twice vetoed Democratic attempts to pass it.

On Thursday, the governor also unveiled a student debt relief plan, another initiative he had tried introducing in the past under the Democratic legislature. The plan would allow college graduates pursuing fields in healthcare, biotechnology, social work and other fields in New Hampshire to apply for student debt relief. The proposal would redirect the investment gains the state makes off its 529 college savings plans to pay for the initiative.

Sununu’s proposed budget seeks to merge together several New Hampshire departments. In one portion, the budget bill would combine the University System of New Hampshire with the Community College System, an ambitious proposal the governor argued would help streamline decisions amid declining enrollments. In another, the budget would centralize energy policy under a Department of Energy, creating an an energy commissioner while still letting the PUC function as an independent regulatory body within the new agency. That move would include the creation of the Offshore Wind Industry Development Office, in keeping with the state’s efforts to participate in a wind farm in Gulf of Maine.

The governor’s proposal would also maintain Medicaid rate increases to hospitals and community health providers that went into effect at the beginning of the year.

The governor’s address Thursday kicks off the legislative budget writing process, which begins in the House and then transitions over to the Senate.

Analysis: All eyes on Republican senators after strong presentation by House managers

WASHINGTON — The tightly argued and emotionally raw presentations by House impeachment managers have raised the stakes for Republican senators sitting in judgment of Donald Trump. If the former president’s actions that led to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol are not judged as impeachable, are there any penalties that Republicans are prepared to impose to hold him accountable?

Wednesday’s presentations by the House managers asked everyone in the Senate chamber and beyond to confront anew the horrors of the attack on the Capitol. With fresh security video, the managers were able to highlight the viciousness of the rioters and how close things came to an even worse disaster. Even though everyone in the Senate chamber had lived through the attacks when they happened, the video timeline assembled by the House managers brought the dangers of the day back with unexpected force.

Thursday’s presentations had different purposes. One was to show that what happened on Jan. 6 was not a one-off event, but an almost predictable culmination of years of behavior by a president whose exhortations to attack his rivals were absorbed and then acted upon by his loyalists. A second was to remind everyone of the lingering and lasting effects of the trauma on lawmakers, their staffs, law enforcement officers and Capitol support employees. A third was to anticipate and offer a prebuttal to the defense from Trump’s lawyers.

The former president’s lawyers will now have their turn. Based on their performance during Tuesday’s opening of the trial, Trump has reason to be nervous, and Republicans will no doubt be hoping that Trump’s lawyers offer a more credible defense against the actual charges than they did arguing constitutional law. Still, the House managers ought not to assume that the actual defense will be as bad as the arguments advanced on Tuesday.

Trump’s team will begin its rebuttal on the defensive. If Trump attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. was impressed by what he heard on Tuesday, he must be all the more now that the House managers have wrapped up. Led by Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the House team stitched together a case that was both legally compelling and viscerally gut-wrenching, befitting the shocking events that brought the former president into the dock of the Senate for the second time in little more than a year.

Nothing was left to the imagination. No ground went unexplored. The managers’ case included a review of Trump’s efforts to poison the ground before the election by claiming that the only way he could lose was by fraud. The managers focused on the days immediately after the election, when Trump lodged the first claims that the election was being stolen, long before all the ballots had been counted.

They focused on the wild claims made by Trump’s lawyers, led by Rudy Giuliani, that included assertions of widespread fraud based on outlandish conspiracy theories for which there was no evidence and flat-out falsehoods about ghost voters and the like. They pointed to his efforts to force Georgia officials to overturn the results there. They made clear that nearly everything Trump and his team said was quickly internalized by supporters — the gospel according to their ultimate leader.

They focused on Trump’s appeals to supporters to rally in Washington on Jan. 6 and on the pressure he applied to Vice President Mike Pence to block the ratification of the electoral college vote that day (though Pence had no constitutional authority to do so). They pointed repeatedly to Trump’s speech on Jan. 6, interspersing his words with the voices of the mob invading the Capitol and shouting, “Fight for Trump,” while claiming they were there because he had asked them to be there.

