Sununu’s proposed local funding efforts draws partisan debate

  • Marty Parichand, executive director of the Mill City Park in Franklin, makes the case for $1.5 million in state funding toward a renovation of the city’s white water rafting park Thursday. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/21/2019 5:49:16 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu took to a podium Thursday to advocate for a series of proposed funding initiatives for New Hampshire cities and towns, part of a budget proposal that favors one-off spending proposals for local projects.

The proposed allocations – $52 million in total over two years – include infrastructure upgrades and renovations in a mix of communities spanning from Manchester to Berlin.

At a press conference Thursday, the governor stood with mayors and town managers standing to benefit from the funds, who said the money would help them with long-delayed projects that could revitalize their local economies.

“These are all folks that came to us and put those ideas on the table,” Sununu said. “We couldn’t achieve everything of course. We did have to pick and choose. And at the end of the day we … made sure the projects were spread across the state.”

“These one time funds can really achieve things that have just been talked about for years,” he said.

But whether the proposals make it past House and Senate budget writers is another question. Members of the it,” Democratic majorities in both chambers have raised objections to the process by which Sununu has proposed the funding, and have pledged support for longer term funding initiatives instead.

Meanwhile, the House Finance Committee has already categorically removed the proposed expenditures from its working budget, preferring instead to evaluate and add back each one individually, according to Democratic chairwoman Mary Jane Wallner, of Concord.

Wallner added she has issues with the approach taken.

“It’s not the way to budget,” she said. “It’s a really poor way to budget. Earmarking money for some communities and not other communities.”

The projects, proposed to be funded largely with money in the state’s surplus funds, differ widely.

Some go to regional efforts. $1.7 million is proposed to go to the Lakeshore Redevelopment Planning Commission in Laconia to carry out hazardous materials assessments and help remodel buildings and facilities.

But most go directly to towns and municipalities. There’s $2.2 million toward municipal dam repair projects and $6.8 million to help address the state’s red-listed dams. Three’s $1 million toward refurbishing the Seabrook Town Hall, and $3 million to fund municipal cycling trails . $300,000 would help rehabilitate four sports fields in Manchester, while $620,000 would help demolish and mitigate certain state-owned structures on Stickney Avenue in Concord.

One of the largest individual expenditures would go to Franklin: $1.5 million to help renovate the city’s whitewater park. Standing next to Sununu, Marty Parichand, executive director of Mill City Park, said the project would allow the city to harness enthusiasm from surfers, whitewater kayaker and mountain bikers. And he predicted it would attract further residents, tourism dollars and interest in the struggling former mill community from a key demographic: millennials.

“This project is not only about a $1.5 million grant to our city, but it’s also a sustainability project for both our city and the region,” Parichand said. “… We are looking back to our river for the very first time since the mills as our reason to exist and to repower our community.”

The projects were decided based on communities most in need, Sununu said. Officials in each area were approached by the governor and his staff; the specifics were formed at local officials’ request.

Sununu said the one-off funds represented a fiscally responsible way to meet local needs and alleviate local taxes without tying the state down to long-term commitments.

But Democratic Sen. Dan Feltes of Concord dismissed the proposed expenditures as “pork barrel spending” on “pet projects,” and said the money would be better spent on statewide health care services or education funds.

“I think the process of Chairwoman Wallner in handling this very politicized budget with pork barrel pet projects is a reasonable and thoughtful process,” Feltes said.

Democrats have also spoken out against the way Sununu proposed the funding. By submitting the proposed projects to the Legislature without approaching the House or Senate Capital Budget Committee, Sununu has done an “end run” around the process, Feltes said.

Sununu countered that the selection process was inclusive, bringing in local leaders in addition to state representatives.

“What we tried to do was really put a process in and engage the stakeholders and engage the Legislature, the voice of the people,” he said.

And he said the money would fund projects “that otherwise were probably going to have to be borne by the property taxpayers.”

Exactly what happens to the projects will come down to the Finance Committee and its three subdivisions. Finance Division II will make its own recommendations for most of the one-off expenditures next week, with the whole committee making a final decision sometime in the first week of April, Wallner said.

“We’ve stated talking about Wallner said of her own division. “What came out. What are the pieces that came out that we would add back.”

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