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Nashua Named Safest City in New England

The Gate City earned another recognition this week as WalletHub named Nashua the second safest city in the country, ranking it as the safest metropolitan area in New England and trailing only Irvine, Calif. 

And the Queen City also came in among the top 25 safest spots, yet another sign New Hampshire has largely avoided the national uptick in crime and violence.

The data analysts at WalletHub compared more than 180 cities across 42 key indicators of safety like assaults per capita, as well as the percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated, the unemployment rate, and road quality. The study also looked at the financial security afforded to residents in every community. Nashua ranked second on the financial end of the safety spectrum.

“Aside from the types of hazards that can cause bodily injury or other physical harm, taking out an unaffordable second mortgage, forgoing health insurance, or even visiting unsecured websites are also ways people run into danger. One of the biggest worries for many people right now is the cost of inflation, which reached a four-decade high this year and threatens Americans’ financial safety,” the study stated. “Some cities are simply better at protecting their residents from harm.”

Nashua beat out all the New England cities on the list, with the closest competition coming from Portland, Maine in fourth place, and Warwick, R.I. at fifth. Burlington, Vt. clocked in at eighth place, and Massachusetts did not get on the board until the 28th position with the city of Worcester. Boston is the least-safe New England metropolis, ranked at number 85.

San Bernardino, Calif., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and St. Louis, Mo. are at the bottom according to WalletHub’s ranking.

Not that New Hampshire — and the cities of Nashua and Manchester in particular — don’t have challenges. The number of opioid overdoses in both has soared in the past year. According to Chris Stawasz, regional director of American Medical Response, overdoses and deaths from drugs like fentanyl have been outpacing last year. By the end of August, the total number of overdoses was 624, and deaths were up by 19 percent over last year.

Nashua recently came in 4th in the WalletHub study of best-run cities in America, with overall safety being one reason for the top marks. State Rep. Michael O’Brien (D-Nashua) said one key to Nashua’s success has been local leadership understanding what people in the city need from their government, including robust safety measures.

“We in Nashua understand the needs of the community, and we actively work hard to make the city a desirable city to live in,” O’Brien said.

Doug Babcock, an adjunct instructor at Saint Michael’s College, told WalletHub that a transparent police department that has strong ties to the community is key to building a safe city.

“Police departments are a crucial pillar of our communities and the relationship of trust goes both ways,” Babcock said. “Departments need to be transparent and strive to represent the makeup of the community they serve. To do that, though, people from throughout the community must be willing and able to serve in the role.”

The Nashua Police Department is nationally accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, or CALEA, and s considered a flagship department by CALEA for its work to meet nationally recognized standards for community policing.

Manchester Dem Rep Resigns, But Still On Primary Ballot

Democrat Manchester Rep. Andrew Bouldin resigned his House seat in early August, nearly two months after filing for re-election to serve a third term in Concord.

Now, Democrats are stuck with a candidate on the ballot who may or may not intend to serve should he win re-election and could eventually trigger a special election to fill the vacancy.

Bouldin was first elected in 2018 along with his then-incumbent wife, Rep. Amanda Bouldin, D-Manchester, in a district that leans Democrat representing Manchester’s Ward 5. Andrew Bouldin was set to run for a third term in the fall, signing up for the election this summer. His name is printed on the September primary ballots, and can not be removed according to Anna Fay, spokesperson for the N.H. Secretary of State’s office.

With no contest in the primary, both Bouldins are likely to move forward to the November general election, save for a last-minute Democrat write-in campaign to try to best Andrew next Tuesday.

“The candidate’s name would remain on the ballot unless they are disqualified (which would happen if they move to another district, for example). If the candidate is disqualified, the candidate’s party is given the opportunity to fill the vacancy,” Fay said. The Secretary of State’s office notes they have not been informed of any disqualifying factors in this instance, and therefore can not declare a candidate vacancy.

Paul Smith, the clerk for the House of Representatives, confirmed Andrew Bouldin’s resignation. The matter has yet to be formally announced to the House, but Smith said it will be part of the next session. Bouldin is the 16th resignation of the session and the 23rd overall vacancy created. Five seats were filled by special elections, three went to Democrats (one pickup, Catherine Rombeau of Bedford) and two were held by Republicans.

