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ConVal recount reverses outcome of budget article
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PETERBOROUGH — A recount Thursday evening in the ConVal School District showed that voters actually approved the district’s $52.6 million budget proposal, after the election-night tally last week showed the budget failing narrowly.

The recount, conducted by 36 volunteers from the district’s nine towns — Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple — showed the budget passing 1,636 to 1,629. Totals from last Tuesday’s election indicated the budget failed by four votes, with 1,621 people voting in favor and 1,625 against.

The biggest differences in the vote tallies between the election and the recount came from Greenfield and Sharon. The election-night count in Greenfield showed 94 people in favor of the budget, and 185 against, while the recount showed 104 “yes” votes and 186 “nos.” In Sharon, the margin went from 48 yes and 38 no to 54 yes and 48 no.

District Moderator Bob Edwards said he could not be certain why the overall vote total changed, but “as far as we’re concerned, these [recount results] are final.”

Volunteer counters worked in teams of four Thursday at tables spread throughout the ConVal Regional High School gymnasium in Peterborough, with one person counting ballots by hand, another tallying the totals, and two people observing them. Overhead document cameras captured the count in progress, which was broadcast on TVs throughout the gym. The result of the recount did not draw any objections from the roughly 20 district residents, including ConVal School Board members, who observed the approximately two-hour process.

Edwards added that any registered voter in the district now has five days to file an appeal of the recount, both with the district and in N.H. Superior Court. Ten district voters requested the recount.

If ConVal’s $52,583,177 budget proposal did fail, a default budget of $51,065,984 would have been set to take effect. The rest of ConVal’s warrant passed easily at the polls last Tuesday.

The budget that did pass, according to the recount, is $1,954,610, or 4 percent, higher than the current year’s budget, an increase largely attributed to the addition of several staff members, according to the district’s annual report. Additionally, the district faces mandatory cost increases for contributions to the state’s retirement system, school board member Jim Fredrickson of Sharon, who chairs the board’s budget and property committee, said at the district’s deliberative session last month.

The 13-member school board is scheduled to meet tonight at 6 p.m. via Zoom to discuss next steps for the budget.

“In theory, now, we could go ahead with the budget as proposed, or we could make modifications to what some of those proposals were,” board Chairman Tim Theberge of Hancock said after the recount Thursday. “That’ll be the discussion we have [Friday] night.”

Specifically, Theberge said he expects the board to revisit the district’s proposal to appropriate $780,000 to staff a fully remote K-8 school as an option to families next year. Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders said at the district’s deliberative session that some students and families have benefited from remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had some students who were very successful, and we had some parents who want to access school this way moving forward,” Rizzo Saunders said at the Feb. 3 meeting. “While some parents really disliked it, we know that some of our students benefited, and this is the way that they want to move forward.”

The idea also sparked discussion at the school board’s Jan. 19 meeting, with four members voting to reconsider including the proposal in the budget, according to minutes of that meeting. But with eight board members voting against the motion to reconsider, the proposal stayed in the budget.

Theberge said the proposed fully remote school was the budget item that generated the most feedback from voters who contacted board members.

“In theory, the voters have spoken, again, if you will, and so now we could leave that in, we could not leave that in,” he said. “I think that’s going to be a tough decision by the board. It’s a 50-50 split, essentially, of the voters. So we’ll have to go from there and figure that out.”

Theberge added that he expects the board to vote tonight on the next steps for the district’s budget.

“Now, that vote could be we’re actually not ready to do anything, and we’ll deal with it on April 6, at what would have been our next regularly scheduled meeting,” he said. “But we may also decide to make some decisions, so we’ll see.”

The meeting will include time for public comment, Theberge said. For information on how to access the meeting, visit schoolboard.convalsd.net.

Biden says US will meet goal of 100 million COVID-19 shots Friday — ‘weeks ahead of schedule’
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The U.S. will vaccinate its 100 millionth resident against COVID-19 on Friday, meeting the momentous benchmark more than a month ahead of schedule, according to President Joe Biden.

Biden announced the expected timeline for the 100 millionth shot while providing an update Thursday on his administration’s effort to vaccinate the nation out of the deadly pandemic.

