CONWAY — Town officials from around New Hampshire on Tuesday shared concerns with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) about dealing with an influx of visitors from other states, lost revenue, budget concerns and voting issues, all spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meeting by conference call were: Conway Town Manager Tom Holmes; Jaffrey Town Manager Jon Frederick; Colebrook Town Clerk/Welfare Officer Sharon Penney; Margaret Byrnes, executive director of the N.H. Municipal Association; Rodney Bartlett, Peterborough town administrator; Plymouth Town Manager Kathy Lowe; Plymouth Finance Manager Ann Abear; and Jennifer Palmiotto, executive director of the Granite State Rural Water Association.
Shaheen told them: “I know that you’re experiencing the same kinds of challenges that the business community is. ... I continue to argue, as do many of my colleagues, for additional funding for state and local governments.”
Shaheen said both the HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act in the House and the HEALS (Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools) Act in the Senate have provisions for more flexible spending.
Holmes said the state has done an excellent job, but “we’re in the trenches, and we see the problems firsthand. If the funding were directly going to the municipalities, we can be more nimble; we can turn on a dime.”
Byrnes said the full impact of declines in revenue has yet to be completely felt.
“The fallout from the pandemic, and the impacts of revenue losses, is going to continue. And it’s very early on to determine what that will look like,” she said. “But we know that there are significant revenue losses and that we will continue to see that in the next year or in the next couple of years.”
Holmes spoke about the unprecedented number of visitors to the Mount Washington Valley.
“I’ve never seen anything like it both in number and problems,” he said. “We have issues with our local sites to the river and the parks being overrun, illegal camping, trash dumping. I’ve had to double and triple the sanitation facilities available,” he said.
Frederick agreed, saying, “We are the home of Mount Monadnock. And we are seeing our share of out-of-state traffic here that is overwhelming that park.”
Penney said: “Here in the upper North Country, we have a great concern about how COVID and in-migration from cities is affecting our welfare program. I am getting inundated by people requesting services.”
Holmes noted that “an unanticipated impact of shutting down the world is that a lot of people decided they wanted to become residents of places like Conway, and they’re coming in to transfer their plates from New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island.”
While the town is officially about 10,000 residents, he estimated with second home owners, it is twice that, and costs of services and infrastructure reflect that higher number.
Bartlett said, “We’ve termed it the COVID Cloud. Almost everything in your life — work, employment, family, friends, paying your bills, do you wear a mask, do you not wear a mask — has been so impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Frederick said, “The biggest hit that we took here (in Jaffrey) was there are small businesses, particularly the small restaurants that really were hurting during the spring.” While business has improved, he said, “As we’re heading back into the second wave, support for them is going to be critical.”
Lowe, town manager of the only college town represented on the call, talked about concerns about college students coming back to Plymouth State. “We are concerned about their reopening the colleges,” she said. “It’s scary for us.”
Officials talked about plans for increased absentee voting and drive-through voting. Holmes said the process went well in May, but the town is planning to have walk-in voting at the town garage in September due to concerns about the cold.
Despite high numbers of visitors, Holmes said some businesses in the valley are still hurting.
Since many people come only for the day, Holmes said, it isn’t reflected in business revenues as it has been in past years, “and certainly not being reflected in the lodging industry.
“What’s looming is our possibility of having to abate a lot of the hospitality and restaurant industry, which would decrease the tax base and again increase property taxes,” he said.
The pandemic has also changed how business is being done in ways that may become permanent, Holmes said. Sign regulations have been relaxed, and outdoor dining and retail permits granted without charging fees to help businesses and protect public health.
“There’s serious discussion about allowing that every year, which I’m very happy about. It gives the kind of festive atmosphere,” he said.
Shaheen said she was aware of problems with visitors to the valley.
While here in early July, she stopped at Big Dave’s Bagels in North Conway and heard about the area being overrun with day-trippers. She said owner Dave Hausman “suggested that they weren’t always as thoughtful and sensitive to the needs of others as he had seen in the past. It’s unfortunate that we’re seeing that kind of response. Hopefully, people would be more more responsive and not as rude to folks in the communities where they’re visiting.”
Shaheen wrapped up the meeting by saying, “We stand ready to try and do everything we can to be helpful. I’m going to continue to push for funding for state local governments. I think it’s very important.”