In a year Republicans are expected to outperform their averages, the point may be moot. Republican Lisa Freeman won a seat in Manchester’s ward 5 in 2016, edging out Andrew Bouldin by six votes. This year, Scott Mattiello is the lone Republican running in the district so far, but Republicans could nominate a second candidate with 35 write-in votes, or the N.H. Republican Party could appoint a nominee in the days following the primary.

Andrew Bouldin did not respond to a request for comment on his resignation. He was elected in 2018 promising to use his time in the State House to address the opioid epidemic, to reform Valley Street Jail, and to support other progressive causes.

“As your Representative in Concord, I will support expanded access to healthcare including reproductive care and addiction treatment, a minimum wage increase, workers’ rights, clean and efficient energy, access to quality public education for all students, and the right of every eligible voter to vote,” he told Manchester InkLink in his 2018 candidacy announcement.

House Minority Leader Rep. David Cote, D-Nashua, did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Manchester Democratic Committee chair Alan Raff.

Andrew Bouldin was a reliable progressive vote in the House. In the last session, Andrew Bouldin voted against cutting the business profits tax, he voted against the parental bill of rights, he voted against letting churches and other houses of worship stay open during states of emergency, he voted against displaying the motto “In God We Trust” in schools, and he voted against a ban on late-term abortions.

That progressive voice will go missing even if Andrew Bouldin wins in November. If Andrew Bouldin wins, and declines to be sworn in, the seat will remain open until a vacancy is declared by the House, which could trigger a special election, according to the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office. There’s little Democrats can do unless they find a last-minute write-in candidate that can exceed Bouldin’s vote total on Tuesday.

Amanda Bouldin, Andrew Bouldin’s wife and fellow representative of the district has not resigned her seat and is running for re-relection. Amanda Bouldin also did not respond to a request for comment.

Amanda Bouldin moved to New Hampshire in 2008 as part of the libertarian Free State Project, though she’s since moved to the left. Amanda Bouldin’s voting record is largely similar to her husband’s, and she cosponsored a bill to repeal the state’s 24-week abortion ban.

The Bouldins will have one Republican challenger on the ballot in Scott Mattiello. He could not be reached for comment.

Manchester Woman Linked to German Raid of Suspected Nerve Agent Facility

German authorities raided a chemical company this week connected to a Manchester woman who pleaded guilty to lying about her ties to the firm. 

The company, Riol-Chemie, is suspected by German authorities of sending chemicals used to make the deadly nerve agent Novichok to Russia, according to multiple German media reports.

Former Manchester resident Stela Sacara, 36, also known as Stela Secara and Stela Thomas, pleaded guilty last year to lying to FBI agents about her role in several exporting firms that allegedly sent goods to Riol-Chemie.

According to German news program Tagesschau, executives at Riol-Chemie are suspected of “exporting toxic substances and special laboratory material to Russia in more than 30 instances over the past three and a half years without obtaining the necessary permits.”

Among the chemicals Riol-Chemie is alleged to have sent to Russia are materials to make mustard gas as well as Novichok.

“(T)he northern German company is suspected of having delivered protective equipment to Russia on several occasions – equipment that can also be used in the production of biological and chemical weapons and therefore falls under export restrictions. Investigators also apparently suspect that Riol-Chemie GmbH exported a chemical that can be used in the production of the nerve agent Novichok. This suspicion is evidently based on invoices found during a past inspection,” Tagesschau reports.

Russia’s chemical weapons production is highly secret, but Western intelligence agencies started investigating Riol-Chemie in 2018 after Novichok was used in an assassination attempt in Great Britain.

“Novichok became internationally known in March 2018, when former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by the substance in the British town of Salisbury, very likely by two agents with the Russian military intelligence agency GRU. Novichok is also thought to have been used in the August 2020 poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny,” Tagesschau reports.

Sacara got one year of probation after she pleaded guilty in June of last year to one count of making a false statement to a federal agent. Records filed in the United States District Court in Concord indicate that Sacara may have been sending chemicals and lab equipment to military clients in countries that were under some form of embargo.

Sacara, a Moldavian national, was operating several companies out of her Chestnut Street apartment in Manchester, according to court records. At least one of the businesses was suspected of sending equipment to Riol-Chemie.

Special Agent Kyle Zavorotny, a specialist in espionage investigations, states that Sacara created emails for a fictitious company employee and sent messages to the agents to throw them off the investigation and keep what was being shipped overseas and to whom hidden from the investigators.

