The Recent History of the New Hampshire Municipal Association (1996-2005)
Representatives of New Hampshire’s towns, cities and counties gathered at the Legislative Office Building for the first meeting of the Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC) to be called by Governor Stephen Merrill. The LGAC was patterned after similar groups in over 20 states, including Maine and Massachusetts. It was designed to provide a regular forum to discuss and attempt to resolve State-local issues in a cooperative atmosphere.
An earthen-dam break sent damaging flood waters through the Town of Alton which left one woman dead and millions worth of property damage, including a building owned by the town, the contents of the building, and two town vehicles parked by the building. While this dam was privately-owned, many cities, towns and districts own dams of their own. Nearly 14%, or about 358 dams, are municipally-owned in New Hampshire.
The Town of Littleton was the first town in New Hampshire to set up its own website. Other towns that went online in 1996 included the Towns of Epping, Portsmouth, Weare, and Hanover. These sites were often used by local citizens to find out office hours, election information, upcoming meetings, and other items of interest in the community.
In 1995, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 2, which became part of RSA 40:12-15. This new law allowed any local political subdivision in New Hampshire whose legislative body raises and appropriates fund through any annual meeting to adopt voting by official ballot on all warrant articles. This process requires two sessions, the first of which consists of explanation, discussion and debate of each warrant article; voters may amend and vote on amendments, but no final vote may be taken on any warrant article. The second session of the annual meeting is held to elect officers by official ballot, to vote on questions required by law, and to vote on all warrant articles from the first session by official ballot.
Pam Valley was hired by the Association to serve as an office assistant in 1996. Valley came to NHMA after her position with a Concord law firm. Valley provides office support and clerical assistance mainly for the legal and governmental affairs department. Pam continues to serve in this position today.
With the Year 2000 looming large, many local governments began exploring all their applications, personal computers, elevators, access systems, gasoline dispensing systems, CAD operations, or any automated process, to verify their systems would be operational after January 1, 2000.
NHMA created its initial website, http://www.nhmunicipal.org, for the benefit of New Hampshire municipal officials and the world to be able to find NHMA and a host of other municipal resources. The site went live in February and received an average of 1,800 monthly hits.
The decline of state and federal aid to cities and towns and the increased pressure to reduce property taxes caused many to begin looking at user fees to support certain government services. A survey of public attitude toward government done by the US Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations showed that the idea of supporting municipal services through user fees rather than taxation grew more popular over the past decade.
NHMA’s Executive Director, John Andrews, was recognized by members and staff for his 22 years of public service to New Hampshire’s municipalities.
Carl Drega, a 67-year old anti-government gunman, went on a rampage in the Town of Colebrook killing four people and wounding four law-enforcement officials. Among the victims was Vickie Bunnel, a former NHMA board member, a lawyer, associate judge and selectman who had angered Mr. Drega with a property tax ruling several years earlier. Drega was eventually killed in a fire fight with over 20 law enforcement officials.
The Colebrook tragedy was compounded further by the loss of another member of our municipal family. Hours after returning from a funeral for state troopers killed in the line of duty in the Colebrook rampage, Epsom Officer Jeremy Charron was killed after he stopped a car along a rural road in Epsom. Charron’s parents were both active as municipal officials and leaders in their community.
In 1997, NHMA staff expended significant time on electric utility deregulation, taxation of telephone poles and wires, the state budget, revision to official ballot requirements, and a variety of issues affecting operations and structures at the local level, such as municipal ordinance fines, welfare reform, and tax deeds.
NHMA released A Hard Road to Travel Handbook, a comprehensive publication on the laws of local highways, streets, and trails. At the time, NHMA’s Legal Counsel, Bernie Waugh, proclaimed this manual was “something no municipality should be without.” This Handbook remains one of NHMA’s most popular publications today.
The New Hampshire’s Supreme Court decision in the “Claremont” education funding lawsuit placed different and immediate pressures on the Legislature to determine what is an “adequate” education and to fund it in a way that was proportional and constitutional.
Federal, state and municipal governments continued to explore solutions in face of the Year 2000 problem. Countless records, information programs, and operating systems — for everything from traffic light controls to vital records, from court calendars to processing of applications and payments — were likely to get tangled in the confusion as the potential detonation of a digital time-bomb known as Year 2000 loomed. In turn, the NHMA provided each member with Y2K Toolkits in partnership with national associations of local government.
To help address the training and resource needs of municipal officials, in 1998, Antioch New England Institute established the Selectperson Institute, a series of four, full-day participatory workshops designed to enhance their community leadership and management skills.
