Friday, March 28, 2008

Cold math of tax leniency chills a tiny N.H. town

The article below points out the need for financial transparency in all levels of our government, the need for term limits in all levels of the government, as well as the need for citizens to become more involved in pushing for financial transparency of our elected officials and lastly addressing the issue of nepotism in our government.

The following article appeared in the Boston Globe.

By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / March 28, 2008
WINDSOR, N.H. - This triangle-shaped town, wedged into the woods well west of Concord, has no store, no post office, no police force of its own. It counts 250 residents, but fewer live here year round. On the dead-end road that runs through the heart of rural Windsor, from White Pond to Black Pond, passing drivers wave in greeting and look twice at any stranger.

Lately, though, some neighbors have stopped waving - and speaking - to each other. Windsor has been split by the recent revelation that for years, dozens of residents, including friends and relatives of the longtime tax collector, did not pay property taxes and faced no penalties.

To the tiny group of taxpayers who combed through stacks of handwritten ledgers to find the discrepancies, the findings mean the town must change the way it does business. But many more in Windsor do not agree. They are little concerned about the missing payments, and expect an ongoing review of town records to find bookkeeping errors, not corruption. Those residents are troubled by what they say is an unnecessarily personal attack against Beverly Hines, the former tax collector who resigned over the controversy, whose family tree goes back in town for generations.

Underlying the tax controversy is a philosophical divide, between a small group of people who think the town must follow the letter of the law, and the majority, who feel their traditional, small-town way of life, embodied by the informal ap proach to tax collection, is under threat.

"People have always been behind on their taxes in Windsor, and the selectmen have always worked with them to let them get caught up when they can," said Ron Houghton, a Windsor native. "People say they want to move here because they love it, but then they want to change it. They don't like it because it's not big-town, by-the-book, but that's Windsor - we could do things unorthodox and make it work."

The uproar comes amid a statewide furor over increasing property taxes, driven partly by an influx of real estate buyers drawn to remote lakefront settings like those in Windsor. The town's population, still tiny, more than tripled between 1980 and 2005, from 72 to 239.

But the members of the Windsor Coalition of Taxpayers, the small group of retirees who have pushed the town's practices into public view, are not new faces here. One couple has lived in town since 1974; another has resided year-round for more than a decade. An electrician and a retired police officer, nurse, and bookkeeper, all in their 60s, they say they have been belittled and threatened by fellow townspeople since launching their campaign.


Among those with unpaid taxes was the tax collector's son, Pat Hines, who has served as town moderator for decades. In an interview, he dismissed the idea he was getting special treatment and said his mother had empathy for people struggling, whether they were close to her or not.


To view the whole story go to the Boston Globe website .

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Financial Transparency Needed in Our SAU and Schools

The following piece appeared in the Union Leader.

Charlie Arlinghaus: State spending could be more transparent right now

14 hours, 23 minutes ago

NEW HAMPSHIRE should become more like Alaska. Alaska's governor has created a simple and transparent online database to view the details of any government expenditure of more than $1,000. The complete transparency of every detail of government makes government accountable and responsible, is supported by politicians of every ideology, and would eliminate corruption issues that are an increasing feature of our daily news coverage.

New Hampshire's tiniest town has little in common with Alaska. The financial books of the town of Windsor were closed to the public until the Windsor Coalition of Taxpayers sued to open them to the public. The next steps were all too familiar to residents of other towns. Investigators then found financial irregularities and money that has yet to be accounted for. An investigative audit led to the town's records being turned over to the Attorney General.

But with modern technology, none of this should ever happen. A transparency movement is spreading across the country to open the doors of government. Many transparency initiatives were started by executive order, as in Alaska. But increasingly, lawmakers and local officials are passing laws and ordinances to make transparency Web sites permanent.

In towns and state agencies in New Hampshire, taxpayers are often forced to wait for an audit to know how much money was spent and whether it's all accounted for. The first step to transparency is simply posting the town or agency's check register online.

Right away, any taxpayer can look and see every dollar spent and to whom it was paid. The new Alaska database isn't much more complicated than that. It's an Excel spreadsheet organized by payee, department and type of expense.

In transparency, getting started is just as important as designing the perfect system. Alaska's administrative commissioner admitted that the system isn't perfect,"but we wanted to get something out there to get started."

This is a stark contrast to New Hampshire's perfect-or-nothing approach. We've waited more than 14 months for something as simple as monthly updates of total state spending. We could have updates today, but officials have decided to wait until the state has one glorious new computer system for everyone's report to look identical.

Today in New Hampshire, citizens have access to spending data when a newspaper files a right-to-know request for specific information and decides to publish its findings. This information should be readily available to anyone who wants to know what government is doing.

In the town of Windsor, we are told that "at least $43,000 in collected tax money could not be accounted for." If a simple spreadsheet of the town's check register were posted online, we would have known earlier. The register would have shown every taxpayer who cared to look the amount of each deposit and every check written or cash withdrawal.

Obviously very few taxpayers would take the time to scrutinize every jot and title of the town's spending. But a few watchdogs would and we would all benefit from their scrutiny. Anyone who wished could balance the town's checkbooks and complain if $4 of interest or $400 of miscellaneous expenses were left out.

The comptroller of Texas operates one of the best online portals to examine state spending in the country. She describes citizens as partners in their own government: "We're giving Texans easy access to information useful in deciding whether tax dollars are being spent in a responsible manner."

A fully transparent government will include a complete searchable database of every single expenditure and every state contract. It is a significant undertaking, but, like Alaska, we can start with something less than an ideal system.

Individual departments can behave like an individual town. A state agency can easily start by placing online a spreadsheet of each check, along with monthly totals of expenses compared to the budget.