“Stela’s false statements regarding the identity of the company management and distancing herself from her role furthers this goal by minimizing her own knowledge of the end users and causing investigators to waste efforts attempting to locate individuals who do not exist,” Zavorotny wrote in the complaint filed against Sacara.

Zavorotny and Special Agent Courtney Rauch first interviewed Sacara in September of 2018 as the FBI and the United States Commerce Department’s Office of Export Enforcement were trying to learn what she was doing with her businesses.

“Based on my training and experience, I know that entities in foreign countries will sometimes disguise the true end users of products acquired from the United States to prevent or impede the ability of the United States Government to determine the activities of these end users,” Zavorotny wrote. “In many instances, the end users being disguised are or are affiliated with the military or other agencies of the governments of the countries in which these end users are located.”

Sacara told the agents that she did not manage the business, but that she reported to another woman, Amy Johnson, who was based in Delaware. Sacara told the agents she did not have contact information for Johnson, according to the complaint.

Sacara claimed that Rochester Chemical acquired consumable laboratory equipment such as bottles, vials, glassware, etc. for use in laboratories from various manufacturers, repackaged them, and then shipped them to purchasers, Zavorotny wrote. Sacara told the investigators that the only company to which Rochester Chemical exports goods was Riol-Chemie.

The agents obtained a warrant for her bank records and other business information and determined that Sacara was in fact the managing member for Rochester Chemical and listed as the sole member of the corporation.

Knowing this, the investigators went back to Sacara in January of 2019 and confronted her:

“I asked Stela whether Johnson truly exists and showed her a copy of the Bank of America document in which she stated that she (Stela) was the sole member of the limited liability company,” Zavorotny wrote. “Stela stated she wished to speak with an attorney and declined to speak with us further. Stela was provided with my business card.”

Soon, the agents began getting emails from a company official named “Radu Bolocan” who claimed to be the current owner of Rochester Chemical. Bolocan claimed to live in Romania and did not speak English.

“(H)owever, the English in the email was nearly perfect,” Zavorotny wrote.

The agents tracked the digital information for Bolocan, as well as other emails from Sacara, and determined that the Bolocan email accounts were created by a user in Manchester right after the January interview with the agents. A review of several years’ worth of emails found that Sacara and her sister, Natalia Sacara, also known as Natalia Bolocan, were the owners and operators of the company, Zavorotny wrote.

Natalia Sacara was never charged for her alleged role in the companies.

The German investigation into Riol-Chemie is ongoing, according to the media reports.

Lawsuit: Manchester School District is Violating Constitution

The Manchester School District’s transgender student policy violates the state constitution which protects the right of parents to raise their children, according to a new filing in the lawsuit brought by a Manchester mother. 

The woman, who is known as Jane Doe in the lawsuit, is responding to the district’s motion to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the district has no legal obligations when it comes to telling parents about their child’s activities at school regarding sexual and gender identity.

The response, filed in Hillsborough Superior Court-North in Manchester and written by attorney Richard Lehmann, hits back at the district accusing school officials of interfering with Jane Doe’s rights as a mother by forcing staff to keep secrets from parents. 

“Knowledge that the school is actively supporting a child’s decision to transition to a different gender identity when a parent would believe a different response is in the child’s best interests is precisely the kind of information that a parent would be likely to consider in deciding ‘whether’ to send a child to public school or to choose some other option,” Lehmann writes. “However, the policy purposefully and intentionally interferes with the ability of a parent to obtain this information. The defendant argues that it has no duty to advise parents of a student’s transgender expression in schools. This too serves to burden a parent’s right to direct the education and upbringing of children.”

Lehmann also argues that Manchester’s policy, which requires school employees to withhold information from parents and to actively mislead parents at the child’s request, is a violation of New Hampshire’s Constitution’s Part 1, Article 2, which states all people “have certain natural, essential, and inherent rights among which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty . . . and . . . seeking and obtaining happiness.”

Lehmann notes the right of parents to raise their children has been recognized by the New Hampshire Supreme Court as a constitutional right.

“Our Supreme Court has recognized that: [t]he family and the rights of parents over it are natural, essential, and inherent rights within the meaning of the New Hampshire Constitution. Because of their fundamental importance, great judicial deference has been accorded parental rights,” Lehmann wrote.

Jane Doe learned in 2021 that her child, known in the filing as M.C., was using a different gender identity at school than M.C.’s biological sex, according to court records.

