Job fair seeks workers for North Country businesses

By Barbara Tetreault
BERLIN — Companies spanning the spectrum from manufacturing and metal fabrication to banking and hospitality will be seeking applicants at a Job and Resource Fair being presented Monday, Oct. 23 by N.H. Employment Security. The job fair is running from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Salvation Army building at 15 Cole Street.
With the latest unemployment rate in Coos County at 3.1 percent, demand for workers is strong.
“It’s a job seeker’s market,” said Mark Belanger, manager of the Employment Security office in Berlin.
Belanger said there are lots of opportunities for people who want to upgrade their job options or are interested in re-entering the workforce. Available are full and part time jobs as well as year-around and seasonal positions.
Also available will be information on apprenticeships, vocational training, job training and education.
"We welcome the N.H. Employment Security Office Job Fair to the North Country. This is a great opportunity for the business, government and non-profit communities to interview potential employees for job placement. It further allows the vendors to explain their great job and training opportunities to people looking for work. The job fair is a great time to interact and ask questions to vendors about the job market, application process and potential growth within their companies," said Executive Councilor Joseph Kenney.
Among the companies scheduled to attend are Gorham Paper and Tissue, Kheops International, Mountain View Grand Resort, N.H. Department of Transportation, Northway Bank, Omni Mount Washington Hotel, Berlin Police Department, Federal Correctional Institute of Berlin, NSA Industries, Wild Cat Ski Resort, Deflex Innovations, NESCO Resource, Pak Solutions, N.H. Department of Corrections, Town and Country Inn and Resort, Black Mountain Ski Resort, Cherry Pond Designs, and A.V. Home Care Services.
The employment situation in Coos County has changed dramatically over the past decade as the region has adjusted from the mill closings and the national recession.
Belanger noted that back in 2003 the region was focused on future workforce development, anticipating that as the baby boomers hit retirement age there would be a shortage of replacement workers.
The focus shifted dramatically when the local mills along with Isaacson Structural Steel, Car Freshner and the Balsams Resort closed. The unemployment rate hit double digits and economy development officials focused on attracting jobs for unemployed workers.
Belanger said now his agency is working to guide businesses on how to attract workers. Companies are also looking at untapped potential workers such as retirees or those on disability.

No increase in Berlin's tax rate

City Council Approves Tax Rate
By Martha Creegan

When some things don’t change, it is good news. That’s the case with this year’s tax rate of $39.19 per $1,000 of valuation. No increase over last year. Even more good news for the city is that it is in very good financial shape.
“We are paying our bills, completing the Rte. 16 project, and the revenue from biomass and wind power will be increasing,” said City Manager James Wheeler. “It all feels pretty good.”
Not only has the city kept the tax rate down, but also it has been able to maintain a comfortable amount in the unassigned fund balance, an emergency-case reserve account. The state Department of Revenue Administration requires that a minimum of 5 percent be kept in reserve. The city has a reserve balance of $1.7 million, which amounts to 7.9 percent.
“This is very healthy,” said Mayor Paul Grenier. “This is as high as I have seen it in the last six or seven years.”
A potential reduction in the state’s financial support for local education and the challenge presented by the recent low-priced valuation placed on the Smith Hydro plant could dig into that rainy day reserve account. Eversource has agreed to sell all its power plants as it completes deregulation in the state. 
At Monday night’s meeting Wheeler presented the city council with a worst-case scenario of the impact on revenue of the Smith Hydro sale. Smith Hydro is currently valued by the city at just over $56 million. The sale price came in at about $25 million. The revenue drop based on the difference between current valuation and the sale price would be approximately $1.1 million at today’s tax rate of $39.19. However, Wheeler warned the council that nothing is final yet. There is more information that is not yet available, he said. Grenier agreed. Furthermore, the N.H. Public Utilities Commission must still approve the proposed purchase agreements.
“Don’t read too much into this,” said Grenier. “There is still a lot to be done.” Grenier is optimistic that the sale will ultimately have a small effect on the community.
First, there is the stabilization agreement that guarantees the city will receive 100 percent of the tax difference between its value and the sale price value. In other words the $1.1 million will not be lost in the first year. The agreement guarantees to pay 66.6 percent of the difference in year two and 33.3 percent of the difference in year three.
Wheeler said there are a couple of reasons he doesn’t think this is the final picture. He pointed to recent sales of hydro facilities on the Connecticut River that support the Berlin assessment of the Smith Hydro on a sales cost to megawatt ratio. In addition he said that if the numbers don’t make sense then in the last 12 months the market has crashed and there is no indication that has occurred. The increase in alternative energy sources is not great enough to cut the value of hydro in half, he said.
Councilor Peter Higbee noted that there are parts of the agreement that could present a strong argument for a challenge. Wheeler confirmed that the city has no intention of automatically accepting this sale price as the new value.
“We are not going to automatically lower our value,” said Wheeler. “We’re going to get a qualified assessor and send them a tax bill.”
In other business the council approved the application for a Community Development Block Grant in the amount of $12,000 for the purpose of analyzing the feasibility of renovating the building at 121 Main St. to accommodate a Health and Wellness Center. A public hearing was set for Nov. 6 regarding the city’s acceptance of $35,000 from the Tillotson fund to study the development of an independent school district.
The Public Works Department is currently inspecting foundations, drains, roof drains, and sump pumps that may be draining in to the wastewater collection system. The department is currently working on the east side of the city. Once a problem is identified, the city will reroute the water to the storm drainage system. The work will be done at no cost for the homeowner. The city will ultimately save money by reducing the amount of storm water feeding into the waste water system.
The language and fee structure for disposal permits for the AVRRDD Transfer Station is under review. There has been some confusion regarding the size of the tires that can be disposed of for free with a vehicle registration. The council indicated the issue will be reviewed at its next meeting.