“I am proud to announce that tomorrow, 58 days into our administration, we will have met my goal of administering 100 million shots to our fellow Americans. That’s weeks ahead of schedule,” said Biden, who upon taking office set a goal of immunizing 100 million Americans within his first 100 days as president.

He added, “But that’s just the floor. We will not stop until we beat this pandemic.”

The president credited the faster-than-expected pace of vaccinations to a surge in production of the Pfizer and Moderna shots, as well as the recent authorization of the Johnson & Johnson candidate.

The J&J shot, which, unlike Moderna and Pfizer, only requires one dose for efficacy, is being manufactured with the help of a fourth pharmaceutical company, Merck, which abandoned its own plan for a vaccine to help speed up production.

With manufacturing ramping up, the White House also announced Thursday it is finalizing a plan for the U.S. to ship 4 million doses of a fourth vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca, to Mexico and Canada.

Tens of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca candidate have been stockpiled in the U.S., even though it’s still awaiting authorization from federal regulators.

Allied nations like Mexico have been pressing the U.S. for months to share some of its vaccine supplies, but the Biden administration initially rebuffed the requests, causing some tension.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the export of the AstraZeneca vaccine doses won’t interfere with the Biden administration’s expectation of having enough vaccine supply for every American adult by the end of May.

On a sobering note, Biden said it remains crucial that Americans continue to take public health precautions as COVID-19 continues to kill hundreds of people in the U.S. every day.

“This is a time for optimism, but it’s not a time for relaxation,” he said. “I need all of you to do your part: Wash your hands and stay socially distanced, and keep masking up.”

Sununu: Vaccine will be available for all N.H. adults in a matter of weeks

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu says vaccine eligibility for all adults in New Hampshire is only weeks away.

Those who work in schools and child-care facilities are getting vaccinated now. Registration will open up to people who are 50 and older next week, on March 22.

“I think some folks will be registering on the 22nd and getting their vaccine like the 22nd or 23rd,” Sununu said at a press conference Thursday. “We’re not waiting weeks away here. Folks can register and get the vaccine almost immediately.”

Sununu didn’t have an exact date for when the general population will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Registration is now happening on VINI, the state’s new system for vaccine appointments, which rolled out Wednesday.

New Hampshire pension fund liability balloons in two years, with brunt of cost on taxpayers

Last year, Concord boosted the salaries of its police department by nearly $1 million above and beyond contractual raises.

Those pay increases carried a hidden cost through rising contribution rates to the New Hampshire Retirement System, which will compound city spending even higher.

Before the raises, the city paid its officers and other police employees about $8 million in salary, overtime and other payouts. On top of that amount, Concord paid more than $2 million on behalf of police employees into the retirement system.

This July, those contributions — based on higher wages in the city’s police force and rising retirement rates — will increase by another $750,000, maybe more.

The reason for the rising costs is tied to the amount of debt taken on by New Hampshire’s retirement system, which continues to grow by about 20 percent in just three years.

It’s taxpayers who are paying the price.

In the last decade, contributions to the retirement system by municipal employers have ballooned, going up 66 percent for teachers and 45 percent for police. Starting in fiscal year 2022 — July 1 —the contributions are going up again by another 20 percent.

Paying back the debt

Back in 2018, the state passed a law requiring the retirement system to fully pay off its unfunded liability in 20 years, with an end date of 2039. At that point, the debt was just over $5 billion.

But three years later, despite more money being paid into the system by municipalities, the debt has already increased by another billion dollars. As of the close of state fiscal year 2020 last June, New Hampshire’s unfunded liability rested at $6.04 billion, the last year for which the exact debt number has been released.

The upshot: The state is now following a new plan to pay down the extra billion dollars, and a new 20-year amortization deadline for that debt. It’s a cycle that will continue for as long as new debt is added. “Everything’s on a two-year cycle because of the state budget, basically,” said Marty Karlon, public information officer at the N.H. Retirement System.

For towns, cities and school districts, it means passing on those cost in the form of increased property taxes. “It’s just getting more and more expensive,” Boscawen Town Administrator Alan Hardy said after the town budget was passed by voters last week.

“Those are big issues that we need to solve at the state level,” Hardy said. “They just tell us and we have to pay it. The towns can’t continue to be where the expenses get passed down to.”

