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Swanzey outlines proposed community power plan
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WEST SWANZEY — What should power homes and businesses in Swanzey? That question could be on the town meeting ballot in March.

Like many other municipalities in New Hampshire, Swanzey is considering adopting a community power aggregation plan. That would make the town the default electricity provider for local customers.

“This is a new program in New Hampshire, but there are hundreds of programs around the country and dozens of programs in New England,” Emily Manns of the Nashua-based consulting firm Standard Power, which is working with the town, said at a public hearing Wednesday evening.

She explained that communities like these programs for two main reasons: competitive prices and the ability to add more renewable energy to the mix.

Swanzey’s volunteer Community Power Committee, formed by the selectboard, has been meeting since March. Working with Standard Power and another consulting firm, Good Energy, the committee conducted a survey and developed a draft plan.

After considering public input from Wednesday’s session and another public hearing — scheduled for Dec. 8 — the committee will submit a final plan to the selectboard. If the board approves, it would go to the voters in March.

While a utility like Eversource is the default supplier of power, customers have the option of selecting a different supplier — but don’t have much leverage on their own, said Patrick Roche of Good Energy, who was also at Wednesday’s hearing.

With community power, the municipality pools the demand from all those customers, giving it more purchasing power. Customers are automatically enrolled, though can opt out. (The utility continues to deliver the electricity and manage the infrastructure.)

Advocates say that aggregation allows communities to seek lower costs and increase their renewable energy usage.

Swanzey’s draft plan envisions four options customers could choose from.

The default product would have a rate comparable to Eversource, while including a bit more renewable power than the utility is required to under New Hampshire law — around 22 percent this year. Swanzey’s default product is expected to include an extra 5 to 10 percent more than that.

Another product, the “basic” option, would be the cheapest. It would include only the required amount of renewables, at a more competitive price.

For customers who want more clean energy, two other options would come with substantially more renewable energy — up to 50 and 100 percent extra, respectively — at somewhat higher rates.

The Community Power Committee’s work was informed by its survey of residents, Manns said. One question asked whether they wanted more renewable energy.

Of the roughly 100 respondents, 56 percent said yes if prices remained about the same; 17 percent were willing to pay a little more for extra renewables; 9 percent wanted 100 percent renewable energy and were willing to pay for it; and 15 percent said they didn’t want more renewable power at all.

Those categories correspond to the four choices described in the draft plan, she said.

Another question asked what residents hoped to get out of a community power plan. The top reason, listed by 78 percent, was lower electric bills; 57 percent said local control and 56 percent said more renewable energy.

About eight people, including members of the Community Power Committee, attended Wednesday’s hearing, which lasted a little over a half-hour. It was held at Whitcomb Hall and also streamed online via Zoom.

Manns and Roche fielded a handful of questions on details about the proposed program.

Asked how rates might compare to Eversource, Roche pointed to the example of Somerville, Mass. That city’s default option has tended to be cheaper than the utility’s default rate, despite containing more renewable energy.

“We’re looking to be lower over the term of our contract,” Roche said. “… There may be a six-month period where we are not lower than the utility, but looking over the term of the contract, we come out ahead.”

According to the website for Somerville’s community aggregation program, its default option — “Somerville Local Green” — has an extra 10 percent renewable energy and costs 10.519 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 10.753 cents for Eversource’s current rate. Somerville’s basic option is 10.219 cents per kilowatt-hour, while the option with an extra 100 percent renewable energy costs 13.219 cents per kilowatt-hour.

In the event of an outage, Manns noted, customers would still call Eversource. “The infrastructure remains with the utility,” she said.

Electricity bills would also come from Eversource, but the supply portion would say Swanzey Community Power.

Since the N.H. Legislature opened the door to community power programs in 2019, multiple Monadnock Region municipalities have shown interest.

In May, Keene became the first in the state to adopt such a plan, followed closely by Harrisville, though the plans will require approval from the N.H. Public Utilities Commission before becoming operational. That hasn’t happened yet; the PUC began the rule-making process for community power aggregation plans last month.

Marlborough has formed a Community Power Committee that is gathering feedback from local residents with a community power survey. Peterborough, which has committed itself to transitioning to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, has its own Community Power Task Force.

Meanwhile, Cheshire County recently joined with 13 New Hampshire towns and cities — including, locally, Harrisville and Walpole — to form the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire, a so-called joint powers agency. Members intend to benefit from economies of scale, including by sharing administrative services and pooling their bargaining power to solicit bids, while keeping local control over their own power programs.

The next public hearing on Swanzey’s draft community power plan is scheduled for Dec. 8 at 6 p.m. in Whitcomb Hall. Written comments can also be submitted to Matthew Bachler, director of planning and economic development, at mbachler@swanzeynh.gov.

