January 24, 2013WOLFEBORO — Selectmen invited state Reps. Chris Ahlgren and Steve Schmidt and State Senator Jeb Bradley to their Jan. 16 meeting to discuss how to restore funding to State Aid Grant Program for Municipal Wastewater Projects.
At issue were grants promised to cities and towns to encourage them to upgrade or improve wastewater treatment facilities. Wolfeboro participated in the program and did the upgrades, but in the last biennium budget (2011-12) the program was not funded. According to Town Manager Dave Owen, the amount that the town qualified for but was not paid amounted to $159,120.54 in 2012.
Sen. Bradley said he is sponsoring a bill – currently in the form of a Legislative Service Request – that appropriates $4,671,754 for the program for 2013-14 and $4,161,595 for 2014-15. Reps. Ahlgren and Schmidt are co-sponsors, along with Rep. Tom Buco of Conway.
Bradley said there is a lot of support for this grant program – and it is a top priority for the New Hampshire Municipal Association – but with the funding shortfalls two years ago it was put on hold. Right now the overall budget picture is not clear due to the suit by hospitals on the Medicaid tax, UNH funding and recently the push to increase mental health center funding. Whether the grants will again be funded at the $9 million level proposed depends on revenue estimates, which he said are not as clear in January as they are in June.
Bradley advised the board that the better course of action would be to get the grants funded in Gov. Maggie Hassan's budget rather than through a bill in the Legislature. He urged selectmen to call the governor and send a letter. He said the county delegation supports the grants and both Ahlgren and Schmidt nodded in agreement.
Owen reported that he had heard the same message the day before at the Local Government Center.
Bradley pointed out that the governor has asked state department heads to submit budgets at 97 percent of the last approved budget. He said if the request to restore the aid is not in the governor's budget, it is unlikely to go anywhere.
Schmidt and Ahlgren both said they supported restoring the grant funding.
Selectman Chair Linda Murray then brought up two other topics.
The first was the decline in funding for the N.H. Department of Transportation (DOT). She pointed out that the Legislature allowed a $35 registration surcharge sunset without replacing it with other funding. "We need to get roads repaired," she said. "Wolfeboro has two municipally managed projects that need two-thirds state funding." She added that she realizes "we are outnumbered by communities to the south" in the Legislature, but good roads are vital to the area economy.
Selectman Sarah Silk said she went to the meeting that made clear that DOT will only focus on roads that are still in good shape due to lack of funding. Roads that are not in good shape have gotten worse since the surcharge was dropped, she said.
Bradley responded that there is bipartisan recognition of the underfunding situation, which also affects "red list" bridges and needs to be resolved. He said Sen. Chuck Morse of Salem is working on a proposal to use gaming fees to raise capital funds for DOT. Rep. David Campbell of Nashua has proposed a four-cent increase in the gas tax for three years, plus a $5 surcharge to come up with the funding.
Bradley said the gas tax increase will be a tough sell, given the high price of gas. His view was that the gas tax will be considered if the gaming proposal fails.
Silk said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is advocating an increase in the federal gas tax to fund road projects. She said she was concerned that gaming funds may not go to road construction whereas the surcharge was devoted to that purpose.
Bradley corrected Murray's earlier statement that the surcharge was $35. "It was $30 and was supposed to last only two years, which is what happened."
Selectman Dave Bowers said the idea of using gaming to raise revenues has its advantages. People gamble already and those who do not will not have to pay.
Murray said her second issue concerns the county delegation and not Sen. Bradley.
She said Wolfeboro, Moultonborough and Conway do their own dispatching for police and fire yet still pay to support the country sheriff's dispatch center.
Owen said that it was an equity question, since the town is paying twice for dispatch services, bearing the cost for the county without much use.
Schmidt said the commissioners are not opposed to some kind of fairness agreement and he and Ahlgren were OK with it, but "the rest of the delegation will be a hard sell."
Ahlgren said the county delegation did talk about the dispatch issue last year and he feels there is a way to do it. First step is to sort out what towns get what services. For example, how many Wolfeboro residents are in the county jail? Other delegates will bring up places where the three towns get greater benefits than those who rely on county dispatch. He said the dispatch budget was $750,000 and estimated it made up seven cents of the county tax rate.
Murray responded that Wolfeboro doesn't have a jail, but neither do other towns: they all rely on the county for that. She said there are other counties in New Hampshire with this issue, so there are models for allocating dispatch services fairly.
Schmidt said, "You need to come to an agreement with the county commissioners to bring this forward."
Murray said they met twice with the commissioners last year.
She thanked Bradley, Ahlgren and Schmidt for coming to speak with the board.