While this post is about the town of Gilford in particular, the facts discussed are undoubtedly happening elsewhere in NH, as most localities operate with the same structure under the rules set by NH statute. Ultimately, the municipal leaders and administrators use the same “playbook” as they end up “gaming” the system. I will caveat this piece by noting that, in general, Gilford runs a fairly tight ship and it is not an indictment in any sort, other than a disagreement in philosophy regarding so-called “capital reserve accounts” versus bonding for larger expenses.
Tuesday evening, Gilford held the first session of our annual town meeting. Since Gilford is an “official ballot” town, this yearly function takes place in two parts: the “first session” in which proposed warrant articles are presented and discussed, then subject to amendment; followed by the “second session” at which all of the final form articles are placed on a written ballot for all-day voting in the privacy of the voting booth.
The bottom line is this is how most NH towns operate- spending is proposed, and the citizens have their say. It’s actually a great setup in that it is the most local of control: we all have the final say on our property taxes rather than politicians taking our money while ensconced in some far away place. We decide on spending right here along with our friends and neighbors. Unless inflicted with a high degree of apathy on the part of the taxpayers and voters, the local governing bodies are reasonably answerable to the people.
There are, however, instances in which they have figured out ways to work some “slight of hand” that convinces a less-engaged taxpayer/voter to give up a little more of their hard-earned money. This would be the tandem combination of the “unexpended fund balance” feeding into “capital reserve accounts.” It happens every year, but has grown more and more prolific with the march of time. The way it works is that a “capital reserve account” warrant article gets presented. For the sake of an example, I will include a real one from this year’s warrant:
Note the part I have highlighted. “This sum to come from surplus fund balance and no amount to be raised from new taxation.” I will admit that this is an accurate statement. But what they don’t want you to really notice is that word NEW. This is money they took LAST year, so it is, in fact, OLD taxation. Or, looked at another way, it could be called OVER taxation. Last year, they took too much. And now, rather than give it back, they want to put it into another account to spend. Either now, or sometime down the road. The way they sell it, and want you to look at it is thus: If your household was going to make some large purchase- say a new vehicle, or an appliance, wouldn’t it make sense to SAVE as much money as you can? When the time comes to make the buy, you will need to borrow or cough up less out of pocket, ultimately lightening the load as you take less of a big hit. Of COURSE that makes sense for an individual or household.
The problem is that with government, it’s NOT you. It’s all of us, and it’s TAKEN- not always voluntarily. That’s one thing. But with the concept of the “capital reserve fund,” it goes beyond that. Let’s say you are Johnny Taxpayer. You are 67 years old. For the next five years or so, you pay your taxes. The town has taken more than it actually needs and, rather than returning it to him, it keeps it. Johnny struggles mightily on his fixed income to pay his property taxes, lest he lose his home. Then, sadly, he passes away. His house goes up for sale, and Stephen Heartburn buys it. The next year, the town decides it’s time to purchase a new payloader to operate at the recycle center that Mr. Heartburn loves to use. Luckily for him, the town has “saved up” enough money over the past five years to make the purchase, and it doesn’t cost him a dime! Hooray! Does Mr. Heartburn thank Johnny Taxpayer for his sacrifice? Of course not… he’s dead…
A better, and more fair way to do these things would be for Johnny Taxpayer to get property tax RELIEF when overpaying on his taxes. As for Mr. Heartburn- he should vote to raise and expend taxes on HIMSELF if he wants to “enjoy” a new payloader for years to come. We all go on about equity and fairness. Isn’t this a better way? And of course, if Mr. Heartburn can’t afford to pay HIS taxes or doesn’t think the town really NEEDS a new payloader, he can simply vote no. And work to convince his friends and neighbors to do the same, rather than falling for the old line that “We already have the money- it won’t require any NEW taxes…”
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