The New Hampshire Main Street Center, a private statewide initiative created in 1996 to stimulate downtown revitalization and the historic and economic redevelopment of traditional New Hampshire business districts, helped New Hampshire’s cities and towns recapture downtown’s important “sense of place.”
Pam Valley, NHMA’s Administrative Assistant, was recognized for her “true team attitude” as NHMA’s 1999 Employee of the Year. Valley continues to serve in this position today, always helping out wherever she is needed, and without any special fanfare or recognition.
Sprawl was a hot issue in 1999. Urban sprawl saw the spreading of houses and shopping centers on undeveloped land near a city and/or urban center. In response, Governor Jeanne Shaheen issued Executive Order 99-2 which established The Council on Resources and Development, comprised of ten-member board of state agencies, to promote the retention of traditional communities and landscape to the maximum extent feasible. This order recognized that state government, in close coordination with local, regional and federal entities, play a significant role in shaping future growth and development patterns.
The legislature focused on the education funding issues, seemingly to the exclusion of all other legislative issues at times. Over 40 bills were an attempt to resolve in whole or in part, the education funding crisis. Most of the education funding proposals were at least 30 pages long with some as many as 50 or 60 pages.
The Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) issued its most comprehensive governmental accounting rule ever developed. For the first time, a government’s financial reports must provide information about the full cost of providing services to its residents, including its infrastructure assets such as roads, bridges, and storm sewers. This new financial reporting system provided citizens a clearer picture of what a government is doing with the taxes it collects.
NHMA achieved a major policy goal in 1999, with the passage of a home rule constitutional amendment (CACR 6) and companion statute. This victory was the culmination of the efforts of many local and state officials to recognize the capability of citizens at the municipal level to govern themselves wisely and well. Many in New Hampshire praise the virtues of “local control” but it is largely a myth without home rule.
Governments, including those in New Hampshire, successfully made the transition through the New Year and did not experience any significant Year 2000-related problems.
NHMA announced a new member service in 1999—free postings of employment or classified ads on its website. At the time, members were encouraged to submit job openings to NHMA staff for posting on its website. Today our Classified Ads portal allows members to post for themselves, positions, RFPs, RFQs, bids, and for sale items.
New Hampshire continues to be the fastest-growing state in the Northeast, having added 264,000 people from 1980 to 1998. This growth meant changes for many New Hampshire’s cities and towns, especially how a municipality continues to meet its water supply needs, particularly when the potential for new water sources were becoming more and more limited. Once seen as virtually an unlimited resource, many officials began to realize that water could no longer be taken for granted, even in “water-rich” New Hampshire.
It was surprising, considering that one of governments’ most important roles is to communicate information to the public, that less than one third of the state’s 234 towns and cities had official web sites in 2000. The real challenge was maintenance of a website, which found many smaller towns unable to devote the resources necessary to adequately maintain such a public site.
After 15 years of dedicated service to the Association, Chief Legal Counsel, H. Bernard Waugh, left NHMA to join a private law firm of Fulton & Gardner. Bernie’s last official day was August 11, 2000. Bernie left a lasting impression on NHMA, including authoring several NHMA publications, including the highway law handbook “A Hard Road to Travel” (1997), which has been heard by many highway agents as “our bible.” Shortly after this loss, Communications and Member Services Manager Heather Anderson tendered her resignation.
While it is easy to simply assume everything is understood by selectmen, tax collectors, town clerks, and others—or to merely have the town administrator handle the myriad of tasks—that simply does not work for all New Hampshire’s municipalities. Many of our small towns continued to be staffed by part-time department managers, and did not have a town administrator (even part-time), making it virtually impossible to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for new obligations, forms, reports, etc.
On November 7th, New Hampshire voters rejected the constitutional amendment regarding home rule (CACR 6) proposed by the 1999 General Court. By a vote of 218,875 to 202,367, voters did not favor amending the State’s constitution allowing municipalities to have home rule authority pertaining to its government and affairs, despite the fact this amendment did nothing to alter or limit in any way the state’s right of preemption over municipal powers and functions.
In past years, New Hampshire’s cities and towns have been faced with a number of natural disasters—ice storms, flooding, dam breaches, and other naturally-occurring events. As a result of these occurrences, the Public Works Mutual Aid Program was formed in 1998. Fast forward to 2001, and the Program had grown to 65 members. The program allowed a member municipality that did not have the resources to deal with a disaster, to call upon other participating communities for help.
