By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Despite concerns raised by farmers at a public hearing last week, the state’s Executive Council voted to approve the renomination of Shawn Jasper as the commissioner of agriculture for another five years on a vote of 3-1 with one abstention.
The council agreed to allow Lori Weaver to serve as acting commissioner of Health and Human Services and tabled a request to sell the former Laconia State School to a Manchester developer for $21.5 million – all at its meeting Wednesday.
Gov. Chris Sununu and the council also participated in a swearing-in ceremony for all elected leaders in the general court, with all five council members returning for another two-year term.
It bid farewell with a standing ovation and thank you to Lori Shibinette, commissioner for the state Department of Health and Human Services, who steered the state through the COVID-19 crisis and confirmed Bill Cass as the new commissioner of the state Department of Transportation.
The council must complete all of its business for this 2020-2022 session at its next meeting on Dec. 21 and the governor cannot make any new nominations on that date.
Also, any and all tabled items must be acted upon or dropped.
Jasper’s renomination and that for a new acting commissioner for the Department of Health and Human Services Lori Weaver were on the table until Wednesday’s meeting but both were lifted and action was taken.
JASPER GETS THE NOD
Shawn Jasper of Hudson, the former Republican Speaker of the New Hampshire House, was renominated by Sununu and will receive an annual salary of $120,562 a year through November 2027.
A rare public hearing for the renomination of a commissioner was convened by the council last Thursday because councilors said they were hearing concerns about Jasper.
It was attended by more than 40 people in the farming community who were for and against the renomination.
Jasper blamed his own personality traits, a lack of staffing and funding to meet responsibilities, and the stresses and challenges of the job during the COVID-19 crisis as some reasons for the concerns.
Deb Erb, a Landaff dairy farmer said in her interactions, Jasper has not been open to considering things differently and that he has been “vindictive” in his professional actions.
Rob Morrill of Penacook, a farmer, spoke in support of Jasper, even though he said they had a serious scrape in the past over agriculture policy.
“Agriculture is alive and well,” Morrill said. He said Jasper has been an effective leader.
Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield, whose district includes many farms, said he heard from many in the farming community and it was a “mixed bag.”
In the end, he decided he could not support the Jasper renomination.
Kenney said he has never seen such feedback.
“I told him his strong points and weak points but there is a farming community out there that is fractured,” Kenney said.
“But he brought up a good point and that is he needs help,” he said. He needs an assistant commissioner.
Kenney noted there is a state goal to get 30 percent of food from New Hampshire by 2030 and there is new pressure to meet those goals.
“We have to be cognizant that we have to protect our farmers,” he said. “It’s called food insecurity.”
Councilor Cinde Warmington, D-Concord, voted to support Jasper.
She said it was a very difficult nomination for her, particularly about Jasper’s manner and his unwillingness to take advice and listen. She said she balanced it with a lot of positive and noted it was three-quarters in favor that she heard, similar to what the NH Farm Bureau Federation said they had for support.
“I think the commissioner is overwhelmed,” Warmington said and urged Sununu to support an assistant commissioner in his upcoming budget.
Warmington said the issue for Jasper is his demeanor.
She said she would support the nomination “with reservations.”
Councilor Janet Stevens of Rye, a Republican, applauded the commissioner for distributing prompt relief during the pandemic and droughts and was concerned about an audit of the department with a lack of information and deficiencies noted.
“I would like to see a timeline, an action plan,” Stevens said. She was also concerned about a lack of strategic planning.
For that reason, Stevens said she would abstain.
Neither Executive Councilors Ted Gatsas nor David Wheeler, both Republicans, spoke on the renomination but supported it.
The vote was 3-1 with one abstention from Stevens.
LACONIA STATE SCHOOL PURCHASE TABLED
The council tabled for the next two weeks the signing of a purchase and sales agreement for the Laconia State School for $21.5 million after the city of Laconia fired off a last-minute letter expressing concern about things they would like included in the deed.
