Wood appointed president of WMCC, trustees vote to freeze tuition

BERLIN – After serving longer than a year as interim president, Matt Wood was formally appointed president of White Mountains Community College Thursday. Meeting at the college, the Community College System of N.H. board of trustees also followed through on a promise to freeze tuition rates.
Wood led the college through a tough period that included lay-offs and the elimination of some positions. Ross Gittell, chancellor of the community college system, said Wood had done a good job reversing a three-year decline in enrollment and confronting challenges at the college.
“After a very successful year in the position as interim president, and following an evaluation that included input from a broad spectrum of the college community and stakeholders, I am very pleased to recommend the formal appointment of Matt Wood to the position of WMCC president,” Gittell said.
The board unanimously confirmed Wood’s appointment.
Wood said over the past three years enrollment declined a total of 21 percent at the college. The result was a ten percent cut in revenues because of the loss of tuition.
This semester, he said there is a 15 percent increase in credits sold. Wood said that does not mean there is a 15 percent increase in the head count at the college. He said there are about 800 students at the Berlin and Littleton campuses. He said there has been a big increase in on-line learning with the number of on-line credits sold increasing from 450 to 1,100.
Wood attributed the increase in credits sold to changes made last year. He said there was a focus on curriculum to better align it with what students want. Seven new online programs were created including health and wellness, accounting, criminal justice, and business administration and new offerings in library technology and autism education.
Wood said the college created a new STEM department to focus on those areas because companies report a need for people with technical skills. He said the college looked at areas that already existed and packaged them together to create the new department without spending additional money. The department includes environmental studies, welding, and life science, and the IT programs.
Staffing was realigned to reflect program demand and course scheduling was chance to help students maximize their time on campus and bring greater efficiency to teaching schedules.
Wood has also worked to build partnerships with regional employers and initiate programs at local high schools that help students enter postsecondary education with college credits already completed.
Under Wood’s leadership, the board changed its mind about moving the mobile equipment technology program to the Laconia campus. A new three-year contract was approved at the meeting to continue to lease space from Chapman Scrap Metal and Demolition on the city’s East Side for the program.
The college last spring eliminated four full-time faculty positions, two full-time staff positions, and did not replace two retiring faculty positions. The college now has 19 full-time on its teaching faculty.
While difficult, the reductions were described as necessary because the college was operating in the red. Asked if the college is now sustainable, Wood replied, “I think we’ve made steps.”
He stressed the results are for only one semester.
“We feel encouraged with our changes because we’re headed in the right direction. But we’ve very cautious,” he said.
Wood is a long-time educator who taught math and physics before becoming an associate vice president of academic affairs at N.H. Technical College in Concord. He seized the opportunity to accept the interim position at WMCC in July 2014 due to his love of the North Country and the opportunity to help strengthen the college amid demographic and economic challenges.
“I am honored to be confirmed in the position of president of WMCC,” said Wood. “WMCC is an essential resource for this region and I am absolutely committed to its success,” he said.
The board also formally voted to freeze tuition for the current academic year. The board had promised to freeze tuition if the legislation approved its budget request. Tuition was frozen for this semester provisionally while the board waited for the state budget to be enacted. The board had requested level funding for fiscal year 2016 and a three percent increase in its 2017 state appropriation.
“We recognize the challenge of college affordability for N.H. families and are pleased that we were able to work with the governor and N.H. legislature to freeze tuition,” said Gittell.
“Clearly this is great news for our students. The tuition freeze enables them to study where they live, and save thousands of dollars while they work toward their degree, or prepare to transfer to a four-year institution,” said Wood.
The college system reduced tuition last year and also froze tuition in 2013.
Trustee Stephen Guyer noted there had been some criticism of the decision to reduce tuition last year in light of staff and faculty cuts at some of the colleges. Some had argued the reduction, which came to $10 a credit or $30 a course, was insignificant and the money could have been used to retain full-time faculty to reduce the increasing reliance on part-time adjuncts. He asked student trustee Nathan Wells of WMCC if the reduction was important to students.
Wells replied that the dollar amount was not important but the concern it showed for the students was.
“That makes more of a difference to me than the extra $5,” he said.

