The setbacks started with remote learning. Suddenly, Renee Tonge’s daughter was home all the time, and the Manchester resident had to make drastic adjustments to help her.
Tonge quit her job to focus on her children. She struggled to find child care for her younger son. She fell behind on rent, month by month, until the debt she owed surged past $10,000. Eventually, she received the eviction notice.
That might have been the end for Tonge’s hopes of holding onto her apartment. But she applied to a state program, funded by federal money, that assists renters who have fallen behind — even by thousands of dollars. And on Friday, standing outside the Manchester Circuit Court, she discovered a different ending.
All $10,000 in back rent was being repaid to her landlord through a state aid agency, using money dedicated to New Hampshire from a congressional COVID-19 stimulus package.
“They said that she’s gonna call them as soon as I left and let them know that I was all set,” Tonge said, referring to aid workers from the agency. “They are gonna tear up any notices because they should be getting a check within the week.”
Tonge was the beneficiary of a $200 million rental relief program that housing advocates have been trying to tell tenants about for months. But she was also an early success story of a new effort by the state’s court system to connect tenants with financial aid and stop evictions at the last possible minute.
A week after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a moratorium that had helped prevent evictions, aid organizations in New Hampshire are trying an expedited, in-person approach this month.
In a partnership with Southern New Hampshire Services, the agency that administers rental relief aid for the Manchester area, the Manchester Circuit Court hosted a special conference room where tenants facing eviction proceedings could get their rental relief applications fast-tracked to completion.
Throughout the day Friday, landlords and tenants trickled into the court to face their eviction hearing. Each time, the clerk and judge asked whether they had applied for rental relief to make up for past and future rent. Those who were interested entered a side room staffed by Southern New Hampshire Services, who guided the tenant through the verification process.
The effort typically lasted 10 minutes. By the end, many of the parties had taken proactive steps that allowed the judge to put the eviction on hold — or waive it entirely.
Some parties didn’t have eviction proceedings to attend, but they came into the courthouse anyway, taking the opportunity to get their relief application updated or expedited.
And many of the applications were prompted by landlords, happy that the in-person, immediate assistance could help convince some tenants to sign off on the applications.
“The approach today has been extremely proactive,” said Sean Curran, an eviction attorney who represents landlords. Throughout the day Friday, Curran used the new process to help clients resolve impasses that could have otherwise taken weeks.
“My experience and my clients’ experience with it today was fantastic,” he said. “A tenant who had not gotten the application completed was able to do the new application from the start, and we got through it in 10 minutes.”
For Tonge, the assistance came at a perfect moment. With schools reopening in person this fall, she can re-enter the workforce and start to pay rent on her own.
Without the money, “I’d be homeless, carless, jobless,” she said. With it, she’d hit a reset button.
New Hampshire’s rental relief program has existed since March and carries tangible benefits. Tenants and landlords can apply to have federal funds replace up to 15 months of rent owed, either in the past or the future. The money — which is expected to last at least through 2022 — usually is transferred directly to landlords, giving them an incentive to seek tenant cooperation.
But the program has been slow to distribute aid to its applicants, with many waiting four to six weeks for money to be approved. And housing attorneys say many tenants and landlords are still unaware of it.
The new in-person partnership is limited, designed in its first iteration to take place Sept. 2, 3, and 7. And with just a few dozen cases moving through the Manchester system on those days, the rental relief applications approved in the courthouse represent a small fraction of the overall statewide backlog.
But the in-person system provided instant relief for both landlords and tenants, court officials said, and helped many renters stave off painful outcomes.
“The court strongly encourages landlords and tenants to work together and apply online for assistance before an eviction case is even filed, but we know that some litigants face barriers to completing an online application,” Administrative Judge David King said in a statement. “Providing in-person assistance at our busiest courthouse as we hear cases affected by the moratorium will help ensure that as many landlords and tenants as possible can access the assistance they need.”
Housing experts and attorneys expect New Hampshire’s eviction caseload to increase in the coming weeks, following the abrupt end of the eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Anticipating a spike, court officials are hoping to expand Manchester’s in-person model to other New Hampshire courts and increase the number of days it’s available.
But some said there are still cracks in the current system of distributing aid.
Landlords have expressed concern that some tenants are refusing to help out with applying for the aid. Without tenant cooperation, the landlord cannot reclaim their money and the eviction — which carries a permanent mark on the tenant’s record — can proceed.
“I have a few tenants, and I have one, two, three, four that are not paying,” said Kim Collins. One of her tenants is 13 months behind, she said. Collins urged him to get in touch with the local Community Action Program, Southern New Hampshire Services.
