Viewpoint: New Hampshire Towns, Cities, School Districts and Counties Must Be Responsive to the Economic Realities of their Citizens
The prevailing focus of the upcoming budget season for local governments across New Hampshire will continue to be the economy. Three and a half years have passed since the onset of the financial and economic crisis of 2008, yet despite what politicians campaigning across New Hampshire have been saying about the U.S. economy, the New Hampshire economy appears to be headed in a positive direction, albeit very, very slowly. The critical question will be the length of time it will take to regain a solid footing, and whether it will continue to improve or take a turn, and perhaps a significant turn, for the worse.
In this tumultuous economic climate, it is imperative for New Hampshire’s 234 towns and cities, 177 school districts administrated by 87 school administrative units, and 10 counties to be economically and prudently operated. Local, school and county governments function as purveyors of public services, and more and more of them across the country are implementing sound business practices during uncertain economic times.
The following list represents strategies New Hampshire local governments may choose to consider if they have not already done so:
- Continuing to hold operational expenses flat, to include public employee wages,as an ongoing strategy to limit the impact of the U.S. macroeconomic situation on local taxpayers. At this time local governments will likely find a broader pool of qualified applicants from which to draw who are willing to accept positions at lower rates of pay.
- Rethinking the organizational structure of agencies and departments and the manner in which services are delivered in an effort to improve organizational efficiencies and mitigate cost centers over the long-term.
- Engaging with local legislators to prevent the continued downshifting of bona-fide State of New Hampshire costs to towns, cities, school districts and counties at the expense of local taxpayers. Areas of specific concern include highway block grant funds, bridge aid, shared revenues, school building aid, public assistance programs, pole exemptions, and costs associated with financial challenges within the New Hampshire Retirement System.
- Controlling escalating health care benefit costs by reconsidering benefit and prescription plans offered to public employees, increasing employee co-pays, shopping around for the most competitive pricing, and implementing active employee wellness programs to encourage healthy living thereby reducing long-term cost exposure.
- Regionalizing services such as multi-town or county assessing districts, cooperative school districts, regional dispatch, and multi-jurisdiction police/fire precincts. Regionalization is commonly utilized in other areas of the country and should be given serious consideration where feasible in New Hampshire.
- Mitigating future utility/fuel costs by replacing older vehicles with smaller, more fuel efficient alternatives, retrofitting facilities with energy efficient lighting and mechanical systems, the establishment of local energy committees, and utilizing Energy Star and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified new construction within future building projects.
- Maintaining a strong balance sheet and favorable bond rating by sustaining an appropriate undesignated fund balance, utilizing realistic revenue/expenditure projections, and ensuring adequate contingency funds to account for unanticipated events such as floods, wind/ice storms and extended power outages.
- Encouraging land preservation activities to preserve open space and protect a community’s natural resources during a time when land prices have fallen considerably from pre-2008 highs—a wonderful buying opportunity for taxpayers.
- Promoting economic development activities intended to broaden the tax base and create new jobs combined with smart growth initiatives to thoughtfully plan future development.
- Implementing risk management strategies to control property/liability/unemployment compensation insurance costsby establishing active Joint Loss Management/Safety Committees to reduce the incidence of employee injury, accidents, property damage and lost time.
Budgets developed for the 2012/2013 timeframe must continue to be reflective of meaningful efforts on the part of local governments to develop new efficiencies and synergies within departments, agencies and schools to control spending growth during a time of continued economic uncertainty. No two communities, no two school districts are alike; local governments will have to tailor solutions to their individual needs and the needs of their citizens.
Todd I. Selig has served as Durham Town Administrator since 2001. Todd has previously served as chairman of the board of directors for the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies.