We continue to observe areas that remain of great concern to us. These are presented in no particular order.
2016 Spending Forecast:
At the last Selectmen’s meeting the Finance Director indicated that her full-year spending forecast is running a surplus along the lines of last year. Frankly, this was more than a bit of a soft sell. We don’t think that there is much analysis that goes into the preparation of the numbers other than bookkeeping 101. Her forecast for 2016, based on October YTD actuals is to underspend the budget by $1,092,364 or 4.5%. At the same point in 2015 she was forecasting a surplus of $575,400 or 2.5% and at the end of October of 2014 she forecast a year-end surplus of $281,500 or 1.2%. Stating it is about the same as last year is disingenuous when the 2016 forecast surplus is nearly double 2015, which was double 2014, both in actual dollars, as well as expressed as a percentage. Based on our own line-by-line analysis of 2016 spending, which does not factor in a year-end spending spree, we concluded that the surplus will be closer to $1.4 million. This is driven by excessive padding of the proposed budget and default budget and frankly, atrocious financial management. Its fine to have a little surplus since that is prudent but when one operates with a 5% cushion it calls into question the entire process. Even though the Selectmen and Town Manager may believe that throwing a bone to the taxpayers by offsetting spending with $500,000 or $1 million from the Unassigned Fund Balance shows concern, cynically we see it as a chimera. Excess padding in budgets results in more liberal spending by departments, as well as another December spending spree via encumbrances. We will be following this carefully. We need to return to running the town like a business.
Right to Know Law:
The Town Manager and Selectmen approved a policy at their last meeting that inserts a layer of bureaucracy with associated systemic delays and makes it more difficult and more expensive for a citizen to make a request for information under the New Hampshire Right to Know Law. A request for an electronic document now requires the requesting party to provide a brand new thumb drive and can involve two trips to town hall. The cost for hard copies is doubled in the new policy from 25 cents per page to 50 cents. Both Staples and the Town of Hampton “Lane Library” charge only 10 cents a page! It’s clear to us that this policy’s intention is to discourage Right to Know Law requests and intimidate citizens.
The Town Manager and Selectmen treat the Budget Committee with an unacceptable level of disrespect, both on a personal as well institutional level. They appear to feel no obligation to provide timely information in order to facilitate the Budget Committee’s ability to do their job. These are people who are engaged in that function giving of their time and effort as a community service. The Selectmen, Town Manager and Town Attorney regularly thwart the efforts of the Budget Committee in several instances going so far as to violate the Municipal Budget Law, as well as the Right to Know Law. We wouldn’t be surprised to see an attempt orchestrated by surrogates to the Selectmen to eliminate the Budget Committee in conjunction with a 2017 Warrant Article, all part of an effort to reduce accountability and to concentrate more power with the Board of Selectmen.
Money Warrant Articles:
The DPW staff gave an uninspiring presentation of their needs as articulated in 10 Warrant Articles adding up to almost $8.3M. We have the impression there is more to come in requests from the DPW. Most of the money is funded by long-term bonds, which will reduce the initial tax impact, but continue to inflate taxes for 20 years or more. There needs to be limits set, priorities considered and practical solutions. As these items are further developed we will speak to them individually, but the DPW gets poor marks for preparation, planning and delivery. It seems that the DPW Director is over his head. We appreciate Selectman Griffin’s vote opposing the $4 million marsh pipe, at times it seems like he is the only one with any compassion for the taxpayers.
Dialogue between the Chief of Police and Budget Committee:
When Police Chief Sawyer met with the Budget Committee he was asked about the number of private details (traffic control, bar monitoring etc.) that he personally takes, we presume to increase his personal income. The Police Chief already receives is a six-figure salary, which includes an unbudgeted $10,000 raise given by the Selectmen this summer. He has what is arguably the most challenging position in Town government. We cannot get our arms around how he could conceivably be engaged in private details, which take away from what he was hired and is paid to do. His predecessors were rarely engaged in this type of activity. Selectmen Bean and Waddell told the Budget Committee to “butt- out” of this issue, categorizing it as an operational as opposed to a financial issue. We disagree and commend the Budget Committee for speaking up. We can only hope that the Chief’s Private Detail activities do not lead to significant “spiking” of his pension as Hampton already has one retired Police Chief double-dipping with a $116,000 pension and an $84,000 salary for part-time job with the town. It appears that the Town Manager and Selectmen lack the political will to direct the Chief to limit his activities to managing his department and not seek additional income. No argument we heard makes any sense to us in the context of what is best for the taxpayers and residents of Hampton.
The POOR TAXPAYER:
Almost 20 years ago the Town of Hampton got into a bad situation when a multi-year “spend-a-thon” took place. Between 1997 and 2003 taxes on an average single family home increased from $2,915 to $4,966, 70% in only six years! That was followed by 10 years of sound financial management and fiscal sanity. We’ve gone full circle again finding ourselves in a situation in which there is little financial management or analytical skills demonstrated by any of the Selectmen. Not one of them has asked what the impact is on the taxpayer if all of the requests they are moving forward are approved by the voters, which is particularly important given the $26 million Hampton Academy renovation bond being proposed by the SAU90 school board. Last year’s property taxes were driven by about $53 million in tax impact spending combining the town, schools and the county. In 2017 we appear to be headed towards requests approaching $90 million.