After talking with an aid worker, that tenant refused to participate.
It was a doubly confounding decision, she said. “One, they don’t help me if they don’t do it. Two, they’re going to get evicted because they didn’t show up.”
Meanwhile, for some tenants who did pursue the money Friday, the effort did not always guarantee that their evictions would be extinguished.
For Jessica Haynes, the approval of the rental relief money — nearly $5,000 in total — did not prevent the judge from approving the eviction order. But it did allow the postponement of its effective date by a month, allowing her extra time to find a new place. “With a sky-high rental market, Haynes is not sure she’ll be successful.
“It’s really, really bad out there,” she said.
Riuben, a Manchester native who declined to give his last name, was in a more uncertain position. The CAP agency employees at the court had assured him that his application would be approved, but he didn’t have confirmation that the eviction was called off.
“We’ll see if my landlord accepts it or not,” he said.
Still, he’s happy he showed up to the court Friday. “I’ve been home stressing out, wondering if I’m going to be accepted. (Today) I realized I’m eligible and accepted.”
“I think it’s awesome for people that need help,” he added, speaking of the program. “It’s a lot of people out there that are hurting right now.”
PETERBOROUGH — Monadnock Community Hospital will require COVID-19 vaccination among its employees by November, the hospital announced Wednesday.
The Peterborough hospital, which had previously said it would adopt such a requirement but hadn’t yet specified a date, is the third and last in the area to do so.
“In light of our community’s relatively low COVID-19 vaccination rate and a surge in infections from the Delta variant, employee vaccinations against COVID-19 are critical to ensure safe environments of care for our staff and for our patients,” Cynthia McGuire, president and CEO of Monadnock Community Hospital, said in a news release Wednesday announcing the mandate.
The release was emailed to The Sentinel in response to multiple requests.
In communities surrounding the hospital, vaccination rates vary. In Dublin and Peterborough, for example, the rates of full immunization are fairly high, at 62.2 and 58.2 percent, respectively, according to data as of Tuesday from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services. That compares to 54.1 percent statewide.
But in towns like Rindge and Jaffrey, state data show the rates are much lower, at 34.9 and 44.4 percent.
All Monadnock Community Hospital staff and service providers must be fully vaccinated against the viral disease by Nov. 1, according to the release, which says employees may request a religious or medical exemption.
Exemptions will also be reviewed on a case-by-case basis for staff who are pregnant or breastfeeding, according to the release, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed all three COVID-19 vaccines — by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — safe for those populations.
About 85 percent of the hospital’s approximately 500 employees are already vaccinated, the release says.
Monadnock Community Hospital’s announcement comes weeks after other area hospitals implemented their own vaccination mandates.
Starting Sept. 30, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health employees — including those who work at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene — are required to get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a news release last month from the health system.
And across the river, where Vermont continues to lead the country in vaccination rates, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital employees are required to get inoculated by Oct. 1, the hospital announced last month.
Religious and medical reasons are the only exemptions allowed, officials from both hospitals said previously, and otherwise an employee who doesn’t get vaccinated will be subject to termination.
Genesis Healthcare — a Pennsylvania-based nursing home company with area locations in Keene, Winchester and Peterborough — also implemented its own mandate last month.
Other local nursing homes have not yet followed suit, though they will most likely be forced to under a new federal requirement.
President Joe Biden announced last month that nursing homes and long-term care facilities must require all workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of Medicare and Medicaid funding. The deadline is not yet clear, according to various news reports about the announcement.
CONCORD — The New Hampshire State House is beginning to operate a lot like it did before COVID-19.
Committees are back to meeting in person. Hallways are filling with lobbyists and interest groups. And while masks are no longer required in the building, and some committee members and attendees are choosing not to wear them, Speaker Sherman Packard has recommended their use.
“I’d like to remind everyone that while face coverings are not mandated within the State House and Legislative Office Building, you should strongly consider wearing one,” Packard said in a letter to House members published in this week’s legislative calendar. “I’d also ask all who enter our buildings to act with courtesy and respect the personal decisions individuals have made regarding mask use.”
Among the temporary COVID-19 measures that are no longer being practiced are remote meetings. Throughout 2020 and the first half of 2021, House committees ran virtual Zoom meetings in which lawmakers who chose not to appear in the committee rooms in person could participate with a video screen from afar. Members of the public could watch live via Zoom or a YouTube video link that would remain available online to watch again in the future.
