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Keene councilors approve $60.6M budget, with more money for nonprofits

The Keene City Council has approved a $60.6 million spending plan for the coming fiscal year, but only after much debate about two amendments. One added money to the budget for area nonprofit agencies, and the other removed funding for the committee that manages the city’s interactions with its partner city in Europe.

Meanwhile, despite calls from a number of community members to reduce the budget for Keene police, or use money in the budget for things like body cameras or additional training, the funding earmarked for that department drew no discussion.

Councilors passed the budget unanimously during their meeting Thursday. There will be no increase to the amount the city will raise through property taxes, at $25.6 million. That is down slightly from the nearly $26 million in property tax revenue that was approved as part of the 2019-20 budget.

“We had a budget presented to us that continues to do the good work of the city without a major [tax] increase,” Councilor Thomas Powers said before the vote.

The final budget was amended several times Thursday, the first on a motion by Councilor Janis Manwaring. She moved to add $15,800 to the budget to increase funding for the Keene Senior Center, The Community Kitchen, Hundred Nights shelter and the Keene Housing Kids Collaborative. Meanwhile, Councilor Randy Filiault moved to decrease the budget line that helps fund the city’s interaction with its partner city of Einbeck, Germany.

Also approved were a series of housekeeping amendments meant to balance the budget after the changes that were incorporated via the first two amendments. The council also had to adjust the budget to reflect a tabled $770,000 bond issue. That money would have allowed the city to proceed with infrastructure work that would be required for an arts and culture corridor pitched for Gilbo Avenue.

Citing the economic hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Manwaring said she felt that providing extra funds for the four organizations was the right thing to do. She noted that they cater to the neediest members of the Keene community and haven’t been able to hold their usual fundraising events due to restrictions on large gatherings. She was supported by nine of her fellow councilors, who voted to approve the amendment.

“There’s many of us throughout this city, and I think the 15 of us on this council are no exceptions; we’re all just a couple of paychecks away from eating at The Community Kitchen,” Filiault said. “These are probably the most needy groups that could use some money because they’re going to fall very short, and they’re going to have probably more demand, also.”

Five councilors voted against Manwaring’s amendment. Among them was Councilor Mitch Greenwald, who said that while the organizations included in the amendment are worthy of extra funding, he wasn’t sure the proper process had been followed to award it to them. He asked how those organizations were included, asked why other local nonprofit groups were left out and noted that there are federal and state dollars available to help charitable operations.

Councilor Michael Remy echoed those sentiments, and noted that the state had recently made funding available for nonprofit organizations that had been affected by the pandemic.

Filiault’s amendment to reduce the partner city line to zero also drew debate. He said the program was originally supposed to be financially self-sustaining and that it seems like an unnecessary expense given the current economic climate.

He had also intended to propose the $5,000 be moved the city’s human rights committee line, but instead suggested it be used to offset the extra money added to the budget by Manwaring’s amendment.

But Councilor Michael Giacomo, who is serving as an ex-officio member of the partner city committee this year, defended the program. He said money from the fund is expended only every two years and that much of the travel expenses associated with the program are paid for out of pocket or via fundraising. He also pointed out that, like the charitable organizations that have been unable to host events due to COVID-19, the partner city committee hasn’t been able to fundraise either.

Keene and Einbeck first became partner cities in 2002. The program involves exchanging official delegations, youth soccer programs and choirs in an effort to enhance cultural awareness between the two communities.

“It is really, really trying to widen people’s horizons on what cultures are out there by immersing them in that culture for a week at a time,” Giacomo said. “We save the money up so that every other year, we have enough to support and host our guests from Einbeck, and we’ve got a lot out of this program over the years.”

Other councilors questioned whether it would be safe to send people overseas anytime soon or said it feels like a luxury and that other items ought to be prioritized this year. The amendment to cut the partner city’s funding was approved by a vote of 10 to 4, with Councilor Philip Jones not casting a vote due to technical difficulties.

One part of the budget that many members of the public had hoped the council would reconsider is the police department. However, councilors did not make any changes to the nearly $8 million allocated in 2020-21 to the city’s police.