When Jane Doe confronted the school staff, M.C. ‘s teachers agreed that she had the right to step in as M.C. ‘s mother and direct staff to use M.C.’s natural identity and gender.

“I do think that a parent should be giving permission for their child to be called by any other name,” one of M.C.’s teachers wrote to Jane Doe.

However, soon after the teachers agreed to use M.C.’s biological identity, the school principal wrote to tell Jane Doe that the district’s policy makes that impossible.

“Good Morning [Jane Doe]. While I respect and understand your concern, we are held by the District policy as a staff. I have quoted our district policy below, which outlines the fact that we cannot disclose a student’s choice to parents if asked not to. If [M.C.] insists on being called [M.C.’s desired name] as a staff we have to respect that according to the policy or unfortunately we can be held accountable despite parents’ wishes,” the principal wrote.

No one in Manchester’s School Administrative Unit would talk to NH Journal in support of the policy. Mayor Joyce Craig, chair of the school board, also declined to defend it. No one on the school board’s policy committee agreed to speak about it, either.

The district claims in its motion seeking to have the case dismissed that the policy does not interfere with Jane Doe’s rights as a parent because she can use M.C.’s biological sex and birth name in the home. But in school, Jane Does has no right to say how her child is to be treated, according to the district’s motion.

“Whatever the scope of a parent’s rights vis-a-vis their transgender or gender-nonconforming children, they do not include the right to force a school district to act as a conduit for the parent exercise of those rights in this fashion,” the district’s motion states.

Lehmann argues the district’s position is akin to a Jewish family asking that their child receive kosher food or a Hindu family asking that her child be given vegetarian food, only to have the school staff keep secrets and lie to parents about what they are feeding the children.

“But when a school affirmatively acts in ways that hide these kinds of facts from parents, they violate the parent’s rights to direct the upbringing of their children, to become engaged in the child’s development, and to exercise their right to provide guidance,” Lehmann wrote.

In Rebuke to Progressives, GOP Bail Restriction Bill Passes House With 64 Dem Votes

In a rebuke to progressive activists and the Black Lives Matter organization, 64 House Democrats broke with their party to back a GOP measure tightening bail restrictions. The bill is designed to repair the 2018 bail reform bill passed with a bipartisan majority and signed with much fanfare by GOP Gov. Chris Sununu.

Since then, the politics of the crime issue have changed, as Democrats have fled from the “Defund the Police” and decarceration policies their party once touted.

The rollback bill, HB 1476, limits the ability to release repeat offenders on “personal recognizance,” and requires more offenders to face a judge instead of a bail commissioner. It also cuts the maximum time an arrestee can be held without seeing a judge from 72 hours to 36. 

The bill passed the House in 199-134 vote. Republicans were 135-40 in favor, while Democrats split 64-92 against.

Bill sponsor Rep. Ross Berry (R-Manchester) said the legislation leaves much of the 2018 bail reform in place while addressing the issue of repeat offenders who commit crimes while free on bail.

“This is the culmination of bipartisan effort over the last six months to address bail reform,” Berry said before Tuesday’s vote.

Crime rates across the U.S. have surged over the past two years and, while New Hampshire remains the safest state in the country, there has been an uptick in crime here, particularly in cities. Property crime in Manchester has gone up 10 percent in the past year, for example, and even Democratic Mayor Joyce Craig was on board with reforming the reform.

Craig has told NHPR repeat offenders and violent suspects should not get released on personal recognizance bail.

“However, those causing risk to our community and violent offenders should have bail restrictions imposed and should not be released on PR bail,” Craig said.

“I don’t always agree with my mayor, but we agree on this,” Berry said. “Manchester is done waiting.”

Opponents of the bill fell into two groups: Libertarian-leaning Republicans who want to limit government power as part of their ideology; and progressive Democrats who argued New Hampshire’s racist system unfairly punishes people of color.

Rep. Andrew Bouldin (D-Manchester) said changing bail reform would hurt drug addicts, homeless people, the poor, and minorities. He said amending the 2018 bill to hold repeat offenders would return the state to a system where the wealthy pay to get out of jail and the poor are stuck there.

Rep. Linda Harriott-Gathright (D-Nashua) repeated claims from Black Lives Matter leaders Ronelle Tshiela and Clifton West that police in New Hampshire are racist. According to Harriott-Gathright, changing the bail reform will lead to discrimination and mass incarceration.

