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Balancing budget on LCHIP a shame

On the weekend that residents lined town meeting places to decide on expenditures for their communities, legislators across the state were contemplating budget decisions that could cut into the heart of many of our communities.

Among the programs at stake is one that serves to protect and preserve the historic buildings and the undeveloped forests that have long defined the Monadnock region. The LCHIP, or Land Conservation and Historic Preservation, grant program has a long list of accomplishments that stretches across our town centers and pristine lands.

In 2008, the state’s commitment to this program was deepened when legislators created a separate funding stream to pay for the grants. By taking the LCHIP out of the budgeting process and funding it through surcharges on documents, the thinking went, it would make it a more stable and a more successful program. But then politics took hold.

When the economy soured, the state Legislature started to dip into the LCHIP fund to balance the budget. Since 2008, more than $10 million of the $16 million raised specifically for the LCHIP program has been diverted to the general fund, and most of that diversion has come in the last two years. As we near the end of this fiscal year, about $120,000 has been put into the LCHIP fund, mostly to keep the lights on and the program running.

The story is one typical of state governments across the country, and certainly it’s a common practice of the federal government. The easy solution is always to take from one fund to feed another. In many ways, it’s how our governments pay the bills. But it’s also seen as an unscrupulous practice that diverts money that was always intended to serve a different purpose. In this case, LCHIP grants have gone to conserve lands such as Dinsmore Brook in Francestown and Shattuck Farm in Jaffrey. And it’s gone to help preserve historic buildings like the Meetinghouse in Rindge and Town Hall in Temple.

The program certainly has a solid reputation in the state, and it played a key role in Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposed budget. Hassan has called for $1 million of expected revenue to land in the LCHIP fund in the first year of the biennium budget, and the full $4 million plus to head where it was intended by the second year. For those supporting LCHIP, her proposed budget was a clear indication that Hassan had decided to half the practice of fund diversion.

But political reality has quickly stepped in. The House is now working on its version of the budget, and it’s quite likely that a final House version will not include the $80 million in revenue that Hassan’s budget projected from casino licensing. That, once again, puts the LCHIP fund in jeopardy, with a possible scenario that the processes of diverting funds to the general budget will continue.

So, why should residents care? Mostly because they’ll be paying in their property taxes for work that should have been covered by fees. Case in point is in Greenfield, which applied for an LCHIP grant for work on its Meetinghouse. The town’s request was recently denied because of the shortfall of funds. Yet, during Saturday’s Town Meeting, residents put $20,000 in a capital reserve fund to make the necessary repairs.

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