Life on a Living Wage

By Michael McCord

COLEBROOK - Late last year, a few months after Betsy Gray started working as an administrative staff member at Indian Stream Health Center in Colebrook, she was surprised when her supervisor shared some good news: her salary was bumped from $12 to $15 an hour.

“It was quite a blessing,” said Gray who had joined Indian Stream after more than a decade as an LNA or licensed nursing assistant. Gray and her self-employed husband have two young daughters and work hard to make ends meet.

“Obviously this means a lot for us but it also means that we can give more back to our schools and the community,” Gray said.

The Coos County native knows that higher-paying jobs in the North Country are far fewer than in the more populated, prosperous southern part of the state.

According to 2015 U.S. Census figures, the median family income in New Hampshire is $70,303 which is almost $15,000 above the U.S. average of $55,775. In Coos County, the median family income is $42,312 and 16.1 percent of the county’s almost 31,000 residents live in poverty.

“I’ve seen people in my family work almost all of their lives and never get to $15 an hour,” Gray said. “I almost cried when they told me about the raise. I’ve never heard of something like that before.”

Indian Stream CEO Jonathan Brown didn’t mean to bring employees to the verge of tears when he approached the organization’s board of directors last year with a proposal – establish a minimum wage of $15 an hour. But he did understand the importance to Indian Stream and the community.

“I’ve been there,” said Brown who came to Indian Stream in 2006 as an IT specialist and became CEO in January 2015. “My wife and I lived in rural Maine and we learned what it’s like to struggle to make the apartment rent and make ends meet working in minimum-wage like jobs. You live paycheck to paycheck and never seem to get ahead.”

Indian Stream is a federally qualified health center and serves the health-care needs of thousands of residents in the North Country and in portions of Vermont (where they have a second location in Canaan) and Maine.

During the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign and as more focus was on raising the federal minimum wage (last increased in 2009 to $7.25 an hour), Brown said he did his own research about a living wage.

The city of Seattle had already raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Likewise, voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington approved measures to raise their minimum wage (Maine has set a goal of $12 per hour by 2020). California has a statewide goal of $15 an hour by 2022 while New Hampshire lawmakers voted down a recent bid to raise the state’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

Last year, Brown talked to his finance staff and then to the board about the measure to start employees at $14. 50 an hour and raise it to $15 an hour after a three-month probation period. The measure was approved and went into effect in the fourth quarter of 2016.

“We all know the cost of living goes up,” Brown said. “Food and transportation expenses continue to rise. This wasn’t about us leading the way but to state publicly to our employees and the community that human capital is our most important asset.”

The definition of a living wage has a wide number of variables and is region specific. For example, the living wage calculator created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said the minimum living wage for a family like Betsy Gray’s (two working adults full time with two children) would be $13.97 an hour or a total household salary of almost $59,000 annually.

By comparison, the same variables for the same family unit in Rockingham County would be $15.44 an hour or a total household salary of $64,000 annually. But Healthy Monadnock 2020, an organization in Cheshire County, believed the MIT calculator was too low, especially for single adults and single-parent families, and urged a coalition of business members to enact a $15 an hour minimum wage by 2020.

The Monadnock Living Wage Group was formed to calculate region-specific needs and to encourage more business support.

In a June 2016 New Hampshire Business Review story, Healthy Monadnock 2020 director Linda Rubin said a higher living wage is directly connected to better regional health outcomes.

“If people are earning better wages, they’re going to use that additional money on the kinds of things they need to live – health care, housing, education and basic needs,” Rubin said in the story. “If you have safe housing, you’re going to be in a better position health-wise.”

At Indian Stream, Brown said about 10 employees of the staff of 65 were impacted and there was overwhelming organizational support for the living wage policy.

“We look at our mission as a federally qualified health center. Our focus is on the health and wellness of the community and it must extend to our staff,” Brown said.

“It’s not a significant dent overall but it is significant to the families of our employees. While it’s difficult to measure bottom line impact, I don’t think there’s any doubt about the boost in company morale and productivity.”

Berlin police station will be a 'Baby Safe Haven'

By Barbara Tetreault

BERLIN — Through the efforts of Knights of Columbus White Mountain Council, the Berlin police station will be identified as a “Baby Safe Haven."

Members of the Catholic fraternal order met with the city council earlier this month to discuss the Safe Haven Program.

Knights spokesman Don Huot said the state’s Safe Haven Law was passed in 2003, allowing parents of newborn babies to hand over infants at designated facilities. As long as the baby has not been abused, the parent or parents can give the infant up without fear of arrest or prosecution.