When and if it closes, the money will go into the state’s general fund.
The proposal states that the development will be known as Legacy at Laconia and the manager of the proposed project is Robynne Alexander, with an address of 955 Goffs Falls Road in Manchester.
The plan is for Alexander to purchase the 217 acres, including about 30 old buildings – most of which were used as part of the former Laconia State School – and develop the entire parcel for housing, recreation, and medical use.
Alexander lists herself as an adaptive reuse and value-added multifamily developer with past experience in San Diego, Calif.
The property would become taxable for the city of Laconia.
The developer, with investors, plans to spend more than $500 million to rehabilitate and construct about 1,900 housing units of all kinds including a number of workforce housing units.
The plan envisions a hotel and conference center, retail and commercial space, a dog park, and a pharmacy, and leaves about half the acreage in open space, accessible to the public.
The only state and public use on the property right now are for the state’s Emergency 9-1-1 operations and for that of the Lakes Region Fire and Mutual Aid dispatch.
It will move onto a 10-acre property owned by the state and part of a land swap on Meredith Center Road and a building will be constructed for it, using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. About $13 million was recently approved by the council for that move.
After the governor announced he wanted to sell the tract last year CBRE, a Delaware Profit Corporation registered in New Hampshire, with offices in Manchester, was hired by the state to market the property and Charles Arlinghaus, Administrative Services commissioner, said there were four of development proposals. This one, he said was beyond his dreams.
He noted that, and the purchase and sale include notice that the property likely has lead paint among other hazards which will need to be cleaned up by the developer. The property is being sold as is.
Upon closing, CBRE will be paid a flat fee of $50,000 for upfront costs to get it on the market and then a commission of 5 percent or $50,000, whichever is greater.
Laconia’s Mayor Andrew Hosmer and its city council have been generally supportive of the process and have stressed they want the whole property to be developed, not just a portion that has open fields and lake views.
The Lakeshore Redevelopment Planning Commission worked for several years to find the highest and best uses for the land – valuable for new housing and possible retail and Arlinghaus said its work was invaluable toward the sale.
No timeline for the completion of the project is included in the purchase and sales agreement and this concerned Councilor Gatsas.
A link to an overview of the developer’s plan, offered to the city, is here https://indepthnh.org/2022/10/26/sale-of-lakes-region-facility-may-be-voted-on-soon/
Warmington said though her law firm is involved in a legal matter with the developer, she does not feel she needs to recuse herself from the vote.
It related to a lawsuit about a delayed project in Manchester involving this developer and she was concerned about how that matter might impact this sale.
Warmington also said she was concerned with Laconia being fully involved in the vetting process and asked what would happen if this investor purchased the property and failed to develop it.
Arlinghaus said at the most basic, the state is selling the property but it is not the same as selling the Ashland liquor store.
He said this was by far and away the most favored proposal and was favored by Laconia.
Sununu said he called the Laconia mayor this morning and wanted to know what the letter was about at the last minute and got very little input, noting the conversation was brief and Hosmer was out of the country.
“They have been a part of this,” Sununu said.
The letter included concerns about the removal of a water tower, parking for recreation purposes on the property, and the future of a winter homeless shelter operated by the state on the land but being moved.
Sununu said, “Laconia drove this.”
Arlinghaus said the state has been “bent over backward” for the city.
Warmington asked about tabling the project for a few weeks but Arlinghaus said he would prefer a vote now.
“I don’t want the price ultimately affected,” he said.
Gatsas said he wanted financial information about the company and Arlinghaus said he would give it to him in confidence.
“They have enormous wherewithal,” he said.
Councilor Kenney said the project has been transparent.
“If we are going to delay we are doing a disservice to the project. I don’t want it to be a stall tactic,” he said.
“What I really like about this project is that it has public open access to it, there is going to be tax revenue, housing, and jobs.”
He said in general he believes the citizens of Laconia are saying “let’s move.”
“Let’s get the politics out of it,” Kenney said.
