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Special trustee to oversee struggling North Country social agency

Union Leader correspondent

December 17. 2012 10:00PM

BERLIN - Tri-County Community Action Program, which serves Coos, Grafton and Carroll counties, is being overseen by a special trustee, the authority of its board of directors suspended as the agency staff and the trustee map a path forward.

That path includes finding ways to maintain the programs and services for the residents that the agency provides, while gaining financial stability.

"We've been trying to do too much for too long," said Peter Higbee, chief operations officer, on Monday. He said TCCAP has 50 service sites, an $18 million budget, and 270 employees. TCCAP administers the tri-county area's fuel assistance program, 11 Head Start programs, North Country Elder Programs, North Country Transit, the Tamworth Dental Center, alcohol and drug services, and weatherization services, among other programs.

It has also redeveloped older properties for new nonprofit uses, including its headquarters in Berlin, the former Grand Trunk Railroad Station.

Anthony Blenkinsop, Esq., director of the Charitable Trust Unit of the state Attorney General's Office, said Monday that the office asked the court on Friday to appoint a special trustee. An emergency petition was filed in the 1st District, Probate Division, with the court granting the request and appointing attorney Todd C. Fahey of Orr & Reno as special trustee.

Bleckinsop said that the agency has financial issues, including its amount of debt and the use of funds specifically for programs for general operating expenses. He said the difficulties came to light after other community action programs in the state expressed concern to the state Department of Health and Human Services, which then contacted the AG's Office.

Bleckinstop said they met with executive director Joe Costello and board chairman Rep. Bill Hatch of Gorham, who were subsequently requested to submit a plan of action. He said they had, but that on Thursday TCCAP's board of directors suspended Costello.

When it was clear that Costello was no longer functioning as executive director, Bleckinstop said, it concerned them enough to petition the court. Costello had been the director since the spring of 2011, when he took over from retiring Larry Kelly, who was with TCCAP for 27 years, according to Higbee.

"This situation continues to be monitored, by the director, the probate court, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and various federal agencies that provide federal funding for Tri-County CAP's many programs," reads a statement from TCCAP. "The special trustee is now working with regulators, outside advisers, management and key personnel at Tri-County CAP, Inc. to assess the organization's financial situation and to stabilize its operations. The immediate objective is to avoid or minimize any immediate interruptions to the delivery of services to the residents of Cos, Carroll and Grafton served by Tri-County CAP. However, the organization will be reviewing all of its programs in the coming weeks as it continues to file reports with appropriate authorities and considers all available options to fulfill its mission and operate in a fiscally sound manner."

TCCAP owns nine properties in Berlin, according to city manager Patrick MacQueen. Several years ago the agency became the landlord at the Brown Company House, formerly owned by Northern Heritage Forest Park trustees, and took over the park's logging camp, too.

On Dec. 10, Max Makaitis TCCAP economic development director, updated the Berlin City Council on the Notre Dame senior housing facility project. TCCAP would be the developer, owner, and manager of the property. Notre Dame was one of the city's Catholic high school. It closed in 1972 and has been vacant ever since.

The old Brown Company Research and Development building on upper Main Street in Berlin is owned by TCCAP, and at the council meeting Makaitis said more work will be done on the building as grants are acquired.

The agency recently got a Community Development Block Grant as part of the financing for energy improvements at the Angel -Guardian Building, and also recently became the owner of the Congregational church in the city.

Whether these projects will go forward as planned will likely be decided in the coming weeks, Higbee said.

"For many years Tri-County CAP has been the go-to agency in the North Country. It is with sadness that I learned the news that the attorney general is putting them in receivership, it is important that basic services be preserved and the operation be focused on a core mission. I've expressed my support to Peter Higbee, chief operations officer, and stand ready to help in anyway. The North Country is a resilient place and it knows how to pull together and get things done," District 1 state Sen. Jeff Woodburn said.

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