The newly increased rates are intended to help bring both of those debt payment plans under control on time, Karlon said.

“It will ultimately get paid down,” Karlon said. “But it’s one of those ‘pay me now or pay me later.’ The less money that comes in now, the more it’s going to cost down the line. The cost compounds, and interest goes up.”

Karlon said the goal of the Retirement System’s Board of Trustees is to keep the rates level for the next 18 to 20 years, not continue to raise them year after year.

“We’re sensitive to employer pressures but the board needs to do its fiduciary (duties) to make sure the plan is properly funded,” Karlon said. “To ignore that to try to pretend that we can make more than we think we can, it would end up costing more in the long run.”

While employee contributions have remained flat for the last decade, contributions from towns, cities and school districts have steadily increased.

“All of the unfunded payments are coming through employer contributions,” Karlon said. “It’s the way the plan was designed… What doesn’t come in from the investment side is put into the employer contribution.”

He continued: “It’s like trying to fill a swimming pool with three different hoses. The member contributions is one stream of water going in there, and that’s just constant. The other two hoses, to the extent that the investment hose is flowing slower or faster, that’s going to impact how much is coming from the employers.”

Much of the retirement system’s growing debt comes from a miscalculation in just how much the retirement system fund was going to earn.

An audit commissioned by the Retirement System in 2019 found that the board had overestimated the rate of investment return in the coming years. Rather than a 7.25 percent rate of return, the return is now expected to be between 6.25 percent to 7.0 percent. For planning purposes, the system has now settled on 6.75 percent as a target assumption.

“We expect to make less money in investments over the next 20 to 30 years than we did previously,” Karlon said. Those lowered expectations and missed targets are the primary driver of the extra billion dollars in liability, he added.

Another factor driving up municipal contribution rates is rising life expectancy, which necessitates increasing the balance available in the fund to cover the extra years, Karlon said.

Nowhere is that more evident that Type 2 employees, namely police officers and firefighters.

These employees are eligible to retire with a full pension after as little as 20 years of service, meaning they collect pensions decades longer than other government employees. Newer employees hired in the last 10 years must work a minimum of 25 years and be at least 52 years old before collecting a full pension.

In addition, police and fire are paid large amounts of overtime, which gets factored into their retirement calculations, leading to higher pensions compared to teachers, who must work more years before collecting a full pension and have little to no ability to earn overtime.

For example, an analysis of the highest payouts to retired workers shows that 93 percent of the retirees who collected a pension greater than $100,000 in 2020 were police officers and firefighters. In raw numbers, of the 119 retirees who were paid a pension above $100,000, 66 were former police officers, 45 were firefighters, while town, state and school employees totaled eight.

In other words, the highest pension amounts are paid to employees who will collect those benefits for years longer than other employees.

No more state contributions

But there’s another hose in the swimming pool that has been dormant for years: the state of New Hampshire. Since its creation in 1967, New Hampshire’s retirement system had been buoyed by significant state contributions for decades — beginning at 40 percent and later decreasing to 35 percent.

But the economic recession and subsequent decisions by lawmakers changed that. In 2009, lawmakers began a plan to gradually decrease the state’s share; in 2011 they eliminated it altogether.

Now, the state contributes nothing to the retirement system beyond the contributions it owes for its own state employees.

“There hasn’t been any support in the Legislature to pick up extra costs,” Karlon noted.

Instead, all contributors — towns, cities, and the state alike — are bridging the gap on their own.

For towns, the situation creates unsavory budget options. Without control over the amount they must contribute or the benefit levels for their employees — an amount dictated by the system — they only have two options: increase their budgets to account for the increased costs, or balance their budgets by reducing programs and positions to account for the growing amount they must pay in.

The latter option is much less palatable. “If (towns are) shedding positions or freezing salaries, they’re going to pay less in retirement as a result of that, but that results in recruitment and retention issues that they have to balance,” Karlon said.

Through the years, there have been attempts to change that. This year, the House took up a bill that would require the state to pick up the cost of 5 percent of contributions for teachers, firefighters and police officers. But that bill, House Bill 274, was killed on the House floor by House Republicans in late February, 189-168, with 18 Republicans siding with Democrats.