They showed a president with no remorse as the Capitol was under assault, and who took no action as his vice president and congressional leaders were in hiding in the building as the rioters chanted “Hang Pence” and “Where are you, Nancy?” — a reference to the House speaker. They reiterated again and again that the president did nothing to call off the attack as it was happening and who in a video that day continued to claim the election had been stolen.

They focused on the years of rhetoric by the president encouraging supporters at rallies to rough up protesters; on his claim that there were “very fine people on both sides” when white supremacists descended on Charlottesville in 2017 for a rally that ended with the death of Heather Heyer.

They highlighted his repeated attacks on Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had dared to criticized him, as armed protesters descended on the Capitol in Lansing and even after she was the target of an alleged assassination plot.

It was a presentation both of the moment and of the events of Jan. 6, and one that showed what the managers described as a pattern and practice by Trump that inevitably led to the storming of the Capitol after he had incited the crowd that he had drawn to Washington to disrupt the ratification of President Biden’s victory.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter what kind of defense Trump’s legal team presents. Twice now, 44 Republicans have voted against even proceeding with the trial on the grounds that it is unconstitutional to hold an impeachment trial for a president who is no longer in office. Although six Republican senators voted to go ahead with the trial, it is not known whether all six are prepared to vote to convict Trump. Even if they are, the House managers need 11 more Republicans from the remaining 44 — a high hill to climb.

But do all 44 Republican senators who voted to question the constitutionality of the trial truly believe that a former official cannot be tried? Or were those votes merely signs that they would rather decide the case on a legal debate rather than on squarely facing the conduct of the former president? Were those two procedural votes based on their own reading of the Constitution or on mere party loyalty and fear of a man who still has the capacity to make their lives difficult?

After all, they have seen the swift response by rank-and-file Republicans to any who stray from adherence to Trump — from Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming to Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and even Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who after hearing the two sides argue the constitutionality of the trial found the Trump lawyers’ argument so underwhelming that he voted to go ahead.

Raskin reminded senators on Thursday that the constitutional question is not at issue at this point and that they are obligated to make their judgments based on the facts and arguments presented by the two sides in their presentations. Will many or any of them accept that and proceed on the terms to which they swore an oath, to be impartial jurors and not partisan representatives?

The presentation by the House managers has made finding exit ramps more difficult for GOP senators, but Trump’s team has arguments to make on his behalf. They have said the speech he delivered on Jan. 6 is protected by the First Amendment. They may argue that the House managers have failed to prove that what he did meets the terms of inciting an insurrection.

Still, given the known facts, Republicans will have to stretch themselves to conclude that, when those who invaded the Capitol face criminal prosecution, the person who brought them to that moment should pay no price, whether conviction and possible prohibition from ever running again or even the far lesser penalty of a censure by the Senate once the trial is over.

Trump’s lawyers will step into the spotlight on Friday, but from now until the end of the trial, the focus will be on the Republicans in the Senate and on the question of what precedent might be set for future presidents based on the judgments they ultimately reach. The stakes are real.

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Winchester School District
Winchester School District identifies $745K deficit dating back years

WINCHESTER — The Winchester School District has identified a six-figure budget deficit that it hopes to eliminate by the end of the coming fiscal year through a variety of means, including a $400,000 appropriation request on this year’s warrant.

The $745,402 deficit, which was confirmed last fall, developed over the past eight years and began because the district did not conduct annual financial audits between 2012 and 2016, Chairwoman Lindseigh Picard said.

As a result, the district overestimated the amount of money it had not spent in the budget at the end of those years, and returned more than it should have to residents in the form of reduced tax rates the following years.

“When you don’t have consistent audits, you’re basically using your most educated guess on what that final audit number is, and therefore, what that number will be carrying on to that next year’s [budget],” Picard said.

According to documents shared publicly by the district, Winchester over-returned an average of $109,413 per year to taxpayers from 2012 to 2019. In only one of those years, the 2014-15 fiscal year, the district ended with a positive balance in its general fund, according to audited figures.