Over the past few weeks, protests against police brutality in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police have included calls for police departments to be defunded.

On Monday, the city hosted a public forum to discuss racial injustice, and a number of participants urged Keene officials to consider directing money away from the police budget. Instead, they said the money should be spent on alternative safety services, like hiring professionals trained to deal with homelessness, substance use disorders and people with mental health problems.

Earlier this month, City Councilor Terry Clark pitched a similar idea, though he emphasized that he wasn’t proposing to defund police. Rather, he suggested creating a broader safety department that would include traditional safety services like police and fire, but also counselors who could respond to mental health calls.

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Local forestry expert: Emerald ash borer likely unstoppable

The loss of 17 trees in downtown Keene to the emerald ash borer this week is a stark reminder that the non-native insect is here to stay.

And as with the Dutch elm disease that overtook the region in the decades following the Hurricane of 1938, it’s not so much a question of if area ash trees will succumb to the infestation.

“I view this as the Dutch elm disease of our generation,” Steven S. Roberge, state extension forestry specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, said Thursday. “If you have an ash tree, chances are it will be infested at some point; it’s just a matter of when.”

Emerald ash borer is a beetle from Asia that has no predators, according to NHBugs, a website managed by the cooperative extension in partnership with other state and federal agencies. It colonizes and then kills ash trees, including white ash, green ash and black or brown ash, in three to five years, the website states. Signs and symptoms of an infestation include canopy dieback starting at the top one-third of the tree; increased woodpecker activity; removal of the outside bark from the tree, called “blonding”; splitting bark; the presence of larvae tunneling beneath the bark; D-shaped exit holes showing where the adult beetles left the tree; and sprouts growing from the roots and trunk with leaves often larger than normal.

The infestation has been reported nationally and in nine of New Hampshire’s 10 counties, including Cheshire, Sullivan and Hillsborough. It first appeared in the state in 2013 in Concord, and in Cheshire County in 2019 in Rindge. So far this year it has been reported in Keene, Nelson, Sullivan and Swanzey, according to NHBugs.

The website notes that as a forest product, ash trees contribute more than $1 million annually to New Hampshire’s economy.

The emerald ash borer first appeared in the United States in 2002 in the Detroit area. It can spread naturally or with the help of humans.

In the areas of the state where infestations appear to be isolated, it’s likely the insects came on firewood brought in by humans, according to Roberge. But if the infestations are traveling from town to town, it’s likely through the natural spread of the beetle. As long as the insect has an ash tree to feast on, it will stay with that tree, he said.

It’s common for an infestation to go unnoticed for a long time, which he believes was the case for the trees on Main Street in Keene. He noted that he’s been hanging purple traps used to catch the beetle for a long time in the city and at Keene State College, and he never picked up anything.

“I have no idea how the bugs made it there,” he said.

However, he suspects that the insect is inhabiting trees in the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown, and those trees aren’t showing any signs or symptoms.

In a news release about the Main Street tree removal, Keene public works officials said the trees would be replaced with ones that aren’t susceptible to the insect.

But even other tree species have their threats given the kinds of tree pests and diseases that continue to emerge in the Northeast and across the country, Roberge said.

For example, oak wilt was first found in Wisconsin in the 1940s, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The disease, which is caused by a fungus disrupting the transport of water in oak trees, has been a problem in the Midwest for decades, but has been marching east in recent years.

Last year, the N.H. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources issued a news release asking people to be on the lookout for the disease in New Hampshire after outbreaks were reported in Albany and Long Island, N.Y.

So far, Roberge said, there have been no reports of oak wilt in New Hampshire, but it’s something forestry officials and the state continue to monitor. They also continue to track diseases and pests already in the state, the hemlock woolly adelgid, elongate hemlock scale and white pine needle damage, he said.

As for the emerald ash borer, Roberge said he has yet to see an ash tree that survived an infestation. There is a process that can preserve an infected tree involving the hiring of a licensed pesticide applicator, he said. However, he noted, if the dying tree could cause injury or damage when it falls, the owner should have it removed.