Safety grades for 13 of state’s hospitals are in, and three received Ds

A national nonprofit that grades hospitals on nearly 30 safety measures has given the 13 hospitals it reviewed from New Hampshire passing grades, but three earned D’s. However, those low scores may be due, in part, to a decision by some hospitals to focus strained resources on patient care rather than complete the nonprofit’s labor-intensive surveys, they said.

The three with the lowest grades — Catholic Medical Center, Cheshire Medical Center, and Southern New Hampshire Medical Center — struggled in some of the same areas, according to the results: dangerous blood clots, safe administration of medication, and infection in the blood during an ICU stay.

The Leapfrog Group, a national watchdog group, uses the hospitals’ data reports to the federal government and responses to its survey to determine its safety findings twice a year. Its rating did not include several smaller hospitals in the state, which may offer too few services or care for too few patients to meet federal reporting requirements, according to its website.

Lauren Collins-Cline, spokeswoman for Catholic Medical Center, said the hospital does not report data to Leapfrog directly and “as such does not believe the grade reflects the quality and safety of the care we provide.”

Collins-Cline pointed to other rankings in which the hospital has done well, including CMS Hospital Compare, American Heart Association, Healthgrades, Becker’s Hospital Review, and U.S. News & World Report.

Cheshire Medical Center also did not respond to the survey.

“We understand that these grades are not entirely reflective of performance — primarily when organizations do not provide data — and are partly influenced by how much the hospital reports,” said spokeswoman Heather Atwell. “Therefore, the grade does not accurately reflect the safety and quality of patient care at Cheshire.”

She added: “We are steadfast in our commitment to advance the health and wellness of the Monadnock Region by delivering outstanding care and exceptional service to the individuals and communities we serve. We will continue to pursue and achieve measurable, continuous improvement across every aspect of our organization and focus on preventing serious harm.”

Similarly, Southern New Hampshire Medical Center did not report its data to the Leapfrog Group. Spokeswoman Kelly Scargill said hospital leadership opted instead to focus on pandemic response last year.

And like Collins-Cline, Scargill pointed to other monitoring programs that have given the hospital its highest ratings.

“The Leapfrog Group is one of many independent agencies that actively monitor quality and safety in our industry,” she said. “In this time of unprecedented challenges amid this pandemic, we chose to direct our resources to care for our patients’ healthcare needs rather than focusing resources to report on this organization’s metrics. Not participating in the survey does affect the score.”

Scargill added: “While we are working behind the scenes to ensure participation in the survey next year, there are many meaningful accreditations that our hospital has achieved recently that do showcase the quality care we provide every day.

Top scoring hospitals included Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Frisbie Memorial Hospital, Portsmouth Regional Hospital, and Wentworth-Douglass Hospital — which all earned As. Dartmouth-Hitchcock in particular improved its standing over the last few years, when it earned Cs.

Scoring a B were Exeter Hospital, Lakes Region General Hospital, and Parkland Medical Center. Three hospitals earned Cs: Concord Hospital, Elliot Hospital, and St. Joseph Hospital of Nashua.

The three that received D’s scored below the other hospitals on the list, but they still ranked above many hospitals throughout the country.

Southern New Hampshire Medical Center was docked for kidney injuries and breathing problems related to surgery; bed sores and patient falls.

Cheshire Medical Center did better in many of those areas but had poor scores for communication about medication and dangerous objects left in a patient’s body during surgery.

Catholic Medical Center had low marks for blood leakage during surgery; responsiveness of hospital staff; and collapsed lungs.

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Cheshire County sheriff eyes more costly body camera system
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As the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office works to implement a body-camera program for its deputies, Sheriff Eli Rivera asked county commissioners Wednesday to consider budgeting for a more expensive system after discovering that it comes with additional benefits.

Originally, the county’s plan was to purchase an Axon body-camera system for about $54,000, Rivera said during the commissioners’ regular meeting, but after presenting that figure to county officials, Rivera said his department learned of another system that carries a number of safety features and conveniences like easier communication and sharing of files. This system, he said, would cost the county $95,000 over a five-year period and is manufactured by BodyWorn, which is based in Georgia.

“We realized that even though those might be a little bit more of a cost, that the capabilities of the body-worn camera system far exceeded my expectation,” Rivera said during Wednesday’s meeting, accessed remotely by The Sentinel, “and it brings officer safety to a different level.”

In year one, the cost of the system — which includes a dozen cameras, data storage and other start-up expenses — would be $38,000. The cost during each of the following four years would be $14,250.

However, Cheshire County is anticipating a 50 percent state grant for the initiative, which would mean the system would cost the county only $19,000 in year one, and a bit over $7,000 in the following four years. The funding follows a series of recommendations from a state commission on police accountability — established following the death of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of officers from the Minneapolis Police Department — New Hampshire made funds available to help law enforcement agencies purchase body cameras.