“New Hampshire’s criminal laws are enforced with a staggering racial bias,” she said.

Crime data show Black Americans are arrested at approximately the same rate as the crime they commit.

In the past, Democratic leadership would be expected to “whip” the votes and keep more of their members in line. But with the passing of Minority Leader Renny Cushing, Democrats are left with Acting Minority Leader David Cote (D-Nashua), who has yet to attend a House session since COVID-19 struck and hasn’t cast a vote since 2020.

With no-show leadership, the notoriously unified Democratic caucus collapsed into factions.

Outspoken House progressives like Reps. Sue Mullen (D-Bedford), Manny Espitia (D-Nashua), and Tony Labranche (I-Amherst) voted against the bill. Traditional liberals like Rep. Casey Conley (D-Dover) and Peter Leishman (D-Peterborough) voted with the GOP.

Conley argued the issue of repeat offenders needs to be addressed. “It’s not just a Manchester problem,” he said.

Rep. Patrick Long (D-Manchester) backed the bill, saying he hears from too many residents who are getting their cars and homes broken into by the same people.

“I get the police reports and the same people are being arrested again for the same crime,” he said.

One notorious case involves Nashua resident Jency Diaz, who in December of 2020 was released on bail after a domestic violence arrest and then proceeded to return to his apartment and “punched, slapped, head-butted and whipped” the victim, leaving her with a broken nose.

Activists rejected those arguments.

“This is a harmful step that would disproportionately impact and harm Black people in New Hampshire,” the ACLU-NH said after the vote.

And Tshiela had this ominous warning for Democrats who broke ranks: “I do want to remind those who voted in favor of this bill that only supporting racial justice when it’s politically expedient does not fare too well when people remember where you stood in times like this.”

On the libertarian side, Americans for Prosperity-New Hampshire opposes the bill, claiming it “disregards our fundamental legal framework and ignores defendants’ rights, creates confusion with conflicting language, and would result in more backlog for our already strained judicial system.”

The bill passed by the House on Tuesday isn’t the only proposed change. A similar bill sponsored by Sen. Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) recently passed the Senate with a 20-4 majority. Sununu, who signed the original bail reform bill in 2018, backs the changes saying there are too many unintended consequences from the first reform.

‘Viva ManchVegas?’ Most Brides Just Say No.

Locals may call it “ManchVegas,” but few couples are willing to take a gamble and have their wedding there.

And they’re “just saying no” to Nashua, too.

That is the finding of a new study ranking America’s best places to get married, which puts both Manchester and Nashua in the ‘Ten Worst” category.

WalletHub’s 2022 rating of the Best Places to Get Married evaluated 180 cities as wedding destinations based on costs, available wedding venues, and services, as well as local attractions and, unfortunately, weather. 

Manchester came in number 172 out of 180. Nashua was 174.

Jennifer Matthews, owner of New Hampshire wedding planning firm Memorable Events, said most brides she works with look for special places featuring some of New Hampshire’s dramatic views, like the Lakes Region, the White Mountain area, or the Monadnock Region. 

“The Monadnock and Lakes and Mountains are some of the most accommodating and beautiful places in all of New England,” she said.

Weddings are big business, a $57 billion industry where the average wedding costs more than $22,000. Matthews said the average cost for weddings she arranges is around $50,000 to $75,000.

“Not to say you can’t do it for less,” she acknowledged. “But I have couples who do it for more.”

Wendy Hunt, president and CEO of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, defended the Gate City, saying Nashua and the region offer a lot for couples getting married.

“I think we have beautiful venues in the greater Nashua region,” she said.

There are event centers at large hotels like the Radisson and the newly renovated Sheraton. Manchester boasts its own facilities like the downtown DoubleTree by Hilton. 

“I’ve been to quite a few weddings at Sky Meadow (Country Club in Nashua),” Hunt said.

Matthews said many of the brides she works with want to have exclusive control over the venue. That means instead of going to a hotel or convention center where they might not be the only wedding that weekend, brides are renting private homes on one of New Hampshire’s lakeshores or a farmhouse with views of Mount Monadnock.

Matthews does have a venue she likes to use in southern New Hampshire, a family-run banquet facility in Hollis that can provide exclusive access for brides.

WalletHub’s listing finds Manchester and Nashua ranking high for costs while coming in low on extra attractions to make the wedding day a destination event. Ranking at the top of the list is Orlando, followed by Las Vegas and Miami, largely based on area attractions for each city.