In a department Facebook post last week, Keene public works officials said they planned to begin monitoring and treating the other 22 ash trees on Main Street after the other trees were cut down.

This article has been changed to correct that the Asian longhorned beetle is not already in New Hampshire.

Initial New Hampshire jobless claims held steady last week

While initial unemployment claims in New Hampshire held steady for the second week in a row, at about 6,300, the number of people actually collecting benefits the previous week dipped below 100,000 for the first time in two months.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s initial claims data, about 12.5 percent of the state’s workforce was continuing to collect unemployment benefits, down from a high of 15 percent at the beginning of May, when the state started gradually reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

That’s not to be confused with the state’s seasonally adjusted official rate for May of 14.5 percent. That was down from 17.1 percent in April and up from 2.5 percent in March.

Still, initial claims continue to come in, unabated, showing that even as some people are going back to work, many others are losing their jobs.

In the week ending June 13, 6,303 New Hampshire workers notified the Department of Employment Security that they were planning to file, only one fewer than the previous week. Before the economy crashed, initial claims were in the 500-to-600 range.

Nationally, 1.5 million initial claims were filed in the week ending June 13, also substantially unchanged, bringing the cumulative total to more than 45 million since the crisis began.

But the initial claims numbers are a bit misleading, since some of those who file initial claims don’t actually collect benefits, and others return to work. Continuing claims, which lag a week behind, are a better economic indicator.

In New Hampshire, there were nearly 98,000 continuing claims during the week ending June 6, down more than 4,000 from the week before, and down nearly 9,000 from the week ending May 2, when 116,768 continuing claims were filed. That’s roughly when the economic reopening started.

On June 15, the state’s stay-at-home order was lifted, allowing most businesses to reopen and restaurants to start serving people indoors.

Juneteenth a day to mark ‘what’s going on now, where we’ve been, and where we plan to go’

In the midst of nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality following the death of George Floyd during an arrest by Minneapolis police, “Juneteenth,” the annual celebration of the final emancipation of enslaved African Americans on June 19, 1865, has taken on a special significance.

“Juneteenth itself is suddenly being re-awoken in everyone’s consciousness,” said JerriAnne Boggis, the executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire. The protests, along with the backlash against President Donald Trump’s plan to host his first rally in months on June 19 in Tulsa, have increased attention on the holiday.

But to Boggis, the increased attention doesn’t change what Juneteenth stands for: a celebration of African American history and culture.

“No matter what we do, current issues will always come up,” she said. “The important thing is to look at our history not through this microscopic lens but as a whole complete history: What’s going on now, where we’ve been, and where we plan to go.”

Last year, Governor Chris Sununu officially declared Juneteenth a state holiday. But in Portsmouth, the Black Heritage Trail has been holding celebrations for decades. The date June 19 was the day that United States General Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas to officially declare emancipation for African Americans who were still enslaved, two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

This year, the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire is hosting four events to celebrate Juneteenth, with a theme of food and cuisine.

“The whole idea of soul food was making something out of nothing,” Boggis said. Enslaved African Americans created this genre of food for survival, out of the low-quality rations they were given, and now it is famous around the world.

To celebrate the ingenuity and creativity of black food and music, organizers planned a live African drumming event, a soul food cooking demonstration, a virtual concert of black music, and a panel discussion of the history and science of soul food.

“No matter what has happened, I think using the theme of food and music can tell the story (of African American history) to not only celebrate, but to turn a real critical lens on issues that were happening then, and which are still happening today,” Boggis said.

A Juneteenth rally in Keene will join a national “6.19 Day of Action” to demand a defunding the police, investment in black communities and calling for Donald Trump to resign.

In Manchester, Juneteenth celebrations will include a lineup of poetry, hip-hop music and food, as well as free COVID-19 testing and voter registration.

Additionally, NextGen New Hampshire will be partnering with Dartmouth College’s Delta Sigma Theta sorority to host a discussion of the history of Juneteenth, black sororities and fraternities, and the experiences of black women at a predominantly white institution.