Gorham residents question contracting police/dispatching from Berlin

By Barbara Tetreault

GORHAM — A public hearing Monday on the proposed police and dispatching contract offered by Berlin police drew questions about coverage, actual savings and the length of the contract.
The town of Gorham this summer asked the Berlin Police Department to put together a proposal to provide Gorham with both emergency dispatching and full-time police services. The request came after residents voted at town meeting to looking at contracting those services from Berlin.
Berlin Police Chief Peter Morency told the hearing that under the four-year proposal put together by his department, Gorham will realize savings without loss of police services. In the first year, the chief said the estimated savings to Gorham by contracting police and dispatching services from Berlin are $102,928, or 10.7 percent. The figure increases to $136,946 per year for the remaining three years. In addition, Morency said the city hopes to be able to attract a total of $281,250 in grants to Gorham over the life of the contract.
Morency said Berlin collectively represents over 400 years of service in law enforcement, dispatching, administrative and training experience. He said Gorham will gain the resources of a detective division, drug investigator, accident reconstruction team, evidence technician and a DARE officer.
Berlin police will provide weekly, monthly and quarterly reports of all police calls for service, and a Gorham town official will attend Berlin Police Commission meetings to address police services.
“This is by no means a takeover. This is two communities working together to keep taxes down for the benefit of our citizens,” said Morency.
Gorham Police Chief PJ Cyr said he initially had been in favor of the concept and spoke in favor of the resolution at town meeting. But Cyr said he has changed his mind as operational details have become clearer.
“We’re early in the game. We need time to digest this,” he said.
Cyr said under the proposed contract, 82 percent of the time Gorham will have a single officer on duty. Currently, he said the town has single-officer coverage 49 percent of the time, double-officer coverage 36 percent and triple-officer coverage 15 percent.
Furthermore, Cyr said if the town decides at the end of four years that it does not want to continue the arrangement, it will have to reinstate its entire police force.
Morency said the request from the town asked for single-officer coverage except from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday when a second officer would be on duty.
He said money was not the only factor in the town’s decision to solicit a proposal from Berlin. He said Gorham has a problem retaining police officers.
Doug Gralenski said the town is at risk if it dissolves its police department and then has to start over after four years when the contract expires. He asked if there would be an evergreen clause that would automatically renew the contract after a short-term period.
Mary White said it is hard to compare the contract offered by Berlin since the coverage is different. She asked what it would cost Gorham to provide the same level of coverage specified in the request to Berlin.
Cyr noted the level of pay is higher in Berlin. But he said that is only part of the reason the town has trouble retaining trained police officers. He said there is more opportunity for career advancement, a constant schedule, and more training with the larger police force.
Cyr said two Gorham officers just completed the N.H. Police Academy, putting the seven-person department at full force. He was asked about rumors Gorham is losing another officer to Berlin and said that is true although a written resignation has not been submitted yet.
Selectman Mike Waddell said he has not made up his mind on contracting police and dispatch services from Berlin. He said he had suggested hiring an expert to do a detailed study.
Waddell said for the last year, the Gorham police force has run with five officers and has not been able to have two officers on duty. He said the retention problem is part of the motivation to look at a contract with Berlin.
Spanky Lozier said he is opposed to the idea. He said he feels Gorham needs to have control of its police department. Former Selectman Paul Robitaille also expressed opposition, saying he thinks two departments provide more back up. He pointed out that Gorham is tourist town with as many as 25,000 vehicles traveling through it on a weekend day.
“I think it’s a big mistake, safety-wise,” he said.
Abby Evankow said she thought the idea was to consolidate the two police and dispatch departments. Cyr said the proposal would eliminate five Gorham police and dispatch positions.
Bob Demers suggested the town not replace the new anticipated vacancy and go with a six-person department. He said the town could rely on mutual aid to help in emergency situations.
Gralenski said the discussion on contracting with Berlin will not help recruitment efforts.
Selectman Chair Terry Oliver said the board will hold another public hearing on the police contract before the March town meeting. In the meantime, officials indicated they will continue to discuss the proposal and work on concerns identified at the hearing.