One of WalletHub’s experts, Lisa Rene Reynolds, program director and associate professor in the Master of Science Program in Marriage and Family Therapy at Iona College, said city leaders need to work hard to get couples interested in spending wedding dollars in their towns.

“If local businesses want to get in on the wedding action, they need to do so by advertising this and especially marketing new and novel ideas that will make them stand out from the sea of other vendors,” she said. “For example, if a catering company can push a completely locally grown and sourced menu or late-night taco food trucks outside the reception, they should push what makes them stand out in the crowd.”

The 2022 wedding season is anticipated to be the biggest one since 1984, Matthews said. Many people delayed their weddings in 2020, and a lot of people decided to get engaged in the last couple of years after all the months of lockdowns, creating a COVID-marriage bottleneck.

“They figured, ‘We made it through that, we can make it through a lifetime,’” Matthews said.

Many New Hampshire wedding planners are already booked through 2023, no matter where brides want to have their special day.

 

Nashua Orders Citizens to Mask Up — Temporarily

Just hours after President Joe Biden held a press conference defending his federal COVID-19 mandates, Nashua’s Board of Aldermen passed one of their own.  The city’s residents are being told to put their face masks back on as the board overwhelmingly voted in favor of a temporary mask mandate. 

The ordinance, approved with 12 votes Tuesday night, will require the wearing of face masks at indoor public spaces through the end of January. The ordinance carries a maximum $1,000 fine, though there is no enforcement mechanism for the measure. 

It is not clear who will end up making sure people will wear masks, as Aldermen said police are already stretched thin.

Nashua’s Director of Public Health Bobbie Bagley said the mandate is needed as COVID-19 cases surge around the holidays. Nashua hospitals are already overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and there are no ICU beds available in the city.

“Our goal is really to have an impact on the next four weeks to really keep these cases down,” Bagley said.

COVID has swamped the state as cold weather moved in. Bagley said the post-Thanksgiving surge that has inundated hospitals is starting to recede, right in time for the Christmas gatherings which will bring more anticipated spread. The hope is that the temporary masking order will reduce the spread over the next few weeks, until cases start going down again.

Alderman Ben Clemons was the lone holdout against the measure. He said people can choose to wear a mask, just as they can choose to get vaccinated.

“To me, it is a matter of principle. I don’t believe in mandates. I will never vote for mandates,” Clemons said.

Clemons said the vaccines have been available for people for more than a year, and those vaccines are largely effective against serious illness and death. It’s a choice to get vaccinated, and a choice to wear a mask, he said.

“The majority of folks who end up on ventilators are unvaccinated. I find that is their problem,” Clemons said.

A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll released Monday found 81 percent of Granite State adults have been fully or partially vaccinated, while just 18 percent say they are refusing the vaccine.

Alderman Dave Tencza once sided with those who see mandates as a personal liberty issue, but said his thinking on mask mandates has changed as the pandemic has continued and the science shows how individual decisions impact communities. 

“I used to think wearing a mask was more of a personal liberty issue, like wearing a seatbelt. Now, I really think it’s comparable to drunk driving. No one has the right to drive under the influence of alcohol,” he said.

Nashua joins a small group of municipalities that have brought back the mask mandates enacted in the first year of the pandemic. Last week, Keene’s city council restarted its mask mandate, as did the town of Exeter.

Andrew Sylvia with Manchester InkLink reported Tuesday night that Manchester’s Board of Alderman split on a mask mandate, ending with a six-to-six tie. Mayor Joyce Craig broke the tie, bringing the mask mandate back to Manchester.

NH Commuter Rail Scheme Would Leave Property Taxpayers On the Hook

U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas hopes New Hampshire gets a new commuter rail service connecting Nashua and Manchester to Boston. Critics note how few Granite Staters use available rail now and don’t think local property taxpayers want to pick up the estimated $11 million tab to subsidize the trains.

Commuter rail is part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending package pushed by President Joe Biden and supported by all the members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation. Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes $66 billion for rail, in November.

“This is a project that continues to bubble from the bottom up here in New Hampshire,” Pappas told Manchester’s InkLink last summer about the Capitol Corridor rail project. “I hear about it everywhere I go, residents who are looking for an opportunity to get to work, businesses that are looking to attract the kind of talent they need, and from local leaders who understand this can be an economic engine for New Hampshire.”