A similar bill still progressing through the Senate, Senate Bill 72, would be even more generous, dedicating 15 percent from the state for the same employee categories. That bill is awaiting a committee vote after a hearing, but opposition on the Republican side could be insurmountable.

Proponents of restoring the state’s share, like Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess, a Democrat, argue that the state’s original 40 percent contribution was a key reason the retirement system was able to get off the ground initially.

“Probably you wouldn’t have the cities and towns in the state pension system had that promise not been made,” he said during a Senate hearing Jan. 28. “Now that promise has been broken, and cities and towns are the victim of that broken promise.”

But opponents argue that restoring all or even some of the state’s contribution would remove accountability from cities and towns, and incentivize towns to unwisely expand employee pay and benefits.

“The intention of this of course is to reduce local employers’ costs to participate in the retirement system,” said Neal Kurk, a former House representative and former chairman of the House Finance Committee at a Senate hearing. “However, whether the reduced costs to municipalities would transfer into lower property taxes or larger local budgets, is unknowable.”

The move was not right for the current reality, Kurk added.

“Today I think it’s imprudent to add a very expensive new program in tight financial times,” he said.

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Andrew Madison elected to fill Keene City Council vacancy
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The Keene City Council has elected Andrew Madison to fill the Ward 3 seat vacated in early February by former Councilor Terry Clark, whose term was set to expire this year.

Councilors voted 9-5 to elect Madison over Bryan Lake during their meeting Thursday night. Madison was sworn in immediately following the vote, which was held via Zoom, making him the first city official to take their oath virtually.

“Community service is a way of life in this town,” Madison told the council, “and that’s what drove me to want to apply for this position.”

He and Lake were the only two residents to throw their hats in the ring for the seat during a filing period that ran from Feb. 24 to March 9. Each candidate was given five minutes to speak to the council about their qualifications and background, and councilors voted immediately thereafter. Councilors were not permitted to ask questions.

Ward 3 covers the north-central portion of the city, extending up to the Surry border, with its western boundary running along Old Walpole Road and its southernmost part coming to a point at Central Square. Each of the city’s five wards has two councilors, with five councilors elected to serve the community at large. Ward 3’s other councilor is Michael Giacomo.

Madison, 35, has lived in Keene’s third ward for the past seven years and works as an environmental scientist for the N.H. Department of Environmental Services. He’s also a member of the city’s conservation commission and of the Hundred Nights board of directors. He holds a master’s degree in environmental science from Indiana University and a bachelor’s degree in geography from Salem State University in Massachusetts.

He said he decided to run for the council after being approached by several people who thought he’d be a good fit for the job. He said he’s driven by a passion for public service and a desire to make Keene a better place.

In a bio submitted to the city as part of his application, Madison said his top priorities on the council would include working to implement the city’s recently passed renewable-energy plan, supporting outdoor recreation and working to increase civic participation.

“I think we’ve all sat through different hearings, different public events, and seen one or two people in the audience,” he said. “Sometimes even zero people in the audience. And I think that’s frustrating, that’s disappointing.”

Clark, who is also a Cheshire County commissioner, said in his resignation letter that he left the council to focus more on his county duties. But he also later acknowledged that a complaint filed against him by Councilor Michael Remy — who raised questions about Clark recording part of a nonpublic session between councilors and the city attorney — contributed to his decision to step down.

New Hampshire is a two-party consent state, which means all people involved in a conversation must agree to being recorded for the recording to be made legally. Clark said it was an honest mistake and that his intention was just to record the meeting, which was held over Zoom, so he could recall the information, if needed, at a later date.

Lake, an analyst for C&S Wholesale Grocers and life-long Keene resident, had a number of similar goals to Madison’s. Prior to Thursday’s vote, Lake, 30, told the council he was interested in fostering more civic engagement and working to preserve the city’s outdoor assets. He also said he’s interested in finding ways to support small businesses.

He received votes from Councilors Kate Bosley, Randy Filiault, Mitch Greenwald, Gladys Johnsen and Philip Jones. The remaining councilors all voted for Madison.

“At the end of the day, all I’m hoping to do is put the best interests of Ward 3 first,” Madison said, “to be a rational, independent, nonpartisan and thoughtful voice for Ward 3.”