Municipal matters

Keene Mayor George Hansel, top center, and City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, bottom right, participate in a conversation with other municipal leaders and U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., bottom left. Also shown in this screenshot from Wednesday’s videoconferenced meeting are Cheryl Lindner, top left, chief of staff for Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess; Claremont Mayor Charlene Lovett, top right; Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier, middle row, center; and Claremont City Manager Ed Morris to Grenier’s right. To Grenier’s left is Amy Slattery, of Kuster’s office.

Keene officials have concerns about the future of the city’s commercial tax base and what it might mean for residential taxpayers.

During a teleconference Wednesday with U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., mayors and managers from various Granite State municipalities addressed some of the issues their communities are facing in the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Representatives from several cities, including Keene Mayor George Hansel and City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, said they should be in good shape for the remainder of the current fiscal year, but that next year might bring some financial problems.

With many businesses having been required to temporarily shut down — and some closing permanently — during the pandemic, commercial losses have been a major concern across the board. If there are changes to the value of Keene’s commercial properties, Dragon said, homeowners may have to compensate for the drop in tax revenue.

“If we see a shift and our commercial values begin to drop, it’s going to shift to the residential sector,” Dragon said. “Which will increase the overall tax burden for our families living here.”

The purpose of Wednesday’s conference was to give municipal officials an opportunity to describe their funding needs as Congress considers a second round of COVID-19 relief money. A common thread among the officials who participated was the need for financial support both at the state and local levels.

Kuster said an aid package approved by the U.S. House — called the HEROES Act — includes funding for state and local governments that would cover both COVID-19-related expenses as well as lost revenues. She said the bill, which she described as currently “stuck in the Senate,” would include $7.5 million in assistance for Keene.

Hansel said one of his biggest concerns is that the expected budget shortfalls in Concord “will trickle down and really put pressure on us.”

For example, Dragon noted, Keene typically anticipates around $1 million from the state’s meals and rooms tax, and it’s uncertain whether that money will still come in given the significant hit restaurants and hotels have taken during the pandemic.

Hansel and Dragon also touched on a number of other issues Keene will likely face. Hansel said the city could find itself with an abundance of commercial office space that may need to be converted for different uses to keep those facilities viable.

“Some commercial space in Keene will need to be redeveloped and repurposed in order to really perform at its highest level,” he said. “A big portion of our property taxes are collected from commercial offices right now.”

He suggested looking at New Markets Tax Credits or other programs that could help renovate those properties to allow them to continue thriving. He said that last year, New England was not included in the New Markets Tax Credit Program, and this year the region did better, but didn’t receive enough to make up for what was lost last year.

“If we can come up with some programs and some support, the projects will be there that will really drive our economy forward and help us reposition for the future,” Hansel said.

Earlier this year, Hansel called for moving forward with various projects, saying they would spur economic development in Keene. The mayor’s plan — which includes the long-discussed arts corridor on Gilbo Avenue spearheaded by Monadnock Economic Development Corp., as well as a number of downtown infrastructure improvements — focuses on projects that could begin quickly, making them better candidates for grant funding.

Dragon also called for funding related to homelessness and broadband projects.

In addition, she said city officials are worried residents may struggle to make tax and utility payments, which could result in more lost revenue for the city. Many people are still out of work, she noted, and because the federal government’s $600 added unemployment benefit has expired, homeowners might struggle to come up with the funds they need to stay on top of their bills.

“Our sewer and water system is dependent upon people paying those bills,” Dragon said. “That is something that we are monitoring, but I am concerned about if we’re not able to get people back to work, if we are not able to stimulate the economy enough to offset that impact, we will start to see people not able to pay taxes and not able to pay their utility bills.”

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiaSummerson