Editorial: Downshifting has to stop somewhere

Not a day goes by it seems that we don’t hear about costs going up for school districts and towns and there’s usually a reference made to a downshifting of costs from the state.

It’s a perennial problem, but somehow it always seems to hit closest to home precisely when the dead of winter and the budget season converge. Peterborough Town Administrator Pam Brenner used to have a cartoon hanging in her office, depicting Gov. John Lynch shoveling snow from the roof of the State House onto the house of cities and towns, an apt visual of the financial burdens our local governments and school districts are increasingly shouldering these days. And state retirement costs are chief among them.

In 2009, the Legislature began reducing the state’s portion of state retirement contributions for teachers, police and firefighters, leaving local governments and school districts to pick up the slack. The trend has continued to this day and beginning in 2013 those costs will entirely be on the local political entities.

In budget talks for Peterborough’s coming year, Brenner reported a $54,000 jump in retirement costs for police alone. Jaffrey-Rindge School District Supt. Jim O’Neill has said the district is expecting $344,000 more in retirement costs for teachers in the next school year.

The Mascenic Regional School District is among a number of districts and municipalities that brought a lawsuit against the state to challenge the Legislature’s reduction in retirement contributions. But the suit has so far been unsuccessful in reversing the legislation, despite the state constitution’s ban on unfunded mandates.

According to a published statement from the N.H. School Boards Association, the state Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the Legislature’s position on retirement contributions leaves school districts and local governments vulnerable to further downshifting: “The court’s opinion appears to limit its already narrow application and interpretation of Article 28-a [of the constitution]. By limiting Article 28-a challenges only to state action that imposes ‘substantive changes,’ the Court’s decision appears to give the state unfettered authorization to continue downshifting costs to local governments, especially for programs traditionally funded by the state.” This is not a good sign.

There’s also the loss of state aid for multi-million dollar wastewater treatment facilities in both Peterborough — which lost $3.5 million in expected funding — and Jaffrey — which lost $6 million in expected funding — where taxpayers and sewer users are forced to shoulder the expenses they believed the state would be picking up.

What many people want to know is: When will it end?

There were a lot of promises made this past election season by new and incumbent state legislators who identified downshifting as a serious problem statewide. Now it’s time for those who kept their seats or who have been voted into office to make good on their campaign pledges. It’s an easy issue to latch onto, but not an easy one to solve. Voters will be watching closely to see who steps up to the plate.

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