The train service would potentially go from Manchester through to Lowell, Massachusetts, with stops in Nashua and at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. 

Greg Moore, with the libertarian American for Prosperity organization, said New Hampshire cannot afford the fare. The service cannot operate without a taxpayer-funded handout, he said.

“Every state study has shown that it would require substantial taxpayer subsidies to benefit a small number of riders,” Moore said.

Moore said there are better ways to solve commuting problems that meet 21st century needs. He suggested private services like Turo or ZipCar, as well as Uber and Lyft.  

“Trying to jam an expensive 19th-century transportation solution onto the hard-working taxpayers of New Hampshire makes no sense,” he said.

A common argument from opponents of expanded rail is Granite Staters rarely use the service that’s currently available. The Amtrak Downeaster, for example, connects the Seacoast towns of Dover, Durham, and Exeter with Maine and Boston. According to Amtrak, New Hampshire riders make up less than 20 percent of the total ridership.

In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, fewer than 2,000 trips a week began or ended in the Granite State. During the pandemic when ridership fell, the number of trips originating or ending in New Hampshire fell to 362 per week. Neither of those numbers is enough to sustain rail service without taxpayer subsidies.

In fact, Amtrak — often hailed as a success story — has received annual federal subsidies of $1.5 billion to $2 billion, in addition to the new billions from the bipartisan infrastructure bill. And the only reason service in the Northeast “pays for itself,” as advocates claim, is because of inventive bookkeeping that hides a huge backlog of needed maintenance and the subsidies it receives from state governments.

State Rep. George Sykes, D-Lebanon, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said every form of transportation, from air travel to bus service, is subsidized by taxpayers to some extent.

“There’s no free lunch when it comes to transportation,” Sykes said.

Sykes said rail service would be a net financial positive for the state in the long run when factors like increased development and savings on highway maintenance costs are considered. Paying for the service through taxes or fees just goes the territory, he said.

“My question to (those opposed to rail) would be, name me one aspect of transportation where they don’t have to pay for, one way or another.”

Sykes’ colleague on the Transportation Committee, Aidan Ankarberg, R-Rochester, doesn’t want his voters to have to pay for a service they are not going to be able to use. He recently filed a bill that would keep any state funding from being used for the rail project.

“It is not fiscally responsible or the New Hampshire way to expect my constituents in Rochester to pay for a commuter rail in Manchester that very few people will use,” he said. “My bill protects Rochester and other Granite State taxpayers from this boondoggle before it begins.”

Ankarberg said the most recent Department of Transportation report on the commuter rail, which estimates the state would need to subsidize the service at $11 million, is several years old and out of date. The true cost for the service to taxpayers is likely closer to $16 million, he said. That money would come from increased property taxes, or cuts to education funding, he said.

“While current estimates aren’t available, the DOT previously suggested raising statewide property taxes by $15.7 million or diverting 5 percent of our education funding in order to cover the commuter rail’s operating and management costs,” he said.

That kind of spending isn’t going to catch on in New Hampshire, according to Moore.

“Thankfully, there is little appetite in the state legislature for saddling state taxpayers with this backward approach,” Moore said. “New passenger rail isn’t happening anytime soon.”

Experts: Creative Solutions Are Needed To Combat Opioid Crisis

Another year is gone and New Hampshire is still one of the states hit hardest by the opioid crisis. Now, a new legislature is again trying to figure out how to curb the rampant use of opioids.

Lawmakers might be hesitant to allocate more funds to the effort, since it can appear previous funding has had little effect. But advocacy groups, health experts, and recovering addicts say money is only part of the solution. According to them, the state needs to be more flexible with how the funds are spent and amenable to creative solutions.

That was one of the themes discussed at the State House on Tuesday, where advocates asked the Senate Finance Committee to approve a bill funding the state’s Alcohol Fund.

It’s a unique mechanism created by the legislature in 2000 that takes 5 percent of the gross profits from the sale of alcohol to support alcohol and drug education, abuse prevention, and treatment programs. In the past year, approximately $19 million would have gone to service providers and recovery centers that are dealing with the opioid crisis at a local level.

The Alcohol Fund has only been fully financed one time in its history. In previous biennium budgets, the governor or legislature have transferred the revenue to the general fund and only appropriated a small amount to the Alcohol Fund.