The first steps will require no new computer equipment, no new software, and do not require an agency to do anything it isn't already doing. It merely requires the agency to show us.

Transparent, accountable government is spreading across the country. New Hampshire has always been proud of an open government close to the people. There's no reason that the state of Alaska should be more open than the town of Windsor or the state of New Hampshire. Like Alaska, we should do something to get started.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

Fred S. Teeboom: In Nashua, teachers are led blindly into a strike by poor leadership

The following article appeared in the Union Leader. Readers of this BLOG may want to read the whole series of articles and reader comments regarding the Nashua strike in the Union Leader. The point of this article is so readers who have not obtained a copy of the Croydon or Newport school contracts get an idea of what goes into school contracts. Contracts are pretty similar throughout the state and throughout the country. Croydon's will be significantly different because we have a one room school house but since we export our children to Newport it is important to read their contracts as well. You will find salaries vary throughout the state but that has to do with simple economics towns where the cost of living is higher and property values are higher you will see higher salaries as you would with any other profession. What readers should note is the benefits and the raises educators and school employees receive.

School boards across the state should be financially transparent with parents and voters and post all contracts and budgets on their school districts website.

Fred S. Teeboom: In Nashua, teachers are led blindly into a strike by poor leadership

Tuesday, Mar. 25, 2008

IT IS DIFFICULT to understand why teachers should just hand the decision to engage in an illegal strike to their union leadership at the risk of high fines and even their jobs.

Here in Nashua, a strike deadline has been set, although a membership-wide secret ballot vote was not called and salary information prepared by the city was not circulated to teachers' union members. Reasonable people should ask, strike over a 2.75 percent average retroactive raise for the 2006-2007 school year, long gone? What about the contract offered by the city for this year forward?

Here is what the city offered:

Annual raises reach up to 19 percent and up to $10,000. Three hundred forty-four of the 967 teachers (36 percent) will receive an annual increase of 10 percent or more the next (2008-2009) school year, and 195 teachers (20 percent) will see an annual increase of $5,000 or more. (To verify, use the calculator posted on the Nashua home page, and look up the salary and raises for a teacher with any degree currently on step 9).
The proposed contract offers a double-step increase from the "status quo" (2005-2006) school year to the current (2007-2008) school year, thus no steps and no "experience" and no salaries on the salary schedules are lost.
The city pays an average of $11,750 contribution per teacher per year this year (2007-2008) for health and dental insurance, to increase to $14,000 in the last year (2009-2010). According to an insurance report prepared for the city, Nashua pays 96 percent of the combined medical and drug costs for its employees; the employees pay 4 percent.
The city charges no deductibles for both health and dental insurance, even as medical insurance nationwide, to contain cost, is moving to out-of-pocket deductibles of thousands of dollars.
Paid sick leave can be accumulated up to 11 days per year, and up to 165 days total. A teacher is paid in cash up to 100 days of accumulated sick leave on retirement, added to pension benefits.
There are a total of 28 generous cost benefits in the teachers contract, such as longevity payments and paid personal days.
The central problem in the teachers contract is a salary structure not based on merit, and not based on need. Over 12 years (10 in the proposed contract), teachers stair-step from entry position to the top step in the step schedule, one step each year, frequently earning double-digit raises as they step upwards, more if they earn credits and degrees.

After they reach the top step, there are no additional steps to jump to, and the teachers now see increases only for the same step from one salary schedule to the next. Their percentile raises now drop from double digits to as low as 2.45 percent annually (see the calculator on the Nashua home page).

Three hundred fifty-four of the 967 teachers (37 percent) are "trapped" in the top step. In what other profession do you move from entry to the most senior position in 10 years, after which raises level off to below the rate of inflation? It is difficult to understand how teachers would tolerate such a salary system. No other union in our city has such an insane system.

The problem is not the city. It is a union membership not informed by its leadership of details and tolerant to be led by the nose. Teachers are trapped in a system of severe inequity that recognizes no merit, pays no stipends for teaching critical subjects, and pays no extra for positions difficult to fill such as math and science teachers.

Every three or four years when a new contract for the teachers comes up, there are complaints, job actions and threats of a strike. The resentment and dissatisfaction of teachers should be directed at a salary system unresponsive to merit and need and excellence, not at the city that has offered an exceedingly generous contract.

Fred S. Teeboom is a Nashua alderman-at-large.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"It's for the Kids"

The following letter to the editor appeared in the March 26th edition of the Eagle Times.

Headed to the polls this March, I faced the perennial “It’s for the kids” line. As a parent of two young children, I found this extremely disturbing. I deplore my children being used as political pawns to elect people and pass taxes that are not in their or my family’s best interest. Such tactics remind me of Joseph Goebbels’ comment: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

When it comes to voting on education issues, parents and grandparents have come to accept the “It’s for the kids” line. Or have they? Such misrepresentation is not a lesson we should be teaching our children. Most of this spending is not “for the kids”. Eighty percent of school budgets pay for salaries and benefits for the “educators” to which we entrust our children 180 days a year. Larger salaries mean larger state budget-busting pensions. These annual pension pay-outs start at age 55 and often exceed ten times the comparable social security payout.

Some voters realize that the “It’s for the kids” line is bunk but succumb to the pressure and manipulation of those to whom they entrust their children. As a responsible parent, I refuse to teach my child it is okay to be used as a political pawn, or to cower to those responsible for their protection in my absence, or that it is okay to be irresponsible with other people’s money.

Our schools have a spending problem. Parents and grandparents have an obligation not to leave our children with a large tax burden when they are adults.

Try as they may, this is one Mom they can’t intimidate or shut-up.

Cathy Peschke
Co-founder Croydon-Citizens for Reasonable And Fair Taxes