Three things town meetings should tackle
‘Tis the season of town meetings. The relic of New England participatory democracy is charming for outsiders, tedious for most and very serious business for the selected few. Just a dwindling one-third of New Hampshire communities still hold a town meeting. These ad-hoc, multi-hour deliberations are supposed to help set priorities and tax rates for each community. But for every topic mentioned there, several good ones go unmentioned. Below are three items that most likely won’t be discussed at your town meeting, but probably should.
Idea 1: Pay-as-you-throw garbage removal. For small towns with no trash pick-up, the “pay as you throw” or “bag and tag” concept has friends in the environmental political left and the tax-cutting right. Under “pay-as-you-throw” town residents are charged for trash they actually throw out. This system, instead of just putting it all in the town dump, does three positive things. First, it creates an economic incentive to recycle since recycled goods are not considered trash, therefore free to throw into recycling. Second, it lowers taxes by shifting trash removal costs to the individual and away from the town. So fewer property taxes are collected. Third, it injects fairness into the process. The family of four properly recycling doesn’t pay for the single guy next door who throws out lots of pizza boxes and doesn’t recycle.
Idea 2: Consider giving Town Hall a four-day work week. Last year Utah’s governor implemented a plan to give state employees a 10-hour day, 4-day a week schedule instead of the standard Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. routine. The result? State employees liked three-day weekends and saving gas money. Residents liked extended hours so they could get their drivers license renewed after work (or do any other state business). Lawmakers liked cutting energy costs associated with cooling or heating a building before a workday. The idea has been popular among policy wonks. It has a lot of merit here. And while we are at it, can someone mention the idea that the four days be Tuesday through Saturday to ensure that residents get the most use out of their town halls?
Idea 3: Pass a resolution doing away with county government. While much of the South and West highly identify themselves based on county we, in New Hampshire, do not. No one is from Rockingham County, instead they are from Hampstead. The exception might be Coos County.
But passing a resolution urging the state Legislature to do away with county government isn’t just about parlance. Largely it is about responsibility. Most taxes are raised in cities and towns via the property tax. Other money comes from the state or the federal government. County governments are, for the most part, funded by municipalities and the state and national governments. We put counties in charge of prisons, nursing homes and welfare. The N.H. Association of Counties says it’s efficient this way because the state is too big to carry out local functions and cities and towns are too small. Either way, our prisons and nursing homes need drastic improvement, and it’s the county governments that point fingers at someone either higher up or lower down for blame. Get rid of this layer, assign services to the state and watch the excuses, and extra level of bureaucracy, go away NH
This article appears in the March 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine