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Keene mask mandate to expire June 1; outdoor portion ends immediately
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Keene’s mask mandate will expire on June 1, and the outdoor requirement has been removed from the ordinance effective immediately.

After weeks of discussion about the future of the mask ordinance, the City Council voted 13-2 Thursday night to amend it so it ends in a little more than a week, rather than having its expiration tied to New Hampshire’s COVID-related state of emergency as originally written. The council’s decision follows new recommendations from public health officials and increasing rates of vaccination.

“The CDC is in agreement with ending the mask ordinance,” Councilor Mitch Greenwald said during Thursday’s meeting, referring to the agency’s most recent guidance for mask-wearing. “I do want to stress, it’s not saying ending the need for masks, but the mandatory masks. We’ve received many public communications that this needs to end. We need to get back to normal. This is about personal and mental health, it’s about business, it’s about personal responsibility.”

Only Councilors Bobby Williams and Catherine Workman ultimately voted against lifting the mandate on June 1.

Keene’s mandate requires that those 10 and older wear a mask when inside public places, and also required face coverings be worn outdoors where business is conducted. Those with a medical or developmental condition who could be negatively affected by wearing a mask were exempted.

But while councilors agreed that the mask mandate does eventually need to be lifted, there was significant debate about the best time to do so.

The council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee voted last week to recommend that the mandate expire July 1. But after the CDC issued guidance last week saying vaccinated people could safely gather indoors without masks, the council voted Thursday to amend this by moving up the expiration date a month.

Not all councilors agreed with the June date. Some argued that a July 1 expiration would be most appropriate. Others suggested doing away with the mask mandate right away.

Williams raised a concern about removing the mandate before city schools let out for summer vacation.

He called the June 1 date “aggressive” and said that with vaccine eligibility opening up only recently to kids aged 12 to 15, it will still be some time before most are fully inoculated.

“One thing I really was hoping to see before this mask ordinance goes away would be an effort to have a vaccination clinic in the high school so that everyone above age 12 could get their vaccination,” Williams said. “Without that, you’re asking my kid to be going to school with a lot of unvaccinated kids in an environment where possibly there’s more COVID going around, because once everyone takes off those masks, I do expect we will get something of a bump [in cases].”

Though he voiced support for the later expiration date, Councilor Raleigh Ormerod, who is also a member of the Keene Board of Education, noted that the plan is to keep requiring masks in schools for the time being.

Private businesses and organizations will not be barred from continuing to enforce their own mask requirements.

Councilors Gladys Johnsen, Philip Jones and Workman also supported keeping the ordinance until July 1. Workman noted that some public health officials, such as N.H. State Epidemiologist Benjamin Chan, have expressed concerns about the CDC’s recent guidance on indoor mask-wearing.

Before a final vote was taken on the matter, Councilor Michael Remy pitched a new amendment that would have enabled the mandate to expire on Saturday.

He said that there has been confusion since the CDC issued its new guidance, saying that he’d heard from one business owner that many people living outside Keene have been walking into their store maskless because they aren’t familiar with the city’s mandate. Remy moved to end the ordinance this weekend to bring the city in line with the federal guidelines.

“I appreciate the interest in giving businesses a little bit of time to adjust, but I would offer that I think moving it up to tomorrow, end of day, gives them a day and a half to figure out ... their mask policy and put up a sign on their window,” he said. “I think the businesses have been dealing with the confusion for two weeks now, and they probably already know what they want to do.”

Though some councilors agreed with terminating the mask ordinance sooner than later, Remy’s motion was defeated.

Randy Filiault, who originally pitched a city-wide mask mandate in the spring of 2020, said there’s no one right time for it to expire. But he said June 1 is a good date that gives businesses and individuals a chance to adjust.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect date,” he said. “June 1 isn’t my particular pick, but it’s a great compromise.”

Tufted titmice share a meal, as photographed this month by Surry resident Stephanie Baute.

As restaurants struggle to hire, some in industry see chance for change

For 67 years, Hart’s Turkey Farm Restaurant has had one item starring on its menu.

“I make turkey in every way you can imagine,” explains Sim Willey, third generation owner of this Meredith institution. “Turkey piccata, turkey dinner, turkey croquettes, turkey nuggets.”

Hart’s is a big restaurant, seating about 600 diners at full capacity. On a busy day, Willey cooks and serves 100 40-pound turkeys, along with burgers, seafood and other family-dining staples.

Most summers, Willey will operate Hart’s with 230 employees. But this year, he’s struggling to fill open positions.

“I’m approximately 100 short on my staff this year,” he says.

Restaurants across the state are in the same position: emerging from the pandemic that limited their capacity for more than a year, but now struggling to hire enough people to prepare for what’s expected to be a busy summer.

This mismatch in the job market is pushing up wages. At Hart’s, starting salaries for dishwashers and other kitchen positions used to be $12 an hour, but are now $15-16, depending on the job. Even so, Willey says he’s lucky to get one applicant a week.

There are a few reasons why restaurants like Hart’s are struggling to hire. One issue is simple demographics.

“We are a tourist destination — we don’t have a huge year round population to draw from,” he says. “So it has always been a struggle.”

Housing is also expensive in the region, though Willey owns a couple of apartment buildings that he rents to workers at reduced rates.

In the past, he looked overseas to bring in workers on J-1 and H-2B visas, but those programs are limited right now due to COVID-19.

This shortage has real consequences, he says, and could force him to close Hart’s a day or two per week, or perhaps not open for lunch some days. “Which I’d prefer not to do,” he adds.

There’s one other factor that he and lots of other restaurateurs believe is impacting their ability to hire right now. Under the American Rescue Plan, the federal government is adding $300 a week to unemployment benefits for those who qualify.

Many Republicans, including Gov. Chris Sununu, now believe those extra funds are keeping people out of the labor force. This week, Sununu announced he would end the additional payments on June 19th.

“Employers are opening up faster than we even envisioned,” said Sununu during a recent press conference. “And the need for that $300 incentive, or opportunity for folks not to have to be at work, the need for that is just drastically dwindling.”

But as COVID-19 era safety net programs end, some say that doesn’t guarantee people will come back to the restaurant industry.

After being laid off during the shutdown last spring, many decided to find new careers.

“They had some time off to think about what they wanted to do, and who they wanted to be, and where they wanted to spend their time,” explains Lilly Jan, a lecturer of food and beverage management at the Hotel School of Cornell University. “And the kind of emotional rewards they were getting from work. And I think a lot of people were reflecting and saying this isn’t necessarily where I want to go back to.”

Jan says many of her friends in the field are moving on to different careers, or finding other ways to work in the food business that don’t involve the grind of late nights. Plus, It’s hard to work in a hot, tiny kitchen; hard to depend only on tips, with little prospect for a steady salary and benefits.

Jan says service workers often feel undervalued.

“These are people who are there for consumers and guests on their best days: for weddings and anniversaries and proposals. On their worst days, for funerals and commiserating job losses and things like that. On all the days in between, when life is too hectic and you just need to grab a pizza from somewhere. These are the people that are there for you, in good times and bad times and stressful times,” she says. “But yet somehow we think they are only worth the literal minimum in compensation.”

The challenge, though, is that restaurants already run on thin margins, and customers may not want to spend more on meals to support higher wages.

And remember, at Hart’s Turkey Farm Restaurant in Meredith, Willey has already boosted wages, but he still isn’t getting enough applicants.

“Through the pandemic, you are holding tight the whole time. This is my family’s business, this our legacy ... and I just wanted to get through the pandemic,” he says. “And then all of a sudden, I’m like, oh my goodness, we are going to get through it, and then one day we are going to open. And now I don’t have a staff.”

Not enough staff will mean serving fewer customers — not something any restaurant wants to contemplate.

Kindergartners' questions helped get them off hijacked school bus, driver says: 'Enough already'

The hijacker forced his way onto the school bus with a rifle and commands to “Get out of town, now!” It was “one of the scariest” scenarios possible, law enforcement said later — 18 children and their driver, at the whims of a man with a gun earlier this month.

But the bus driver says the gunman was no match for the queries of kindergartners.