Since the Legislature concluded its session in June with the passage of the budget, that Zoom option has disappeared. Democrats have objected, arguing that COVID-19 remains a threat and that lawmakers, lobbyists, and members of the public should have the option to engage remotely.
“It’s unfortunate that the process we had for a year and a half that allowed for remote participation — that the speaker has decided to do away with that,” House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing said in an interview with WMUR Tuesday. “We think it should be reinstated. … The idea that people are congregating in enclosed rooms not being required to wear masks — it puts politics before public health.”
Representatives for the speaker’s office say discussions are underway to restore a live-streaming option that would allow the public to view committee meetings from afar — but would still require testimony and committee participation to be done in person.
In the meantime, Packard and other House Republicans say the Zoom meetings are not necessary due to ventilation in the State House complex, and they argue that the virtual approach has weakened the power of in-person legislating.
“You build up relationships when you’re sitting beside someone in a committee room, when you’re going out to lunch and having lunch with them,” Packard said in his own WMUR interview.
Now, as fall gets underway, House and Senate lawmakers are occupied with the interim work between the 2021 sessions and the 2022 session: special study committees and commissions ordered by legislation, and regular committee meetings to workshop bills that were retained to the following year.
And the New Hampshire Executive Council, the five-member elected body that forms part of the executive branch, continues to meet every two weeks.
With the Zoom meetings gone, House committee hearings are no longer being captured and broadcast online; they’re also no longer being uploaded to YouTube for posterity. In order to observe meetings, members of the public must attend in person.
There are two exceptions. The Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules — a committee filled with both senators and representatives — recently held a meeting that was broadcast to YouTube in real time. And the House Redistricting Committee has also broadcast its meetings online. Neither committee has allowed lawmakers or members of the public to testify or contribute remotely; the broadcasts are only for viewing.
However, officials in the speaker’s office and Republican House leadership are discussing the feasibility of bringing back a live-streaming option to all House committees, House Director of Communications Jennifer Tramp said Wednesday. Those discussions are preliminary and there is no timeline presently, Tramp said.
Like the House, the Senate has returned to regular operations, including in-person meetings with optional mask usage. Unlike the House, the Senate has traditionally carried out audio recordings of its regular committee meetings during the January-to-June session. Those recordings are later turned into a hearing report assembled by the legislative aide assigned to that committee.
During the fall, when neither chamber is in session, Senate committee meetings on legislation will not be recorded. But some legislative study committees, which can comprise House and Senate members, may be recorded. The decision to do so is at the discretion of the chairperson of the committee.
N.H. Executive Council
After a year of meeting over the telephone, the New Hampshire Executive Council has returned to in-person meetings in its chamber at the State House — or in venues across the state during its traditional summer series of meetings on the road.
The chamber does not offer live, remote access to its meetings. But it does provide an audio recording of the meetings, uploaded after the event. Those recordings can be accessed on the “Meetings” page of the Executive Council website, at the link titled “Agenda, Audio of Meeting, Quick Results, Nominations, and Confirmations.”
With the filing period for Keene’s municipal elections nearly over, the 2021 races for mayor and City Council are taking shape. And ahead of November’s general election, there will be at least one primary race on the ballot next month.
The period for filing by declaration ended Tuesday, and the period for filing by petition, in which candidates avoid a fee by gathering signatures from registered voters, ends Friday. As of Wednesday afternoon, three people had filed to run for mayor, two for Ward 2 councilor and eight for one of five open councilor at-large positions. Meanwhile, those who filed for council seats in Wards 1, 3, 4 and 5 are so far running unopposed.
The only primary race on tap at this point for Oct. 5 is the mayoral contest, with three candidates that will need to be whittled down to two. Incumbent Mayor George Hansel filed to run for another two-year term Tuesday and faces challenges from Mark J. Zuchowski, a retired engineer who filed last week, and Aria DiMezzo, who also filed on Tuesday.
In an interview with The Sentinel last week, Zuchowski said he wants to serve as mayor to give a voice to the people of Keene and also address veterans’ issues and the spread of misinformation, particularly around the pandemic. During an address at city hall Tuesday, Hansel said if he wins another term, he’d like to focus on needs like infrastructure updates and increasing the stock of affordable housing in the area.
DiMezzo made national news last year when, as a self-described “transsexual anarchist Satanist,” she won the uncontested Republican primary in the Cheshire County sheriff’s race but later lost to Democratic incumbent Eli Rivera.
DiMezzo, 34, said Wednesday that running for office is something she does for fun but noted that she’d like to use the campaign as a way to bring attention to issues that are important to her.
