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Keene weighs moving forward on key part of clean energy goals

The city of Keene is considering hiring consultants to help develop a community power plan, one piece of a broader initiative to transition the city to 100 percent renewable energy in the coming decades.

In an unanimous vote Thursday night, the City Council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee recommended authorizing City Manager Elizabeth Dragon to negotiate a joint contract with the consulting firms Good Energy L.P. and Standard Power of America Inc., based in New York City and Nashua, respectively.

Essentially, community power means that a municipality like Keene would determine where the electricity that local customers use is sourced from. For instance, it could procure that power entirely from renewable sources. A utility like Eversource would still deliver the electricity through its existing infrastructure.

Customers in Keene would be automatically enrolled but would be able to opt out.

Last year, the council adopted clean energy goals that include Keene drawing all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. A community power program was identified as the most efficient way to achieve that. It would allow the city to buy its own electricity from renewable sources, and then act as the supplier for residents and businesses within the city of Keene.

The consultants would be responsible for designing the program, monitoring it and coming up with an implementation strategy. They would also act as a broker for electricity supply.

In June, an ad hoc committee, consisting of residents and a city councilor, was established to help draft a request for proposals, to which there were a pair of replies: the joint proposal from Good Energy and Standard Power, and another from Freedom Energy Logistics.

The RFP stipulated that the fee for consulting services would be a management fee per kilowatt-hour, in this case, a tenth of a cent.

“The way that the consultant is paid for this type of program is a little different,” city planner Mari Brunner told The Sentinel in an email Friday. “Rather than the City paying the consultant directly for services, the consultant will be paid directly by a third party competitive energy supplier, if a competitive supplier is selected. The City does not pay anyone directly for this program; the cost will be built into the electricity rate (if the program moves forward).”

Despite the finance committee’s unanimous approval of the recommendation Thursday, some concerns surfaced about hiring the consultants.

Councilor Terry Clark, a member of the finance committee, reminded his colleagues about Community Power New Hampshire, a developing initiative to create a community power program that incorporates multiple local governments. So far it includes Cheshire County, Lebanon and Hanover.

Clark worried that agreeing to hire the consultants now would prevent the city from being a part of Community Power New Hampshire later on.

“We can still talk about this, I don’t know why we have to vote on just these two companies right now without considering the other option,” Clark said. “We should consider the Community Power New Hampshire effort ... We need to at least look at this option before we go forward with this.”

City Planning Director Rhett Lamb said there has actually been extensive discussion about Community Power New Hampshire, but the organization is still coming together and will need some time before it’s ready to take action.

Dragon said moving ahead with a consulting agreement now puts the city in a position to assess all its options, and said she saw no downside to moving forward.

“By going out with our own consultant and getting pricing and signing a short-term agreement, we will know what we can do here locally,” Dragon said. “That gives time for this other group to get up and running, and then when we’re ready to renew, we will know what they can offer in terms of cost.”

Clark also worried about having the same firms both design the plan and carry it out, questioning whether the designs might call for things that are in the best interest of the consultants rather than the city.

Lamb said both Good Energy and Standard Power have been thoroughly vetted and “there’s no evidence these companies are just in it for themselves,” he said.

The committee’s recommendation will move on to the full City Council next week for a final vote. If they approve it and the consultants start, the council will have additional opportunities to weigh in as the plan is developed.

Rise in families experiencing homelessness a bad indicator

A mom with a newborn. A family with two young kids. A woman and a child. These are all among the people whom Mindy Cambiar has tried to find housing for in the past two weeks.

Cambiar is the executive director of Hundred Nights Inc., an emergency shelter and resource center in Keene. During most of the pandemic she hasn’t been getting as many calls from people needing assistance securing housing as she normally does. In August, however, she had 12 calls — all from families.

“I do feel like evictions are up and there are more calls,” Cambiar said.

While homelessness can affect anyone, families with children are typically better protected than single individuals, said Karen Zook, director of UV Gear (formerly Silent Warriors), a Lebanon-based organization that provides resources and stop-gap services, like tents, to people who are unhoused.

“Under more normal circumstances, there are pretty good safeguards in place for families experiencing homelessness,” she said. “That population is well-served.”

However, since July, a lot has changed for families that are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness, Cambiar and Zook said. Family shelters — including the one operated by Hundred Nights — have had to enact social distancing, meaning that fewer beds are available. For the first few months of the pandemic, New Hampshire housed more homeless families in motels to make up for the loss, but the qualifications for that program became more stringent in July, Zook said. At the same time the state ban on evictions lapsed on July 3, right around the time that federal pandemic unemployment assistance ended.

This week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a federal eviction moratorium through Dec. 31. People working with the homeless population and those at risk for homelessness in the state say that the ban is welcome, but could just delay the potential fallout of people who are unable to pay their rents.

“The underlying problem hasn’t been solved,” Zook said. Under current guidelines, when the moratorium ends all past rent will be due. That’s virtually impossible for people who have lost their jobs, she said.

“It would be one thing if the moratorium continued and then everyone was back at work, but they’re not able to be,” Zook said.

Normally, families at risk for eviction can work with social service agencies to avoid eviction. These agencies can work with a landlord to pay all or a portion of rent in order to prevent the eviction. But because landlords have possibly gone months without rental income, they’re less able to be flexible.

“Landlords have been less able to do that because [tenants are] already four months behind,” Zook said.

An effective solution, she said, would be to offer property owners a way to delay paying property taxes while tenants weren’t paying rent, she said, but that has implications for town budgets.

“If we’re putting a moratorium on evictions, which is an objectively good thing, there needs to be support on the other end,” Zook said. “If the landlord can’t pay taxes, you might have a roof over your head but the local social worker just got fired.”

She added that having a previous eviction can make it harder to get a lease in the future, so prevention is important.

“I’d like to think that landlords and agencies will be understanding that eviction during a global pandemic isn’t the same as eviction in other circumstances, but we don’t know,” Zook said.

Evictions — or the threat of them — can have a cascading effect on people who are housing-insecure. Many of the people calling Hundred Nights haven’t themselves been evicted, but they’ve had to move.

“We’re hearing more that they have lost the places that they were staying in,” Cambiar said.

People who were staying with friends or family but who weren’t on the lease are being asked to leave if the lease-holder is concerned about eviction, for example. In addition, the strain of more time at home during the pandemic can lead to arguments and people being asked to leave.

“These tenuous relationships are starting to break down,” Zook said. “That’s contributing to why we’re seeing more families too.”

Kyle Chumas is the director of marketing and communications for Families in Transition/New Horizons, a Manchester-based organization that tries to connect families with long-term affordable housing solutions. The organization operates family shelters in Manchester and Wolfeboro. It hasn’t seen an uptick in demand, but that’s likely because the organization’s shelters are typically full and other services have long waitlists, Chumas said. He’s cautiously optimistic about the CDC ban on eviction, but said it may be more complex than the headlines indicate.

“It still sounds like there are several factors to iron out as there is no info on the CDC website yet,” he said.

With or without the federal eviction ban, he said that the pandemic will continue to affect housing for New Hampshire families.

“The full brunt of the eviction crisis has yet to be felt,” Chumas said.

Still, Zook had a positive message. She said that New Hampshire’s homeless population, estimated at fewer than 1,500 people before the pandemic, is small enough that it can be managed through proactive policies like more affordable housing options.

“Our population is a manageable and a realistically help-able size,” she said. “It’s more people this year, but we still as a community have the resources to actually help folks, if we could just make a decision to do it.”

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Keene Pumpkin Festival organizers ready to pass the torch

Organizers of the Keene Pumpkin Festival say they want to hand over the event to a new generation of leadership before the end of the year.

Tim Zinn, board chairman of festival organizer Let It Shine, said Friday he hopes a new group can take the festival to its next phase, whether that means keeping it as is or talking to the local community about growing it.

“We feel like we brought it back, we kept ... the candle from flickering out, and we’re just kind of hopeful that there’s a new team with fresh ideas,” he said.

He said it probably makes most sense for a new set of board members to take over the established nonprofit organization, but is open to ideas.

Let It Shine announced its plans in a statement Thursday signed by Zinn and sent to news outlets by fellow board member Ruth Sterling.

“The Let It Shine Board is at a crossroads and feels the time is right to bow out and hand the [reins] over to the next generation of pumpkin faithful,” the statement said. “Although three members of our Board own property in Keene, most are spending time in other locales.”

The statement said the current board wants to turn the festival over to new leadership by Nov. 30. “We are willing to work through a training and transition period,” it said.

The statement said the festival could be run by a “team with a well-rounded skill set” including experience with business, logistics, marketing and communications.

“Our team’s just ready,” Zinn said Friday, noting that he has been involved for about five years. “There’s no magic formula. I think you know when the time feels right.”

Thursday’s statement also said that Let It Shine will not organize the event this year, and is instead suggesting a “self-managed” festival.

Earlier this summer, organizers had proposed a modified festival with pumpkins carved by local students displayed in front of downtown businesses, creating a sort of jack-o’-lantern walking tour.

“We had really kind of hoped to pull something off for the community this year, but I think everybody’s just struggling with priorities,” Zinn said — especially schools, which have participated in the event in past years.

Instead, he explained, homes and businesses can display their own pumpkins and post photos on the Keene Pumpkin Festival’s Facebook page to foster some sense of community.

Founded in 1991, the downtown festival at one point grew to encompass tens of thousands of carved pumpkins — it set a world record in 2013, with more than 30,500 jack-o’-lanterns — and draw throngs of visitors.

The festival went on hiatus after 2014, when riots erupted near Keene State College, outside the event’s boundaries. The following year, city officials denied organizers a permit.

It returned to Central Square in 2017 with a much smaller version that was geared toward children, and continued in 2018 and 2019.

“We kind of kept that pure heartbeat of the festival, which was keeping the kids happy and smiles on their faces,” Zinn said.

In a separate statement on her website, dated Sept. 2, Sterling wrote that she was proud of what she had achieved with the festival, and an unspecified recent experience had prompted her to reconsider her commitment to it. “Ten years of feeling responsible for pumpkins in Downtown Keene is maybe enough,” she wrote.