Editorial: In Henniker, a muddle over welfare assistance
The situation is muddled, but Henniker can’t have it both ways when it comes to the tenants at Rock ’N’ Birch Campground. If the tenants are residents whose children are entitled under state and federal law to attend local schools, the tenants should be residents for other purposes as well, including receiving town assistance when in need. State law is succinct: “Whenever a person in any town is poor and unable to support himself, he shall be relieved and maintained by the overseers of public welfare of such town, whether or not he has residence there.” No applicant for assistance should have to prove residency. When it comes to the right to vote, the law can also be put succinctly: If you are physically present in a place, and express no intention to live in another place, you are a resident for purposes of voting. By that definition, the campground owners are residents.
A 2010 settlement agreement between Henniker and campground owner Raymond Panetta says “no occupant in the campground may become a resident of the town by virtue of such occupancy, nor may such person, inter alia, register a vehicle, register dogs or vote.” Experienced lawyers participated in the process that led to the agreement, so we’re hesitant to call it illegal. We do not believe, however, that a contract between a municipality and a landlord should be able to countermand state law or trample on individual rights. A court test may be necessary to clarify matters.
In interviews, Henniker officials were less than expansive when explaining the town’s welfare policies. What has been going on for years is a standoff. The 2010 agreement calls for the campground to close for a minimum of two weeks per year, but Panetta has never closed it and the town has not tried to force its closure. Neither side, understandably, wants to render dozens of people homeless. Among them would be 14 schoolchildren picked up by a bus at a cost to the school district of $16,200 per year.
A campground, by definition under state law, must be recreational and not used as a residence. Otherwise it becomes a de facto mobile home park, according to the New Hampshire Campground Owners Association. Henniker police Chief Ryan Murdough calls the campground’s status a “gray area.” We agree. The town’s administrator, Tom Yennerell, told Monitor reporter Ray Duckler that the rules are being followed and people at the campground are treated like anyone else applying for town assistance. In another response to Duckler, Kris Blomback, chairman of the selectmen, said if people at the campground had been denied assistance, they might not have followed proper procedure when applying, perhaps by failing to prove that they had applied for state or federal assistance first. Were applications for assistance from campground tenants accepted by the town’s welfare director, who at least until recently was open for business only by appointment for two hours on Saturdays? If so, given the consent agreement, why?
Meanwhile, Henniker’s application for assistance, which is available on the town’s website, is 20 pages long. It requires an elaborate accounting of household assets and expenses, pay stubs, bank records and a brief criminal history. By comparison, Concord’s application is one page long. Applications for assistance from the city must be made in person but the process takes about an hour, and an applicant who qualifies for help leaves with the appropriate voucher for goods or services. Henniker welfare policies appear to have been created as a barrier to assistance. Residents at this year’s town meeting should discuss those policies and ask whether they befit an otherwise generous and progressive town.