Some of these include enhancing police accountability and working to prevent overreach by the federal government. She also pointed to Keene’s high property taxes, saying she’d like to go beyond just lowering them. Paying property taxes makes homeowners “glorified renters,” DiMezzo said. “If you don’t pay the taxes, then the city or the state takes your house.”
DiMezzo is facing multiple charges stemming from what federal prosecutors describe as an unlicensed scheme to sell cryptocurrency.
In the Ward 2 race for City Council, longtime incumbent Councilor Mitch Greenwald, of Greenwald Realty Associates, will face a challenge from Ryan Clancy, a Portland, Maine, native who works as the audience services manager at The Colonial Performing Arts Center.
However, the remaining ward councilor positions are so far uncontested. Ward 1 Councilor Janis Manwaring has announced that she will not seek re-election, and the only person to file to run for that seat to date this cycle is Robert Crowell.
Crowell, a 69-year-old lifelong resident of Keene, is a retired city fire captain who now works on call for the Troy Fire Department. If elected, he said some of his priorities would be continuing the city’s work to address climate change, increasing affordable housing options and lowering taxes, which he said would require attracting more business to Keene.
“The biggest thing right now is lowering the taxes,” he said. “And to do that, we need to get business and industry in here.” He added that the city should rethink the way it regulates businesses to make the area more attractive to companies looking to move here.
The Ward 3 councilor races are a bit unique this year, as both Ward 3 seats were vacated earlier in 2021. In February, then-Councilor Terry Clark stepped down from the role, and the council appointed Andrew Madison to take his place.
Madison is running to retain that seat, but in July, then-Councilor Mike Giacomo resigned his Ward 3 seat as well, after moving to a home on Hurricane Road. Bryan Lake, who was defeated by Madison in the appointment for Clark’s seat, has filed to run for Giacomo’s seat instead.
He will run in a special council election set to take place next week where councilors will choose an interim Ward 3 councilor. If he’s appointed, Lake will run again in the fall to keep the seat.
In Wards 4 and 5, incumbents Catherine Workman and Philip Jones are seeking re-election, but no one has filed to challenge them.
Meanwhile, the race for five councilor at-large positions has a full slate of candidates, though not yet the 11 needed for a primary. Four incumbents — Councilors Kate Bosley, Bettina Chadbourne, Randy Filiault and Michael Remy — are all seeking re-election, while Councilor Stephen Hooper has said he does not plan to run again.
Challengers in the councilor at-large race include Ian Freeman, Giacomo, Jodi Newell and Boston Parisi.
In a previous interview with The Sentinel, Giacomo, who was unsure at the time of his resignation whether he’d run again, said he decided to enter the race after taking some time to consider. If given a chance to return to the council, Giacomo said he’d like to focus on the city’s ongoing efforts to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Newell, a Massachusetts native who has lived in Keene for over five years, where she's served on the board for Cheshire TV, said that she’s long been involved in politics on the national and state levels, but decided it was time to see how she could give back at the local level.
For years, Newell said she has been an advocate for those struggling with addiction, after losing a loved one to a drug overdose 13 years ago. She’s also said she's been a vocal advocate for transparency in campaign finance.
Parisi was not reachable for comment.
Freeman, 41, is a well-known libertarian activist and currently on home confinement after being charged in connection with the same cryptocurrency exchange as DiMezzo. Freeman’s charges include money laundering and operating a continuing financial crimes enterprise.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Freeman said he was required to get permission before leaving his home to file for office and that he is able to seek and serve in a government position unless he is convicted. He said he expects his trial to begin in May.
Among his priorities Freeman listed returning the city’s BearCat, an armored vehicle used by the Keene Police Department, to its manufacturer. The city received a federal grant to purchase the machine in 2012, drawing controversy as many people questioned why the department would need a military-style vehicle.
Freeman also advocated for cutting down police enforcement of what he described as “prohibitions” in Keene, saying he’d like to see the city “make enforcement of the war on drugs and any other victimless crimes the lowest police priority.” He also said he’s in favor of reducing city bureaucracy — including eliminating Keene’s parking department — and exploring the idea of making property taxes voluntary and allowing people to pay into city programs of their choice.
Those who are interested in filing to run in Keene’s municipal elections can continue to do so by petition only through Friday. Candidates filing by petition need to collect signatures from 50 registered Keene voters.
Keene’s primary election is scheduled for Oct. 5, and the general election will be Nov. 2.
In addition to the council and mayor races, several people have filed to run for various elections-officer positions.
This story has been updated with comments from Jodi Newell after The Sentinel previously used incorrect contact information in attempts to reach her.