Editorial: Time to pay up, Massachusetts
If there’s anything New Hampshire political leaders of all outlooks can agree on, it might be this: When all else fails, let’s sue Massachusetts.
It may yet come to that in collecting on millions in payments owed by Massachusetts under a long-standing flood control agreement that particularly benefits our neighbors to the south. But creative work by the New Hampshire Legislature has set the stage for a better resolution.
At issue is what’s called the Merrimack River Valley Flood Control Compact. It’s a 1957 contract intended to compensate New Hampshire communities for contributing land to an extensive flood control system. The sacrifices made here are of primary benefit downriver, in Massachusetts, which is why the compact obligates the Bay State to pay 70 percent toward lost property tax revenue in the affected communities. The state of New Hampshire is obligated to pay the balance.
No town is affected by the contract more than Hopkinton, which sacrificed more than 3,000 acres to the flood-control system and is due about $200,000 in annual payments. According to a recent submission to the Monitor by Rep. Mel Myler of Contoocook, the affected communities also include Henniker ($87,340), Salisbury ($85,568), Dunbarton ($63,570) and Weare ($59,677).
Things went swimmingly for decades after the flood compact took effect. But in 1994, Massachusetts made no payment. Partial payments followed until 2002, and then stopped altogether in 2003. A 2006 protest by then-Gov. John Lynch produced a one-time, “good-faith” partial check under then-Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. (At the time, of course, Romney was planning the first of two campaigns for president – but that was probably a coincidence, right?)
The Great Recession made matters worse, from the towns’ point of view, because the state of New Hampshire – which had been picking up the Bay State’s share – began cutting back, too. That sent property taxes rising in the affected communities.
Bills driven by local lawmakers, including Sen. Andy Sanborn of Bedford and Reps. Mario Ratzki of Andover and David Karrick of Warner, helped call attention to an urgent issue. The Senate Finance Committee lent muscle to their efforts by restoring full payments to communities in the new two-year budget – and by holding the attorney general’s office directly accountable for getting Massachusetts to do its share. If the matter isn’t resolved in time, the state Department of Justice will have to find $250,000 in its own 2015 budget to help cover the payments.
Officials in both states had been saying and doing what you’d expect in the months leading up to the budget action. New Hampshire Assistant Attorney General Peter Roth publicly shook his fist toward the south, saying the state might sue if Massachusetts didn’t pay up. Massachusetts officials offered assurances and tossed questions toward the north, asking New Hampshire to show its math.
In a more promising development, a two-state commission responsible for overseeing the compensation system has agreed to emerge from latency and reconvene July 19. There’s no doubt what the outcome should be, because we’re talking about honoring a contract here, and about providing compensation due to the communities that made possible a flood-control system of great benefit to two states.
It’s time for Massachusetts to pay its bill, before the flood waters of litigation rise.