NHMA consolidated the separate departments of Legal Services and Government Affairs into a combined department now known as the Legal Services & Government Affairs Department. The new structure combined the two departments to offer more efficient delivery of services and to take advantage of the close working relationship the two departments had.
Budget years are never easy, and 2001 was no exception. Despite general disappointment, there were victories for cities and towns. Funding for the land and community heritage investment program, defeat of binding arbitration, and workable changes to assessing practices, were among the victories affecting municipalities.
September 11, 2001 has become one of the significant turning points of American history. As with December 7, 1941, and other historic dates, the country was greatly changed in its aftermath. In the wake of the September 11 attack, US Attorney General John Ashcroft directed the US attorney in each state to set up a task force aimed at coordinating the law enforcement response to terrorism.
The West Nile Virus had seen a significant geographic spread since first arriving in New York City in 1999. In New Hampshire, West Nile Virus was confirmed in 83 birds, 3 mosquito pools and a horse in 2001. New Hampshire’s response varied significantly. Some municipalities engaged in a wide variety of surveillance and control activities, while others took a “wait and see” approach.
More and more, local land use boards were finding themselves dealing with application for wireless facilities, commonly referred to as cell towers. This was the intended result of the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA), a federal law meant to foster competition in the telecommunications industry and promote the building of a new communications infrastructure in the country. In enacting the TCA, Congress left control of the placement of wireless facilities to local government, but with some major limitations.
Results from New Hampshire’s March town meetings showed that municipalities throughout southern New Hampshire were appropriating significant sums of taxpayer funds to conserve undeveloped land. Ten municipalities approved bonds and appropriations totaling nearly $14 million.
The legislative session was marked by political bickering, intense partisan debate over redistricting, and a seeming inability to compromise over even the smallest detail. Individual and collective safety in the post September 11 world was a key issue, as were education funding, property tax relief, and assessing. There were 281 laws from the 2002 session and 74 of them affected municipal government in some way.
The Local Government Center purchased a parcel of land adjacent to its current facility in Concord for the planned addition of 4800 square feet of office and conference space for the ever-growing HealthTrust staff and programs. The resulting facility will be 14,400 square feet and provides expanded office space and several meeting spaces to meet the growing demands of NHMA, its Trusts, and affiliate groups.
More than 700 municipal officials gathered for NHMA’s Annual Conference. 69 workshops were held during the three-day event in Manchester on a myriad of local government-related topics. 101 exhibitors were also on hand to provide valuable information regarding new and existing services, programs and products for the municipal sector.
Judy Silva, Government Affairs Counsel, was recognized for her 10 years of service representing member interests at the legislature.
In 2003, the New Hampshire Municipal Association and its HealthTrust, Property Liability Trust and Workers’ Compensation programs were reorganized under the umbrella of The New Hampshire Local Government Center. This structure was intended to provide comprehensive and high quality products and services to municipalities, school districts and other governmental entities throughout the state. This was the result of a joint study by the three organizations’ boards, which voted on the reorganization on April 7, 2003. A newly combined board was formed which included representation from all membership constituencies, including municipal, school, county and employee groups.
The Town of Waterville Valley, by a town meeting vote of 100 to 10, enacted one of New Hampshire’s “Dark Sky” ordinance in March. Designed to protect and enhance viewing of the night sky, the ordinance regulates outdoor lighting to reduce glare, save energy, and minimize light pollution. The Town’s ordinance applied to all new or replacement outdoor lighting within town limits.
The .gov (read “dot gov”) domain, originally reserved for United States governmental entities only, was made available for state and local level governments as well. This meant that all state governments and programs, cities and towns and counties could register their name in the .gov domain. Domain names are the names we type in our web browser to locate certain web pages.
The Local Government Center in Concord, which served as home to NHMA, the HealthTrust and Property-Liability Trust since 1989, underwent its second building expansion since then. Construction was underway for a large addition that offered 27,000 square feet of office and meeting space. Meeting space was at a premium due to many of NHMA’s 34 affiliate groups using the Center’s meeting spaces for monthly meetings, training programs and conferences. In addition, staffing for NHMA, HealthTrust and PLT now stood at 83, when just five years ago that number was 60.
Education funding was again a major part of NHMA’s legislative session in 2003 and saw a decrease in the state property tax to $4.92 in 2004 and to $3.24 in 2005. A formula was developed to “stabilize” grants in 2004 and to introduce a targeted aid program for those school districts most in need of funding.
