To The Daily Sun,
New Hampshire counties, especially those with populations of less than 100,000, rely heavily on outside support agencies to provide services and care aimed at the poor and those with special needs. A good measure of a county's commitment to the fulfillment of this responsibility is the dollar amount of support provided by the county in question.
In 2015, Belknap County ranked last in total dollar amount spent on support agencies among the six counties in the state with a population of less than 100,000. At the same time, Belknap County had the highest median income of the six counties.
Cheshire County appropriated $1,083,277 for outside programs (which included outside agency programs and both a drug court and a mental health court aimed at avoiding incarceration for county residents with mental health or substance abuse problems). Grafton County spent $864,589, Sullivan County invested $541,478, Carroll County expended $444,053, Coos County spent $423,452 and Belknap County's appropriation was $419,339.
The total amount expended is not the best measure of a county's strength of commitment as that dollar figure alone does not take into account the number of people being served by the county. In this regard, it should be noted that the percentage of people in each county living under the federal poverty level is approximately 10 percent, except for Coos County, which is slightly over 14 percent. The better gauge of county commitment is a measure that takes population into account — by dividing the amount spent by the population of the county in question, one gets the per person or per capita expenditure for the special services that are being provided by outside support agencies.
Measured in this manner, Belknap County is clearly at the bottom of the list. Cheshire again tops the list with a per capita commitment of $14.22 (population 76,115). Coos, the poorest of the six counties, is second with a per capita commitment of $12.81 (population 33,055). Not far behind is Sullivan at $12.38 (population 43,742). Grafton's per capita commitment to those in need is $9.64 (population 89,658). Carroll County follows at $9.29 (population 47,818). Trailing the field is Belknap County with a per capita number of $6.95 (population 60,305).
To illustrate how much of an outlier our county is, one need only apply the second-lowest per capita number to our county population. If Belknap showed the same per capita commitment to those in need in our county as was shown in Carroll County in 2015, we would have spent $560,233 on our outside agencies. This increase of approximately $150,000 would have cost the average taxpayer in Belknap County with a home valued at $200,000 a total of $3.75 more in his or her property tax.
The 2016 budget recommended by the Belknap County Board of Commissioners provided full funding for the requests of the seven outside providers which totaled $459,722. The budget recommended by the commissioners did not increase the amount raised from the taxpayers of the county — it was a zero-increase budget. Under the proposed budget our county's per capita commitment to the outside support agencies would have gone up from $6.95 to $7.62, leaving Belknap still last among the six counties, but at least with a slightly improved degree of commitment to those in need.
This past Tuesday, the county convention, in a tentative vote, decided to reduce the outside agency support recommended by the commissioners from $459,722 down to $386,000, which if finalized would move our per capita number down to $6.40. Clearly some programs that were planned for the county will have to be curtailed or even abandoned.
Among the programs placed in jeopardy by the proposed cuts are Meals-On-Wheels, the Senior Companion Program and the Rural Transportation Program, all designed to enable elderly county residents to remain living independently, and short-term mental health therapy programs conducted by Genesis Behavioral Health, which are aimed at heading off mental health issues before they grow into serious mental health problems requiring high-cost long-term treatment.
The discussion that preceded the vote to reduce the funding recommended by the commissioners contained no criticism of the quality of service being provided by any of the agencies. The discussion focused simply on how much should be cut and not why.
The decision to cut $73,000 from the money needed by the support agencies will have little impact on taxes but will significantly impact the agencies. On a $200,000 property in Belknap County, the yearly savings in property tax paid in the county will average $1.46. However, the cut represents a refusal to fund 16 percent of the amount needed for the agencies to provide the services and programs planned in 2016 for our county.
Five or six members of the delegation (convention) recognize the importance of the contributions being made by the support agencies and are voting to fully fund their requests. The remainder seem to be cutting the requested amounts for little reason other than they can. When these representatives campaign on the claim that they cut the county budget to reduce your property tax, please look at your tax bill. Pay attention to the amount of county tax you are paying. Ask yourself, was the $1.46 these representatives saved me worth the price of reducing programs designed to assist those in need and to promote economic development.
Better yet, don't wait until the harm is done. The county convention is holding a public hearing on the budget on Monday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. at the county complex. Please attend and make your views known.
Belknap County Commissioner