City still analyzing Eversource's deal to sell power plants

By Barbara Tetreault

BERLIN-GORHAM – City Manager James Wheeler said the city is still analyzing Eversource’s plan to sell all its power plants including hydro facilities in Berlin and Gorham.
Eversource last week announced plans to sell its power plants to two companies for a total of $258 million as it moves forward to complete deregulation of the industry.
Wheeler noted the process has been less than transparent and the city is taking time to try and get detailed information.
“This was a complicated bidding process with pieces of the process that were and are behind the curtain. We need to understand all that has gone on, not just what is being presented to us publicly,” he said.
Hull Street Energy would purchase the nine hydroelectric plants, including Smith Hydro in Berlin and Gorham Hydro, for $83 million. Hull Street Energy is an electric industry-focused private equity firm based in Bethesda, Maryland.
For Berlin and Gorham, millions of dollars of taxable property is at stake.
The allocation of hydro assets listed in the purchase agreement puts Smith Hydro at $24.9 million, far less than the $56.5 million valuation assessed by the city. The purchase agreement allocates Gorham hydro at $2.88 million compared to the town’s valuation of $3.9 million.
Eversource's three large fossil generation facilities and two remote combustion turbines will be purchased by Granite Shore Power LLC, a newly formed 50-50 partnership between Atlas Holdings of Greenwich, CT and Castleton Commodities International (CCI) of Stamford, CT for a price of $175 million.
The process of selling the plants has been underway for more than a year with bidders submitting proposals. The auction is being overseen by J.P. Morgan Chase & Company.
The city and Gorham had fought the auction all the way to the N.H. Supreme Court, arguing the schedule did not allow participation by the municipalities.
Wheeler said the city does not know for example if there may have been a single bidder for Smith Hydro whose price for the facility was higher than the price allocated in Hull Street Energy’s proposal.
“It could be that the best deal for Eversource was the packaged deal while the best price for Smith came from a single bidder interested in operating on the Androscoggin,” he said.
Eversource said the agreements require the new owners to keep the plants in service for at least 18 months and honor an employee benefit package between Eversource and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Eversource has also agreed to provide three years of tax stabilization payments to communities if a plant is sold for less than its assessed value.
The proposed sales must still be reviewed and approved by the N.H. Public Utilities Commission as well as the federal Energy Regulatory Energy Commission.
Wheeler stressed that the city has been preparing for all eventualities. He said if there ultimately is a reduction in assessed valuation the city would use the stabilization payments to factor the impact to its budgeting and tax base. But, Wheeler emphasized it is too soon to come to that conclusion.
In a release, Hull Street Energy said it plans to acquire the facilities as part of its strategy to build a significant presence in the North American power sector. Earlier this year the firm acquired five hydroelectric facilities in Massachusetts that had once been owned by Eversource's predecessor, Northeast Utilities. With the addition of the New Hampshire Eversource fleet, Hull Street Energy's hydroelectric plant portfolio will exceed 85 MW.
"The acquisition of the Eversource hydroelectric fleet is an important step in enhancing our presence in the northeast renewable power sector," said Sarah Wright, Managing Partner at Hull Street Energy. "We look forward to partnering with the experienced workforce and other regional stakeholders as we build a leading regional renewable generation business and supply a variety of products to regional electricity customers."