Concord City Council hears testimony cautioning Employment Security purchase
At last night’s city council meeting, public testimony on Concord’s possible purchase of the New Hampshire Employment Security building on South Main Street was short.
So was Charlie Russell’s bottom line for the council: “I’m sitting here saying, ‘Why is the city getting into the development business?’ ” he said.
The council will revisit that question during its next regular meeting in June, when it will discuss and vote on whether to buy the state property for $1.9 million; whether to finance that move through the Sears Block Tax Increment Finance district; and whether to demolish the building or leave it standing if purchased.
While at-large Councilor Fred Keach said he understood Russell’s concern, he also noted the city’s desire to find the best developer for that downtown property.
“I appreciate your hesitancy of the city getting into the real estate business because that’s been a moment of pause to me,” Keach said. “But at the same time, I think we have an obligation to make sure that the properties that become available are managed and developed in the right direction.”
Russell and Concord resident Roy Schweiker challenged the city staff’s recommendation to pay for that purchase through the Sears Block TIF district, which also includes the Capital Commons building and the Smile building. In a TIF district, tax revenue from developments inside its boundaries will be reinvested in new projects in that area. In this case, Schweiker argued that revenue should be returned to the city’s general fund sooner rather than later, instead of remaining in the South End district.
“If you want to buy this property, I think you should not buy it in the TIF district,” Schweiker said.
Schweiker asked the council to consider alternatives to paying for the purchase through the TIF district revenue. He also questioned the city’s past incentives for developers, although he didn’t cite any examples during his testimony.
“What’s happening is the developers are competing with each other to see how many goodies they can get the city to give them for free,” Schweiker said.
Concord officials have said the city might own the property for up to five years, but Russell questioned whether putting the property on the market could move development faster.
“I see the city creating a blight,” Russell said.
The Employment Security staff has now vacated that building at 32-34 S. Main St., moving to the state office campus at 45 S. Fruit St. in Concord. The city had hoped to find a developer to build a mixed-use complex on that property by the time the state moved out, but Concord has formally rejected two proposals submitted last year for the job.
If the council votes to buy the property, that sale could close by September. The council’s next regular meeting is June 9 at 7 p.m. in council chambers.
Also at last night’s city council meeting:
∎ The council voted unanimously and without discussion to authorize property tax assessment for 2014. The vote does not affect 2013 property assessments, and the council has voted to authorize these assessments every year since 2005. The overall value of commercial properties dropped 2.23 percent in 2013; the value of single-family residences dropped by 0.45 percent.
Last year was the second in a row that the city received a record-high number of abatement requests. For the 2012 tax year, Concord received 356 requests for abatement, many from commercial property owners. Kathy Temchak, the city’s director of real estate assessments, has said the average number is about 200 to 250.
∎ The councilors heard a presentation from the Energy and Environment Committee, which recommends pursuing solar energy options for the city’s buildings, particularly at a large property such as the Hall Street wastewater plant.
Committee representative Randy Bryan said solar panels could be a way to “green up” the city’s buildings and save on energy costs. He cited Massachusetts and Vermont as other states where the solar projects have been successful.
“We think that can be brought into New Hampshire, as long as the financial details work out,” Bryan said.
After the meeting, Ward 5 Councilor Rob Werner, who serves as chairman of that committee, said the report could be a step toward saving on energy bills that affect the tax rate in Concord.
“I think it represents an opportunity for Concord to become more energy efficient and save city operations a good deal of money,” Werner said.
The committee’s report will be referred to the Fiscal Policy Advisory Committee, which will be tasked with analyzing the costs of energy-saving changes to city properties.
∎ During its upcoming deliberation on City Manager Tom Aspell’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2015, the council will consider allocating $75,000 for the nonprofit group planning Concord’s yearlong celebration of its 250th anniversary. With the council’s permission granted last night, Aspell will also request the state Division of Motor Vehicles produce commemorative license plates to mark that milestone.
∎ The councilors voted to reappropriate $20,000 in the Beaver Meadow Golf Course fund to pay for paving improvements at the clubhouse entryway. That money had originally been earmarked for a $60,000 golf simulator, which was to be purchased by the Parks and Recreation Department if the golf course fund was healthy enough.
“If the golf fund was doing very very well, I would let you know how it was doing, and then we would move forward with that project,” Aspell said. “Well, it’s just doing well. It’s not doing very well. So at this time, we’re not prepared to go forward with the golf simulator.”
The remaining $40,000 designated for the golf simulator will not be spent this year, Aspell said. With the council’s blessing last night, Aspell said those improvements at Beaver Meadow could be completed by Memorial Day.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or email@example.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)