The man moved all the students up front of the bus headed for an elementary school in Columbia, S.C., driver Kenneth Corbin told “Good Morning America” this week. The gunman seemed intent on reaching the next town, at least 15 miles away. Then, the kids — the kindergartners especially — started peppering him with questions, Corbin said.

Was he a soldier? Why was he doing this? Was he going to hurt them? What about their driver?

Six minutes after boarding the bus on May 6, authorities said, the hijacker ordered everyone off.

“Seemed like he sensed more questions coming. ... I guess something clicked [in] his mind and said ‘Enough, enough already!’ ” Corbin told “GMA,” estimating they made it only a few miles. “He just told me to stop the bus — ‘Stop the bus right here.’ ”

A suspect, 23-year-old Fort Jackson recruit Jovan Collazo, was quickly apprehended and charged with kidnapping, armed robbery, carjacking and other offenses, authorities said. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott acknowledged the curious children’s possible role in a news conference earlier this month, saying, “They were asking lots of questions” that seemed to frustrate the gunman.

Many have called Corbin a hero for calmly managing the scare. He was recognized last week at a special ceremony, and Democratic state Sen. Mia McLeod introduced a resolution commending his courage. But Corbin told “GMA” that credit should also go to the students he calls his “precious cargo.”

He said they are his “heroes.”

“I pretty much just had to just do whatever to get them off the bus safe and sound... . Seemed as if their goal [was] do the same by me,” the driver said.

Authorities were grateful that no one on the bus was hurt, although they acknowledged the incident’s toll on vulnerable young people who stayed remarkably composed.

“They were scared to death. ... Six minutes, they were traumatized,” the sheriff said.

Collazo, who has yet to enter a plea, has waived his bond and remains in custody, according to his lawyer, Fielding Pringle. She declined to comment further on the case Thursday.

Corbin recounted on “GMA” that the man “never did have an answer” to kids’ questions about his motivations, although he said he would not hurt them or their driver.

Fort Jackson Commander Brig. Gen. Milford H. Beagle Jr. told reporters earlier this month that Collazo’s weapon lacked ammunition and that the trainee was apparently just trying to get to a transit hub and get home.

The three-week trainee from New Jersey jumped the center’s fence line to escape, Beagle said, at a time when some recruits feel separation anxiety from their families. Beagle took responsibility for a “failure.”

But “there is nothing that leads us to believe, through his counseling, through anything in his screening records coming in, that this had anything to do with harming others,” he said.

The alleged incident began early the morning of May 6, at about 7 a.m., officials said, when Collazo ran away from his large training center in Columbia.

Calls came into the Richland County Sheriff’s Department: First, that someone was flagging cars down on the highway and trying to get in. Then, authorities said, a deputy was stopped by a parent of a child on the hijacked school bus headed for Forest Lake Elementary.

Partial video of the incident released by officials shows a man in an “ARMY” shirt with a backpack enter the bus then hold Corbin at gunpoint.

“Drive!” he orders. “Drive!”

Corbin, who could not immediately be reached on Thursday, told “GMA” the gunman kept asking how much further to the next town and wanted to move fast. Then, according to Corbin and authorities, soon after the barrage of questions started, the gunman brought them to a stop.

After everyone else disembarked unscathed, officials said, the man drove on alone, then exited on foot. He went through surrounding neighborhoods seeking clothes and a ride, they said, before deputies found him and took him into custody.

Parents, school leaders and law enforcement alike were shaken.

“Been sheriff for 25 years, been a cop for 46 years, and this is the first time that I’ve ever had a call like I had this morning,” Lott said at a news conference, “where we had an armed person on a school bus that had hijacked and kidnapped a bunch of kids. And I cannot tell you the emotions that you feel when you hear something like that, not just as the sheriff, but as a parent.”

Speaking to the media the day of the incident, the sheriff immediately praised Corbin: “He kept his cool... . That kept the situation calm.”

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Budget proposal would increase city portion of tax rate by 1.69 percent
  • Updated

Keene is proposing a 1.69 percent increase to the city’s portion of the tax rate for fiscal year 2022, after keeping it level over the past two years.