Birthday party for Bobby Saturday

BERLIN – From helping out at Berlin Senior Meals and attending community events to delivering newspapers and running errands, Bobby Haggart is a Berlin icon.
Kind-hearted and always willing to lend a hand, Bobby needs no last name in Berlin where he is a popular and loved figure.
Frequently walking throughout the city, Bobby is a friendly and familiar face. He is also known for a phenomenal memory.
Bobby turns 70 soon and his brother Rick Haggart has organized a community birthday party for him today, Oct. 3 at the Northern Forest Heritage Park from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. People are encouraged to stop by and share birthday cake and ice cream as well as stories with Bobby.
“He likes people and he likes to help people,” said his brother Rick Haggart. “It gives him pleasure to help people,” he said.
Haggart said his brother especially loves helping older people. He went to church with Bobby recently and observed him automatically getting up and reprieving walkers for two women once the service ended.
Bobby is a regular visitor to Berlin Senior Meals where he volunteers for a variety of tasks.
“He’s here almost every day,” said Senior Meals head Jerry Riendeau.
Riendeau said Bobby goes around emptying containers, taking out the cardboard, and picking up silverware and plates from tables. A few weeks ago, he said Bobby cleaned and swept the entire parking lot.
Riendeau said Bobby is popular and pleasant with the clients.
“Everybody loves Bobby,” he said.
David Graham, marketplace assister at ServiceLink, agreed, saying Bobby frequently stops by his office as he makes his rounds at the senior center.
“He’s really very kind-hearted and always talking. He’s an institution,” he said.
Bobby drops by the Berlin Daily Sun office to pick up newspapers that he distributes to people along his route. He shovels sidewalks for a variety of businesses and elderly people during the winter and in summer helps every week with the Farmers Market.
He is also a fixture at community events. Bobby said he goes to all the hockey games at the Notre Dame Arena and many events at St. Kieran Center for the Arts, where he also helps out. He attends every high school graduation and homecoming celebration.
Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier recalled that for many years Bobby attended every city council meeting. In 2004, the council honored Bobby for saving the life of an elderly man. Bobby notified authorities that the 84-year old had not answered his door and the man was discovered unconscious.
“He is truly an amazing person. He remembers everyone whom he has come in contact with - their extended family members, the car they drive, and where they live. Bobby has been a very unique member of our community for a very long time,” Grenier said.

White Mountain National Forest - Deer Ridge Integrated Resource Project

GORHAM — Katherine W. Stuart, Androscoggin District ranger for the White Mountain National Forest, released a public scoping report for the Deer Ridge Integrated Resource Project on Thursday, Oct. 1.

The White Mountain National Forest is seeking public comments on a proposal that includes wildlife habitat management, timber harvesting, recreational improvements, and travel management on national forest lands in the area generally north of the West Branch of the Upper Ammonoosuc River, south of Rodgers Ledge, east of the Unknown Pond Trailhead, and west of the Upper Ammonoosuc River.

The purpose of this project is to work towards the vegetation, wildlife habitat, transportation and recreation goals, and the objectives established by the White Mountain National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan (Forest Plan) for Management Area 2.1 lands in the South Pond South Habitat Management Unit. Lands in Management Area 2.1 were identified in the Forest Plan as those areas where silviculture practices (both even-aged and uneven-aged) would be used to meet timber, ecological, visual and recreational objectives. The need for the project is identified by comparing existing conditions within the South Pond South Habitat Management Unit to the desired conditions for Management Area 2.1 lands established by the Forest Plan and through the assessment of other forest resources for issues and concerns.

The actions proposed by this project are designed to maintain existing desirable conditions, and to improve conditions where necessary to more closely meet the desired conditions established by the Forest Plan. A detailed description of the project and how to comment can be found at: www.fs.usda.gov/projects/whitemountain/landmanagement/projects

Hard copies of the scoping report can be obtained at the Androscoggin Ranger District Office, 300 Glen Road, Gorham, NH 03581 during normal business hours.

The 30-day public comment period will be open from Oct. 1 to Oct. 30.