Lori Weaver of Concord, the governor’s pick for acting commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, was confirmed to temporarily replace the departing commissioner, Lori Shibinette through February 2024 or until a new commissioner has been selected from a nationwide search.
She is among five finalists for the permanent job and will be paid $147,000 a year in the temporary position.
At a public hearing on her nomination, Weaver was praised for her personal skills and experience.
Weaver has been working 20 years in the department, the most recent in its administration.
OPIOID CONTRACT APPROVED
The council approved retroactive, sole source amendments to existing contracts with the contractors to continue providing a statewide network of Doorways for substance use disorder treatment and recovery support services access, by increasing the total price limitation by $12,022,982.
That means the contracts will go from $48,807,502 to $60,830,484 and this extends the completion date from September 29, 2022, to September 29, 2023.
Gatsas abstained from the vote but the council approved retroactive, sole-source amendments to existing contracts for the continued provision of medication-assisted treatment to individuals with opioid use disorders, by increasing the total price limitation by $624,750 from $1,286,928 to $1,911,678 and by extending the completion dates from September 29, 2022, to September 29, 2023.
Gatsas expressed concern that minors could access the program without parental authorization but was told that state law allows for that.
Laconia resident Bill Cass has been confirmed to the top position at the Department of Transportation.
He will take the place of Victoria Sheehan who resigned.
Kenney praised the governor for his choice of the second in command at the department saying Cass is “an exceptional nominee” with over 30 years of experience in the department and has a great demeanor with the public and empathy for his employees.
“Just remember, you asked for it,” said the governor to laughter.
David M. Rodrigue has been nominated to Cass’s position. The appointment would be effective for the duration of Cass’ term which ends in February 2026.
$65 MILLION IN BROADBAND
Following the vote of the Legislative Fiscal Committee, the council voted to expend $65 million from the Coronavirus Capital Projects fund for the purpose of improving broadband infrastructure across the state.
The funding is effective now through June 30, 2023.
The money is coming in two traunches of $40 and $25 million each. said Taylor Caswell of GOFERR and there is more in the pipeline to help build out the needs for high speed internet in the state.
The price per connection and competition with other states for the suppliers is making the state move quick.
The fact that our costs are a third lower than other states like Massachusetts, the governor said, is important.
“That is the fundamental difference,” he said. “We are the model,” he said, because we have a great checks and balance system.
Stevens said it is because New Hampshire was the first out of the gate to access the program.
HIKE IN ELECTRIC RATES
With electric costs almost doubling since last year, more bad news came in the form of information that two of the state’s four largest utilities – Eversource and Liberty Utilities – are coming next week to the Public Utilities Commission for another rate hike.
Jared Chicoine, commissioner for the Department of Energy, said the future looks good for bringing the prices down in the long term but right now the price of natural gas to make electricity is “through the roof.”
Sununu said the infrastructure is only getting worse and he is looking down the road for four or five years with real concern.
Steven said she is concerned that some of her constituents are going to die this winter from lack of heat.
Right now they are expected to ask for pass-through increases and are going out to bid, he told the council.
TEMPORARY HOUSING SUPPORT
The council also agreed to give the New Hampshire Finance Authority $19,977,520, to administer the Emergency Temporary Housing Support Program for eligible households temporarily in hotels or motels as part of the New Hampshire Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
This will to help households that are at risk of homelessness through the cold season using federal funds through June 30, 2023.
The Community Action Programs have been working with property owners assuring that the funding is on its way and with the approval, the money will be going out the door.
Gatsas asked if the $200 a day the program allows could also be extended to those in rentals who need help.
Vacancy rates are extremely low, he said.
Sununu said there is rental assistance that landlords are taking advantage of.
Gatsas noted there is a tent city now in Manchester and he is concerned.
EDDIE EDWARDS GETS A SALARY INCREASE
The council approved an annual salary increase for Eddie Edwards, Assistant Commissioner of Safety, in the amount of $6,344 from a current salary of $121,758 to a new annual salary of $128,102.