If the city’s proposed budget is approved, Keene’s portion of the tax rate would be $15.06 per $1,000 of assessed value. The city is proposing a $63.4 million operating budget, as well as $6.3 million in capital expenditures for proprietary funds and $2.9 million in bonds for several general fund projects.

Within that, the proposed $47.9 million general-fund budget is up about 6.8 percent from the $42 million general-fund budget the City Council adopted last year. Other funds in the total budget proposal include the nearly $6 million sewer fund, the $4.15 million water fund and the $4.5 million solid waste fund.

City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said major budget drivers for the coming fiscal year include overtime costs, as well as a hike in the contribution rate for the N.H. Retirement System, which she said had a budget impact of $770,000.

In her budget message, which was included with the spending plan, Dragon said that with the Keene School District and Cheshire County portions of the tax rate, the combined increase is projected to be 3.57 percent.

The uptick on the city’s part follows a year of financial uncertainty triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Keene, like other municipalities, has grappled with lost revenues and limitations on how federal relief funding could be spent. But Dragon said the city has been diligent in seeking outside funding sources to help keep Keene’s finances on track.

“The City fared OK during the pandemic,” she told The Sentinel in an email Thursday afternoon. “Over the past few months the city has seen an increase in overall activity, including Parks and Recreation, Library, and Parking. The American Rescue funds will alleviate the concerns we had related to revenue losses and the Cares Act & [FEMA] reimbursements addressed the majority of additional expenses we incurred related to the pandemic.”

Those expenses included police and fire overtime, more robust cleaning standards, purchasing personal protective equipment, and modifications to city buildings to allow for continued service, Dragon said.

She noted that previous COVID relief funds from the federal government have not been allowed to be used for offsetting revenue losses.

The city was awarded a total of $2.26 million in combined FEMA reimbursement funds and funds from the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that President Joe Biden signed in March. Keene is set to receive the money in a pair of equal payments, with the first expected to arrive soon, and the second due sometime next year, Dragon said in her budget message.

“My proposed budget anticipates use of $350,000 to offset revenues impacted by COVID in the general fund and $108,642 in the parking fund,” she said. “This revenue offset will utilize a bit less than half of the first payment and leave just over $641,000 of the first allotment for other COVID-related expenses. The City will have four years to use the funds on eligible expenses.”

Keene’s proposed 2021-22 budget also includes a number of staffing changes. One position each would be eliminated in the assessing and community development departments, and a part-time planning technician position in the community development department would be made full time to account for the loss of an administrative position in that department. Meanwhile, an additional maintenance aide position is proposed for the city’s parks and recreation department, which “desperately needs assistance maintaining city grounds,” Dragon wrote in her message.

The spending plan also calls for $97,600 to be budgeted to hire an assistant city attorney whose primary responsibility would be to assist in fulfilling public records requests. Dragon has said that Keene receives an unusually high number of requests for a municipality of its size, and that the staff has become overwhelmed.

“The position will be located at the Police Department to provide ease of access to the records department and assist with the anticipated body-worn camera Right-To-Know requests,” Dragon said in her budget message.

Last year, Keene police tested body-worn and vehicle cameras and, though the city has decided to delay buying the equipment, Police Chief Steven Russo has expressed support for using cameras. The budget says the anticipated equipment cost is $420,000.

But Dragon said the state is considering including funding in its own budget to help municipalities acquire cameras via a 50/50 grant, and Keene is waiting to see how that plays out. The city plans to set aside unused funds from this year — including money budgeted for patrol time and funds for police positions that are currently vacant — by putting them into a separate fund that would roll forward into the coming year, Dragon said.

“This will ensure the funds are available in the upcoming FY22 year without increasing the FY22 budget,” Dragon said Thursday afternoon. “If funds then become available through the state or the federal government we will able to take advantage of those funding sources.”

The council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee is expected to make a recommendation on the budget May 27, and a public hearing is set for June 3 at 7 p.m., during the City Council’s regular meeting. The council is set to vote on the budget on June 17.

This article has been updated to correct the total budget figures.