Rivera said the benefits of the more expensive system are significant. He explained that it would be a cell system, which allows wireless, real-time communication between the cameras and the sheriff’s office while deputies are on the scene of incidents. The cameras would also link to the county’s dispatch system as well as other police departments using the same technology and enable cameras to turn on automatically when a deputy is responding to a call that is designated as posing a potential risk.

“If it’s an address that we have flagged in our computer system, the camera will actually interact with the dispatch system and turn it on,” Rivera said.

The system would also essentially turn police cruisers into Internet hot spots and would set the department up to easily install in-vehicle cameras later on if its decides to do so. Rivera said he’s hoping to have the body-worn cameras operational by summer.

He said that the more expensive system, unlike the system previously considered, incorporates the cameras right into a deputy’s uniform, where the less expensive system uses clip-on cameras. He said a plate slightly large than a cell phone would be placed underneath the uniform shirt, which would better hold the camera in place.

“During the demonstration, they showed us multiple videos of cameras coming off, and all you get is sidewalk, sky, bushes and just hearing the officers,” Rivera said, adding that the more expensive system doesn’t come with the same risks. “You have to basically rip the uniform off for it to come loose. So that was kind of a big feature that caught our attention.”

Advocates for body-camera use say that by recording police-civilian interactions, the cameras help curb misconduct and hold bad actors accountable — though research is largely unclear on whether they reduce use of force by law enforcement.

During a presentation to the commissioners last month, Chief Deputy Todd Faulkner, who was previously a police chief in Hinsdale and involved with that department’s body-camera rollout in 2014, said Hinsdale officers showed improvement when they knew their actions were being recorded.

“When I implemented the body-camera program in Hinsdale, I actually was able to measure and see a better quality of law enforcement because they were being monitored,” he said at the time. “I’m not saying they were doing it wrong; they just were more cautious and they selected their words better. And sometimes just the way you present your words can keep an incident from going south.”

He said a 2017 Pew Research Center study found that 93 percent of people favor the use of body cameras by police officers and that 66 percent of people think police are likely to be better behaved when on camera. However, Faulkner also noted there were a few negatives to the project, including its cost, added responsibilities for existing staff and a higher influx of Right to Know requests seeking body-camera footage.

Keene is also in the process of implementing a body-camera program. Police Chief Steven Russo said in August that he’s hoping to purchase the cameras in the spring.

The county’s 2021 budget includes funds for body cameras that were approved on the condition that state funding become available to help offset the costs. On Friday morning, commissioners will hear a final review for the county’s 2022 budget, according to County Administrator Chris Coates.

Redistricting committee sends maps to the full House

In a three-hour executive session, the House Special Redistricting Committee voted on all the maps it was tasked with redistricting, including county commissioner, the House of Representatives and congressional districts.

The committee reached bipartisan agreement on five out of the nine county commission maps: Coos, Hillsborough, Sullivan, Belknap and Grafton. Strafford County elects its county commissioners at large, and therefore isn’t a part of the redistricting process.

Majority lines prevailed for Carroll, Cheshire, Merrimack and Rockingham counties.

Democrats were in favor of leaving Carroll, Cheshire and Rockingham counties as they are currently drawn and changing Merrimack County only slightly, arguing that more significant changes were unnecessary. They pointed out that the population in some of these counties, like Carroll, has remained largely unchanged. The votes fell along party lines, 7-8, with Republicans opposing the maps proposed by the committee Democrats.

Bipartisan agreement ran dry when it came to the House districts. The committee had already unanimously agreed to stick to 400 representatives. The version the majority put forward Tuesday had been revised since maps were presented to the public last week. Rep. Carol McGuire, an Epsom Republican, said changes were made based on public comment and other maps that had been submitted to the committee for review.

Rep. Leonard Turcotte, a Barrington Republican, said the changes made to the House maps over the last week increased the number of single-town districts.

The new map gives each ward of Keene a dedicated representative, which Rep. Lucy Weber, a Walpole Democrat, called a step in the right direction. But it didn’t go as far as Weber had hoped, leaving Walpole, Chesterfield, Hinsdale, Jaffrey and Swanzey “hitched” to other towns.

Democrats also sought amendments to give Berlin and Moultonborough their own districts. All of the proposed amendments to adjust the majority House districts were rejected in 8-7 votes that fell along party lines.

The Republicans also pushed through their version of the congressional district maps — which has been described as a claw, a beggar, or a man throwing a punch. Democrats said that it would become a symbol of gerrymandering, while Republicans maintained the map was fair.

That map moves 75 towns, or roughly a quarter of the state, from one district to another, representing one of the most dramatic changes to the congressional districts in the past century. This would make the 1st Congressional District — currently represented by Democrat Chris Pappas — favorable to Republicans, while the 2nd Congressional District — represented by Democrat Annie Kuster — would become even more friendly to Democrats.

Now that the maps have been voted out of committee, they will come up for a vote when the full House is back in session beginning in January.