Municipal officials became increasingly concerned about the availability and quality of groundwater in their communities. Approximately 60% of the state’s population depends on groundwater as its primary sources of water and the other 40% rely on surface water, which comes in part from groundwater. The drought of 2001-2002 played no small role in raising municipal awareness about our dependence on groundwater.
Cordell Johnston joined NHMA’s Legal Services and Government Affairs Department in January as Government Affairs Attorney, as the 2004 legislative session began. Cordell came to NHMA with 19 years of experience with the law firm of Orr & Reno, P.A. At the time, Cordell was also a member of the Henniker Planning Board (he would later serve as Henniker selectman). Cordell still represents municipal interests before the legislature and state agencies today, testifying at public hearings, commenting on proposed legislation and working with NHMA’s Board of Directors and municipal members in NHMA’s biennial Legislative Policy Process.
The newly expanded 41,400 square foot facility known as the Local Government Center was open for business. The building new featured 10 conference rooms, seating more than 300 meeting and program attendees. The new wing of the building also housed Risk Services and Member Relations employees.
In 2004, Cotton Cleveland, specializing in leadership and organizational development, presented a list of “Best Practices” at NHMA’s Annual Conference designed to increase municipal volunteerism. Mather’s research showed that the more sense of community a town or city had, the more volunteerism existed. Also, the more a municipality was effectively led, the more volunteerism existed. Lastly, the more municipal volunteers saw themselves as part of a well-run government, the more they volunteered and the more they encouraged others to volunteer. It’s a classic case of the better it gets, the better it gets.
In an effort to slow down the pace of losing 12,000 to 15,000 acres of open land per year to development, according to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, municipal officials and voters began to stop that trend by buying up open space with public taxpayer dollars. Some 29 cities and towns across the state considered proposals for bond issues to finance land conservation projects. Most of the 29 municipalities approved their land conservation proposals by large majorities.
As the Local Government Center (LGC) evolved and restructured with a new board of directors in 2003, NHMA continued to perform its services, such as training and advocacy, as it had been successfully doing since 1941. The new LGC board, comprised of 12 municipal officials, 12 school officials, one county official and 6 employees, oversaw all of LGC’s services to members, including NHMA, the Workers’ Compensation Trust, the Property-Liability Trust and HealthTrust operations. The new board did not, however, oversee the policy activities of NHMA, which was instead overseen by a separate “municipal advocacy committee” comprised of municipal officials.
In Verizon New England, Inc. v. City of Rochester, the New Hampshire Supreme Court decided that the City of Rochester could assess a property tax against Verizon (and other utilities and users) for its use of the public ways in the city. The case had a long history, as it was originally brought in 1996, decided in 1999, remanded to the superior court, and appealed again. This would not be the last controversy between municipalities and utilities over the taxation of telephone poles and conduits.
Barbara Reid joined the Legal Services and Government Finance Department as Government Finance Advisor. This new position was designed to broaden the range of services to municipal officials, specifically in the areas of budget, finance and taxation. Barbara came from the state Department of Revenue Administration where she served for 18 years, most recently having served as Assistant Commissioner.
Ashley Monier filled the position of Communications Secretary for LGC in August, 2005. Ashley received her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Keene State College, and was most recently employed at Manchester Academy as a case manager. Ashely joined NHMA in 2014 and continues to serve members in her role as NHMA’s Conference and Workshop Coordinator today.
A total of 295 chapters were adopted in the 2005 legislative session from 961 bills filed. Among those passed were bill affecting revolving funds, liability protection for municipal public works and highway employees, groundwater withdrawals, school building aid, retirement and budget issues. Fifteen NHMA policy bills were introduced; five passed or were resolved favorably, nine were retained or re-referred, and one passed contrary to municipal interests.
Over the last decade, New Hampshire experienced a major population boom. From 1993 to 2003, the state’s population increased by 14.8 percent, a faster growth rate than experienced by any other New England state. This rise in population created a housing crisis in New Hampshire and the lack of affordable housing impacted both employers and municipalities alike. While most of New Hampshire’s municipalities agreed that the state’s housing crisis needed to be addressed, many adopted a “not in my backyard” approach, slowing the development of affordable housing within their borders.
The Legal Services and Government Affairs Department welcomed two new staff attorneys, Kimberly Hallquist (who had previously worked for the Disabilities Rights Center in Concord and as administrative assistant in the Town of Carroll) and Christine Fillmore (who practiced environmental law and commercial transactions for a Concord law firm.)