Legal issues of N.H.’s snow-delayed elections keep town bonds on ice

Monitor staff
Tuesday, April 11, 2017

This year’s unprecedented movement of some annual meeting elections has generated an esoteric legal debate in the State House, but in places like Milford, the question gets a lot more down-to-earth.

Or maybe “down-to-floor” would be a better term, because the uncertainty may delay a new one for the high school gym.

“Some of the projects we have, the lead times of ordering equipment is weeks and weeks and weeks. If you want to do something when school is not in session ... some things that we thought would be done this summer may go all the way through next summer,” said Robert Marquis, superintendent of schools in the southern New Hampshire town.

Voters at Milford School District approved a $3 million, 10-year bond to pay for a variety of capital improvements at various schools, ranging from new door locks for securing classrooms during a lockdown to new rooftop air-conditioning units to that gym floor. Unfortunately for construction scheduling, they passed the bond on Saturday, March 18, after the moderator delayed the traditional Tuesday election due to the March 14 blizzard.

This made Milford School District one of 73 communities that moved the election and one of at least a half dozen that are stuck in bonding limbo as a result.

Bonds are basically loans made by a government or utility. They are bought by investors with the promise of giving a guaranteed return over some period of time, in this case 10 years.

The Milford School District bond will be bundled by the New Hampshire Municipal Bond Bank with other town and school bonds and sold to investors. Before that can happen, a licensed bond counsel must certify that the bond was created legally, to reassure those same investors.

But no bond counsel will sign off on the Milford School District’s bonds, or the bonds of any other town or school that were approved in a delayed election, until the Legislature and governor say that it was legal for moderators to move the polling day. So even though the Milford School District turned in its application to the bond bank on Monday, as scheduled, they can’t start the process of getting bids for construction work.

“We’ve had some discussions with our bond counsel who has said nothing will happen until the vote gets ratified,” Marquis said. “Everything is in a holding pattern at this point.”

The state Senate last week approved a bill to ratify elections such as Milford’s by giving communities the option of holding a special election, at which voters could say whether they thought the postponed election was proper and legal.

Such a bill must also be approved by the House of Representatives before it could get Gov. Chris Sununu’s signature.

However, the House Election Law Committee has already rejected the idea of allowing ratifying votes, arguing that there were easier ways to give a legal status to postponed elections without requiring communities to hold, and pay for, a special election.

That makes it unclear how or when the issue will be resolved, which leaves Milford School District up in the air.

Or perhaps “up on the roof” would be a better term: Milford Middle School can’t replace eight rooftop air conditioners until the bond goes through.

“You go down the road with the bond, and scheduling the (construction) bids. You wish it all could line up perfectly, but it’s certainly not lining up right now,” Marquis said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)