Proposed bill asks for bigger piece of Gunstock Mountain’s income to go to county

Gunstock Mountain Resort.

Gunstock Mountain Resort. Jon Decker/The Laconia Daily Sun photo

By CATHERINE MCLAUGHLIN

The Laconia Daily Sun

Published: 11-22-2023 10:41 AM

GILFORD — Gunstock Mountain Resort has been required to pay 1.75% of its gross operating income to Belknap County annually since the passage of a 2020 law. One local lawmaker is working on legislation that would nearly double that rate.

Legislation for the next session in Concord is currently in the drafting stage. Rep. Barbara Comtois (R-Center Barnstead) has submitted a legislative service request, which can become a bill, that would place additional financial and public access requirements on the mountain and its county-appointed oversight board, the Gunstock Area Commission.

The proposed legislation would enact three major changes.

Annual county payment

While some kind of payment back to Belknap County has been required of Gunstock for some time, a 2020 law, sponsored by Comtois and other Belknap representatives, simplified it to a flat 1.75% of gross operating income. The mountain has seen climbing revenues in recent years, and has increased the amount it has paid to the county every year since the change.

This legislation would increase that 1.75% of “gross operating income” to 3% of “gross revenue.” Gunstock Chief Financial Officer Cathy White said in an interview that those two terms are synonymous, and the change in wording would have no real impact outside the percentage change.

If that rate had been in effect this year, according to figures provided by the mountain, Gunstock would have paid the county more than $603,000. The actual figure was about $352,000.

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Comtois told The Daily Sun the mountain’s rate ought to increase because inflation has driven up county expenses.

“With the ever-increasing costs in the county, to ask Gunstock to contribute a little bit more, I don’t think it’s unreasonable,” she said.

White and general manager Tom Day said in an interview the increased figure concerned them. While the mountain has been in a comfortable position financially in recent years, climate change makes the ski industry increasingly volatile, they said. This increased rate could become a strain.

“It doesn’t really seem to be financially responsible to try to make these changes when we’re doing good or bad,” White said. “Now that we are financially independent and self-supportive, there’s people who want to change the existing law.” For the last three years, the mountain has not sought a RAN, a short-term municipal bond, to get through the off-season.

Existing profits, Day emphasized, are currently invested back into the mountain.

“Why are they trying to get more money from us when we continually put money back into the business?” Day said. “It’s not sitting in the bank.”

Doug Lambert, chair of the Gunstock Area Commission, said he felt the bill’s proposed increase was “premature and not well thought out.” He also emphasized the volatility of the ski industry, and said he felt an increase should wait a few more years.

“I see this as a politician seeing a pot of money and, as politicians often do, they want to get their fingers on it,” Lambert said.

Additional audit

State law also requires that the mountain and commission be audited every year. Comtois’ bill would require an additional, forensic audit to be performed at a random time within a five-year period by a different auditor than performs the annual one.

Comtois said that, given illegal political donation checks by the mountain had gone undetected by past routine audits, an additional required oversight measure was a responsible step to protect taxpayers from potential liabilities.

“I’m not saying that anybody is doing anything wrong,” Comtois said, adding she felt once every five years would not be onerous. “I just think it would be a good practice [that] keeps honest people honest.”

Day said that further auditing of the mountain would be both “redundant” and “expensive.” Day shared an estimate he sought that a municipal forensic audit would likely cost at least $50,000.

Lambert echoed that characterization. He highlighted that existing laws governing Gunstock made additional audits of the mountain available to the county’s elected representatives “at such other times and in such manner as the county convention may determine.”

Additionally, Lambert continued, the mountain’s financial statements are accessible to anyone under the state’s Right to Know law.

The forensic audits would also reach backward into recent history; the legislation would require a forensic audit of the 2021 fiscal year.

“This is a fishing expedition,” Lambert said, likening the bill’s objectives to a controversial audit committee formed by previous commission leadership, on which Comtois served and which was disbanded after the turmoil in 2022.

Day also said that finding another auditor would have logistic challenges: very few firms are interested in performing county-level audits, he said, based on the mountain’s experience collecting bids for its yearly one.

Required meeting recordings

Comtois’ legislation also would require the commission to record its meetings and post recordings to its website.

GAC meetings have been regularly recorded and posted by Lakes Region Public Access since August 2022.

Lambert, while in support of recording commission meetings, said he felt requiring it legally “goes beyond 91-A and places an onus on the GAC not placed on other government bodies.”

Comtois said that scheduling and family commitments had made it difficult for her to attend commission meetings. She was not aware, and was glad to learn, they were already being recorded as a practice, but still felt it should be required and that they should be linked on the mountain’s website to ensure easy access to the public.

Many local boards use, and some rely solely on, LRPA to record and post videos of their meetings. Video recordings are not required by the state’s public access law, RSA 91-A, but the practice has been increasingly popular — and increasingly expected by constituents — since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Citizens for Belknap — a local PAC born from the mountain’s turmoil last year that campaigned against several members of the county delegation, including Comtois — responded to the proposed legislation in a statement.

“We have experts to manage Gunstock and a very knowledgeable Gunstock Area Commission, and we don’t need a return to the dark days of costly, baseless audits and lawsuits,” Prudy Veysy, co-chair of the PAC, said. “It would be more cost effective for Ms. Comtois and others supporting this legislation to actually read Gunstock Mountain Resort’s financial statements and attend the GAC monthly meetings if they want to know what’s going on.”

Day and Lambert said that, in total, they felt Comtois’ proposed legislation placed unnecessary financial burdens on the mountain and the commission.

“We have something here that is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” Lambert said.

“Let us run our business,” Day said. “Let us be successful for all the people that live in the county and enjoy the product.”

Gunstock Mountain Resort is scheduled to open for the winter on Friday, Dec. 8.

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