Supporters of the bill say the fund is a creative solution the state should use because it already exists in law and is designed to aid prevention and treatment of issues like the opioid epidemic.

“Two governors have called substance abuse the biggest problem in this state,” Keene Democrat Sen. Jay Kahn said, noting Gov. Chris Sununu called for putting more money into treatment, prevention, and recovery in his inauguration speech.

“I completely agree,” Kahn added. “This legislation provides an innovative solution to the real problems confronting the state.”

A similar proposal was introduced in the Boston City Council, where councilors tried to add a 2 percent tax on alcohol sold in Boston to help fund substance abuse prevention programs. The council eventually voted against the proposal.

New Hampshire’s Alcohol Fund is different. In the “Live Free or Die” state, voters wouldn’t be too happy about a tax on their alcohol (a major reason why Bay Staters cross the border). The Alcohol Fund uses revenue the state is already making from sales.

That’s the reason former state Sen. Ned Gordon, R-Bristol, authored that 2000 law establishing the fund. And while it’s focus back then was mostly on alcohol abuse and prevention, the language was broad enough to evolve over time to include other substance abuse.

“The state adopted a policy that if we are going to aggressively market alcohol, we are going to accept the consequences,” Gordon testified Tuesday. “You can’t be just committed to a treatment program. You have to be committed to a recovery, so we need more resources going to prevention and recovery. Unless you provide the funding to do it, you won’t have the capacity to do it.”

While the Alcohol Fund revenue goes to the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment for their determination on what contracts, programs, and centers need the funds most, advocates said more funding could be used for New Hampshire’s Safe Station programs — another unique and creative approach to the opioid crisis.

Safe Station is the brainchild of Chris Hickey of the Manchester Fire Department. The program launched in May 2016, and anyone who is struggling with drug addiction can go to any one of the 10 fire stations in the Queen City any time and connect with recovery resources.

Anyone who visits the fire stations will go to Serenity Place, an outpatient program focusing on recovery work, or a similar center, and no one is turned away if they go through that method. Safe Station doesn’t receive any direct funding from the state, which can place limits on the program. Overall it’s seen as a success for the city, but it may still be too early to tell. Nashua also opened their first Safe Station in November.

From May to December 2016, there were 509 overdoses and 49 deaths — a slight drop from the same time period in 2015.

The American Medical Response group recently announced there was a slight increase in overdoses and deaths from 2015 to 2016 for Manchester and Nashua.

In 2015, Nashua saw 250 overdoses, with 19 fatalities. In 2016, the city’s total overdose number rose to 365 with 40 fatalities. For Manchester, there were 729 overdoses with 88 fatalities in 2015 and then 785 overdoses and 90 fatalities in 2016.

Traci Green, associate professor of emergency medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, is hopeful those numbers will decrease in 2017 as the Safe Station programs expand.

“I hope this is one new entree into an expanded hub for people to enter,” she told NH Journal. “There is great hope in trying to think about how public health and public safety can work together to get people to go to a place where it’s safe and connect with other peers in a time when they’re feeling extremely vulnerable. It seems like a great working relationship.”

Green called for states to be more creative in their thinking on how to address the opioid crisis, and make sure that it fits with the individual needs of their towns and cities. She applauded fire departments, law enforcement, and public health groups taking a role in prevention, treatment, and recovery rather than one entity trying to do everything.

“The entree into treatment and recovery seem to really work in Manchester, and people can have their clear roles and responsibilities,” she said. “I think that’s really important.”

It may be difficult to replicate Safe Station programs throughout New Hampshire, since fire stations must be staffed 24/7 and have access to a treatment center or emergency shelter nearby. It’s a problem the state will wrestle with as they decide how to disburse funding to all communities.

“Manchester has available resources that a place like Concord just certainly wouldn’t have,” James Vara, the state’s “drug czar,” said in September. “So, you have to look at them and temper that with the fact that these approaches may not all work. Safe Station is a great access point for people who are suffering, but they also have available resources like Serenity Place, which many of your districts wouldn’t have.”

It’s possible Sununu could address solutions like funding the Alcohol Fund and Safe Station programs throughout the state in his proposed 2018-2019 biennium budget, scheduled for released Thursday. Sununu said the opioid crisis was the state’s top priority, and funding to fix the crisis is expected to be a significant part of his budget proposal.

Combatting the epidemic is usually a bipartisan issue, though it may depend on how creative lawmakers in the State House can get.

 

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