Property assessments down dramatically in revaluation update

BERLIN –Residential and commercial property assessments have dropped dramatically in the city’s new revaluation update.
The news was not totally unexpected. City officials warned earlier this year that residential property valuations would decrease significantly based on the N.H. Department of Revenue Administration figures showing an overall equalization ratio of 142 percent - meaning assessed values were 42 percent higher than market values. In other words, properties were selling at prices 42 percent less than assessed values.
The board of assessors and top officials from KRT Appraisals reviewed the preliminary figures for the city council Monday night.
KRT President Ken Rodgers said the firm reviewed all valid sales over the past two years in developing its sales assessment ratio study – the difference between assessed value and the sale price.
The study showed the difference between assessed and market values were highest for commercial properties and apartment buildings with more than three units.
Single-family homes had an equalization ratio of 130 percent – meaning assessed values was 30 percent higher than market values. Apartments with over three units were assessed at 74 percent over market value and commercial properties were 97 percent over market value.
To meet state standards, assessments were adjusted to get the new ratios down to 99 to 103 percent, meaning most home and commercial property owners saw a major reduction in their property assessment.
Councilor Mike Rozek said the huge drop in property assessments was hard to accept.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” he said.
Mayor Paul Grenier noted the city has made major progress in cleaning up its blighted housing, particularly multiple family tenement buildings. He said the new figures show him the city must continue to focus on that effort.
“Our work is nowhere close to being done,” he added.
Councilor Lucie Remillard said a constituent reported their assessment had been cut in half, from $100,000 to $50,000. She asked Rodgers and KRT Vice President Rob Tozier if foreclosure sales were used in the study. The pair said they looked only at valid sales or what are called arm’s length transactions. Tozier said, however, that foreclosure sales work to drag down other sale prices. He noted that with an equalization ratio 42 percent above market prices on qualified sales, assessments had nowhere to go but down.
Remillard, who is a realtor, said the new residential assessments will make it impossible to move property at a decent price in the city.
“Our sales are difficult now. They’re going to be more difficult,” she said.
While in theory assessments are different from market values, Remillard noted buyers always check tax assessments and are reluctant to pay over that figure for properties. She said desperate sellers have killed the market for others.
Board of Assessors Chair Robert Goddard reminded the council that KRT of Haverhill, MA., was hired last fall to do the valuation update for residential and commercial properties. He said it was not a total revaluation.
He explained that the city is required by statute to do updates every five years. Goddard said the update was simply to bring the city into compliance and interior inspections were not performed. Avitar was under contract with the city to do the day-to-day assessing work through this month. KRT used the data already on file. Over the next five years, he said KRT will upgrade the data.
City Manager James Wheeler said five years ago property assessments matched the market and the equalization ratio was 100 percent. But he said the DRA monitors sales and the city’s equalization ratio of 142 percent showed the old model no longer represented the market.
Grenier said he was concerned that despite the work the city has done culling out blighted housing, the low property values will invite another wave of absentee landlords and irresponsible property owners.
Still the mayor stressed the news is not all gloom and doom. He said Berlin will see a $135,000 drop in its country tax because of the overall drop in valuation. He said residential properties will pick up a smaller share of the city’s overall tax burden and utilities will pick up a larger percentage. He said the city is also likely to see an increase in state education funding.
Goddard added that there are sections of the housing market that went up. Rozek said those property owners whose value went up or stayed the same are likely to be upset because their tax bill will go up.
Councilor Denise Morgan Allain asked if the new data will increase assessments over the next four to five years. Rodgers said those updates may not raise assessments. Goddard said the market will deteremine that.
With the lower property values, Rozek said the city may not have the revenues to meet current expectations. He said Berlin is a very expensive city to operate. But Grenier said the reduction in the county tax should eliminate the projected increase in property taxes for the current fiscal budget.
Rodgers showed the council a presentation describing how revaluation update was done and showing the various equalization ratios.
KRT has gone through the review process for residential properties and hearings for commercial values will be held Oct. 5 and 6. The project is expected to be complete Oct. 7. Assessor Supervisor Susan Warren said the city ahs to submit its property tax data to the DRA by Oct. 30 so the agency can set the city’s tax rate.
Councilor Diana Nelson asked what the process is for a residential property owner who disagrees with their new assessment. While the review period for residential property owners has closed, Rodgers said owners still have the option of applying for an abatement. Abatement requests are due by March 1, but residents are required to pay their property tax bill upfront.