The law allows infants up to 7 days old to be handed off at a Safe Haven, which will assume temporary care until the state Department of Health and Human Services takes custody within 24 hours.

Huot said nationally there were 70 cases of discarded or abandoned infants last year. His organization is seeking to inform the public of the program and facilitate the creation of the Safe Havens. The Knights will cover the cost of having special “Baby Save Haven” signs made for local facilities. Huot said they were looking at the police and fire stations, as well as Berlin EMS, to participate. He said Androscoggin Valley Hospital is already a designated Safe Haven.

Mayor Paul Grenier said the city could only discuss the police and fire stations since Berlin EMS is privately owned. He asked if there was any liability or cost to the city and was told there was not.

Noting the Knights had not spoken to the fire department about the program, City Councilor Diana Nelson suggested that needed to happen. She said during a major fire, everyone is busy and there may not be anyone available to watch the infant. Councilor Roland Theberge, a member of the Knights, said he will work with the fire department to develop a protocol.

The council approved installing a sign at the police department and also at the fire station subject to discussions with the fire chief.

School board works to reduce budget

By Kirstan Knowlton
BERLIN — With the city council asking the school board to come up with $900,000 between cuts in its proposed 2018 school district  budget and its 2017 surplus, schools were forced to reexamine their needs and look for additional ways to reduce spending to reach that goal.
Superintendent Corrine Cascadden last week presented a modified budget to the school board that included a reduction of $399,906 to the 2018 budget and $459,535 left over from the 2017 budget. The remaining funds and cuts made to next year’s budget brought to the total amount reduced to $859,442.
“I don’t think we are going to get to the finish line, to be honest with you,” said Cascadden.
Cascadden explained that even with deep budget cuts, the district could keep providing current programming and staffing, but she doesn’t recommend going any further.
“The last thing we want to do is to start cutting programs,” said Cascadden.
With the current cuts, the district still falls nearly $40,000 short of the $900,000 goal, but additional savings could potentially be found if fuel costs come in under what was projected.
The district budgeted for $2.25 a gallon, but if costs decrease to $2 a gallon, there could be a cost savings of $30,000 to $40,000, bringing the district closer to its needed amount.
In a review of the cost savings measures that were made, Cascadden explained that officials were able to decrease their summer custodial staff, saving the district an estimated $15,500. Last year, the district hired 11 workers to handle the increased workload from maintenance and repairs, but with fewer projects this year they are planning to only hire eight.
Further savings was also found when the district received Title I funding, which will cover the wages and benefits for three staff members.
Despite the deep budget cuts, Cascadden remained confident and hopeful.
“We are in good shape. It’s strong fiscal management,” said Cascadden.

Boosted by Northern Pass funds, the Balsams moves ahead

By Chris Jensen

That step is going before the Business Finance Authority to ask that the state guarantee a $28 million loan to developer Les Otten.

Almost two years ago, then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, now a U.S. senator, signed a bill making it possible for the BFA to make such a loan.

If Otten defaults on that $28 million loan, the state’s collateral would be at least a portion of the Balsams.

But before such a guarantee is possible, the BFA has to consider information ranging from the financial risk to the benefits, including boosting the employment in the North Country.

All the information necessary for the BFA to consider backing the loan is now available, said Scott Tranchemontagne, a spokesman for the developers.

He said the final piece is a 27-page report addressing the employment issue. It was just finished by Polecon Research of Dover.

Among its conclusions:

• An average hourly wage of about $17 will allow the Balsams to attract the workers it needs, despite a somewhat tight labor market.

• About 400 employees will be needed when the resort opens and if the resort expands that could increase to 1,500. That will provide a large boost to the local economy.

• About 600 construction jobs will be created for the first phase.

Another key piece of information needed by the BFA is also done, said Tranchemontagne. It is a financial analysis of the value of the land and Otten’s operating budget.

It was commissioned by Northern Bank & Trust Company of Woburn, Mass. The bank is considering loaning Otten about $100 million, including the $28 million.

Tranchemontagne said it is up to the bank to submit the application to the BFA and he is not sure when that might happen.

“We’d like to move it as quickly as possible, but it is a little bit out of our hands now,” he said.

The first phase of the project is expected to cost $143 million and Otten has said it is crucial that the state back the $28 million loan.

Paying for the Polecon report and moving the project ahead was possible thanks to a $3 million loan from Northern Pass’ Forward NH Plan, Tranchemontagne said.

In filings with the state’s Site Evaluation Committee, Otten has praised Northern Pass and said it will be good for the Balsams and the state. Later this year that committee is expected to decide whether to allow the controversial project to go ahead.