“It’s very important to note the deficit is not the result of over-spending the budget,” Picard said. “The deficit is actually a result of over-returning money to the town, basically money to the taxpayer. So, over those years when there was no audit, the estimate went in favor, basically, of the Winchester taxpayer.”

This led to the $745,402 deficit as of June 30, 2020, which Picard said the district plans to eliminate by the end of the 2021-22 fiscal year. Voters will consider the budget for the coming year, in addition to the proposed $400,000 appropriation and other warrant articles, over the next few months.

Along with the $400,000 warrant article to offset part of the deficit, the school board voted following a public hearing on Jan. 5 to use $125,000 from the district’s Special Education Expendable Trust Fund to help pay down the deficit, according to the minutes of that meeting. The district anticipates being able to make up the remaining $220,402 using excess funds at the end of next fiscal year.

“When our audit is done next year, if we have a positive fund balance of anything over [$220,402], the deficit will be gone,” Superintendent Kenneth Dassau said.

It’s not uncommon for school districts to budget for the worst-case scenario and end their fiscal years with substantial surpluses — money that was budgeted, but not spent. Those are then appropriated to trust funds for specific purposes like special education or building renovations, or used to help offset taxes the following year.

If voters do not approve the $400,000 warrant article, the district will not be able to use its end-of-year surpluses to lower the tax rate until the deficit is eliminated.

“Whenever there’s money left on the bottom line, it will go back to the general fund versus returned to offset taxation in any way,” Picard said. “So, the general fund has to be repaid this deficit before we will see any ‘return’ from the school to offset any taxation.”

The district’s 2021-22 operating budget proposal is $12,353,376, a figure both the school board and budget committee recommend unanimously. The general fund deficit is equivalent to six percent of that budget. For the current fiscal year, the district’s operating budget is $11,270,000, a figure voters lowered by $1.6 million last year, causing the district to cut 23 jobs, reduce kindergarten to a half day and eliminate busing for high school students to Keene, among other cuts.

The Winchester district has one school, Winchester Elementary, which students attend through 8th grade. High-schoolers in the district attend Keene High School.

Both Picard and Dassau said they don’t know why audits were paused between 2012 and 2016, when neither of them were affiliated with the district. The gap in audits came shortly after N.H. School Administrative Unit 38 — which provided top-level administrative services for the Winchester, Hinsdale and Monadnock Regional school districts — dissolved in 2010, and Winchester formed its own unit, SAU 94.

Dassau, a former SAU 38 superintendent, held that role with the Winchester School District until resigning in 2012. Around that time, he said, district administrators and the school board were looking for a new auditor.

“I think they were seeking another auditor, and they never found one,” Dassau said.

Picard said she does not believe the district deliberately failed to conduct these annual audits.

“I don’t think, ultimately, it was anything malicious or intentional,” she said. “I don’t ever think that somebody purposefully doesn’t do the job they’re tasked to do, right? But ultimately, it didn’t get done, and it should have.”

School districts are legally required to conduct annual audits, according James Gerry, director of the municipal and property division at the N.H. Department of Revenue Administration.

“If you don’t have an audit within that year, you’re in violation of [the statute that requires audits],” Gerry said. “... There’s no penalty for that, but they have to get in compliance, which is what it looks [the Winchester School District] tried to do through catch-up.”

The district resumed annual audits in 2016, Picard said, when the district also began retroactively auditing the missing years. According to documents posted on the district’s website, audits for the fiscal years ending in 2012-2016 were completed in 2017.

It wasn’t until the 2017-18 fiscal year that the district’s business administrator began to notice some revenue shortfalls related to the deficit, Picard said. The audit for the following year, which was completed in October 2020, confirmed the deficit, leading the district to address it by proposing the warrant article and transfer from the special education trust fund, she added.

The Winchester School District deliberative session, where voters can discuss and amend articles before voting them up or down at the polls, was originally scheduled for Jan. 30, but the school board voted last month to postpone the annual meeting to April 10 due to COVID-19 concerns. Residents will vote on the warrant May 11.