About 40 people attended a hearing Thursday night in the final round of public input before the Keene City Council votes on the municipality’s budget for the upcoming year.
The crowd included city staff, representatives of local organizations requesting funding and residents interested in the process.
Proposed appropriations for 2019-20 total about $68 million and include one-time infrastructure projects, payments on existing debt, and city services, such as fire, police, water and sewer operations. The figure excludes new bonds to be issued — the budget anticipates about $4.7 million in new bonds for projects for the upcoming fiscal year, which the council will vote on separately.
The next fiscal year begins July 1.
If this budget is adopted as originally proposed, the municipal portion of the tax rate would increase by 21 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or about 1.5 percent. That would amount to an extra $42 on a home worth $200,000.
The five-member finance, organization and personnel committee recommended three amendments to that proposal last week, one of which was a minor housekeeping measure that wouldn’t affect the overall budget figure. Another would increase funding for three social services agencies by a total of $2,815, and the third amendment would shift money from a municipal project that’s being postponed to cover an unexpected cost increase for the upcoming Marlboro Street utility work.
A case for extra support
Representatives from two other social services agencies advocated for their requested funding increases at Thursday’s public hearing.
A few board members with Hundred Nights Inc. spoke about the organization’s cold-weather homeless shelter and resource center on Lamson Street. The agency is requesting $30,000 in city funding, $10,000 more than it received in this fiscal year. City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon recommended $25,000.
Chairwoman Branwen Gregory emphasized Hundred Nights’ collaboration with other local organizations, such as Southwestern Community Services and MCVP Crisis and Prevention Center. One of the goals of these partnerships is to lower barriers for entry into services, she said.
They can also work together to provide educational workshops and classes on résumé-writing, Gregory added.
Teresa Starkey, another board member, offered some figures on the shelter’s guests, which she explained are based on identification they provide, if they have any. In 2018, 207 people stayed at the shelter. Of those who had IDs, Starkey said 93 had IDs from Cheshire County, and 53 of those were from Keene.
“As an educator, my concern is that … each year we serve between 19 to 20 children at the shelter,” Starkey, who is a teacher at Fuller Elementary School, added.
Board member Doug Iosue, who is a social worker at the Cheshire County jail, said he wanted to address any possible concerns about who is allowed to stay at the shelter, particularly registered sex offenders.
Sex offenses are tiered, he explained, and high-level offenders aren’t eligible to stay at Hundred Nights. Lower-level offenders are typically on probation and have to check in regularly with an officer, he said, so an offender experiencing homelessness without any family nearby has nowhere to go.
“In other words, registered sex offenders in Cheshire County are very much stuck here. They can’t just leave,” he said.
Along with giving these offenders a place to stay warm and safe — “which they’re entitled to as human beings,” he said — Iosue argued that sheltering them is also a public service. Being at Hundred Nights means they have a regular place to check in where they can be in compliance with their probation, he noted, and the staff and provisions there ensure guests are separated as needed.
“The alternative is probably that, if they were not at Hundred Nights, they would be essentially at large in the community, possibly sleeping outside in tents or overnight at businesses that are open,” Iosue said.
After Hundred Nights’ representatives spoke, Kathy Collinsworth, executive director of the Monadnock Humane Society in West Swanzey, detailed the services her organization provides.
In its first request for city funding, the humane society asked for $20,000 from the upcoming budget. City Manager Dragon recommended $2,500 for the agency.
Of the 44 municipalities the humane society covers, Collinsworth said Keene uses 50 percent of the organization’s services.
“We do take in all strays and surrenders, so if there’s a stray animal — cat, dog — we actually took in a turtle and a chicken recently in the city of Keene,” she said, to laughter from the room.
Collinsworth said the humane society took in 246 strays and 176 owner-surrenders from Keene last year. And she explained that the organization’s building on West Swanzey Road is a designated holding facility for several situations: to quarantine a dog that’s bitten someone, for protective custody cases, and to temporarily hold pets during floods and fires.
The humane society also offers low-cost veterinary care, including rabies shots, micro-chipping, and spaying and neutering.
As part of its “human services,” she said the organization has an animal safety-net program for people fleeing domestic violence, experiencing homelessness or entering a treatment facility for substance use. Collinsworth said she got a call from the Humane Society of the U.S. “because they know that New Hampshire has a huge problem with (the) opioid crisis,” and the national organization wants to raise awareness of how humane societies are doing their part to help.
During discussion of community-funded events, Pablo I. Fleischmann of Gilsum, a Keene business owner and chairman of the Keene Music Festival, asked the council to support a funding request of $6,197 to cover expenses of holding a second Good Fortune Jewelry’s block party, during the Keene Music Festival. Good Fortune is hosting a similar block party this Saturday on Main Street in front of its store.
The music festival’s request is not recommended by the city manager in the budget proposal.
Several group leaders and event organizers stepped up to simply thank the council for its support, including representatives of the Kiwanis Club of Keene, the Clarence DeMar Marathon, Keene Swamp Bats and Arts Alive!.
Two residents commented on a proposal to combine two part-time housing inspector positions in the city’s community development department into one full-time role. (This change increased the department’s budget by about $8,000 over the current fiscal year.)
Jack Weststrate said he and his neighbors on the east side of Keene State College support the measure.
Andrew Oram, who lives on lower Main Street, agreed.
“We saw a real deterioration in our neighborhood over the past year in terms of keeping things inspected because of the difficulty filling the two part-time positions, so going to a single full-time position seems not only reasonable but prudent,” he said.
Residents can still offer written comments before the City Council votes on the proposed budget Thursday at 7 p.m. in City Hall. Written comments must include first and last name and address for the record and will be included for the council’s consideration Thursday.
Submit comments by emailing City Clerk Patricia A. Little at email@example.com or by sending her a letter to City Hall, First Floor, 3 Washington St., Keene, N.H. 03431.