State Rep Says Abolish County Government

Gene Chandler of Bartlett, a state rep, has advocated for the elimination of county government, and that sounds like a fine idea. If it actually happens, it will be a huge sign that things are changing for the better in NH. The Conway Daily Sun reports:

“Couldn’t we just eliminate a layer of government?” asked Epstein.

Rep. Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett) replied, “The simple answer to that is yes.”

The full story:

County government should be abolished, a state representative told about 20 attendees at the Mount Washington Valley Economic Council’s Eggs and Issues breakfast forum last week.

The purpose of the forum was to educate the public about the role of county government in New Hampshire. The state has 10 counties and Conway is in Carroll County.

Carroll County government includes the sheriff’s office, registry of deeds, the nursing home, jail, county attorney’s office and a farm. A group of 14 state representatives, called the delegation, passes Carroll County’s budget, which Carroll County commissioners manage with help from department heads.

Carroll County’s budget is still in flux but as of now it stands at about $27 million. Budgets are passed in March.

“Today we’re going to explore the mysteries of county government, probably our least understood area of government,” said moderator George Epstein.

Clashes between officials became most apparent after Epstein asked why the state has a county government. Epstein suggested the nursing home could be privatized and corrections department’s responsibilities could be given to the state of New Hampshire.

“Couldn’t we just eliminate a layer of government?” asked Epstein.

Rep. Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett) replied, “The simple answer to that is yes.”

Chandler said the county government is expensive. In fact, Chandler said his county tax bill cost about the same as his tax bill from the town of Bartlett.

Chandler also questioned if every New Hampshire county really needs its own jail. He also said it’s unnecessary for the county to have a nursing home when private companies can do the same work. The sheriff’s office should stick serving writs and providing court security.

“You cannot find anywhere that they are charged with going out on the highway and running radar and running investigations,” said Chandler of the sheriff’s office “It’s something that’s taken on a life of its own. That should be done by the state police.”

Further, Chandler said a few years ago lawmakers were misled when they were asked to build a new jail. Lawmakers were told the then new jail facility wouldn’t need any additional personnel. Within a year, the county needed to add three new jail employees. This year, the commission is proposing to raise taxes by 17 percent.

“Let’s get in the real world, folks,” said Chandler. “County government slides under the radar screen and I think it needs to be brought to the forefront because it’s having a real big impact on your taxes.”

Rep. Frank McCarthy (R-Conway) wouldn’t entirely eliminate county government but says he opposes “empire building.” He said that included the commission’s plan to move Carroll County’s University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension service from Conway to Ossipee. The commission would put extension service into the old nursing home building. In September the county just completed construction of the new nursing home and the old one is now vacant.

“Two years ago it was said that building (the old nursing home) had leaky roofs, it was full of black mold, it was uninhabitable, it had to be torn down,” said McCarthy. “Now, once they got the new nursing home, all of a sudden that building is pretty good.”

Then, McCarthy said the commission suggested renting the old building out to people who wished to visit their “friends in jail.” The delegation told the commission it could look at renovating the old nursing home if the project cost less than $1 million. The commission, however, came back with a plan that cost about $1.5 million.

“Why would anybody in their right mind spend even a couple hundred thousand dollars to move UNH Cooperative to Ossipee?” asks McCarthy. “There’s no good reason except you will be a little closer to the farm and the pigsty. To me that’s empire building.”

McCarthy went on to criticise the Blue Loon transit service. The Blue Loon is run by a non-profit organization that is asking the county for $20,000. Recently, McCarthy learned one of the Blue Loon’s transit services has a budget of $210,000 but is only projected to deliver 1,400 rides.

“They are going to need 90,000 riders, paying $2.25 each, just to break even,” said McCarthy.

Commissioner Dorothy Solomon defended county government by saying local control is important to New England residents. She said that’s why New Hampshire has towns and county governments. As for the county nursing home, it accepts people who need the care regardless if they can pay for it, she said.

Solomon answered McCarthy’s concern about the extension service by saying Ossipee is more central than Conway. Further, tax dollars won’t have to be used to pay rent to the private landlord in Conway if the extension service moves to Ossipee.

In response, McCarthy agreed with Solomon that government should be close to the people but he questioned if Carroll County even had anything that counts as a government.

“When you look at the county, that’s not a government,” said McCarthy. “They can’t enact laws. They don’t govern. They are overseers of county property and county employees. They are not a government per se.”

Audience member Ray Shakir asked how county government could be abolished.

“I really didn’t hear one good reason why this thing should prolong itself,” said Shakir.

Abolishing county government would have to be done legislatively, said Chandler. It’s been tried in the past without success. However there’s a growing dissatisfaction with county government.

“By golly we’re gaining steam,” said Chandler who later added the county attorney’s office could be abolished and its responsibilities given to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office.

County commission chair David Sorensen said a problem at the Carroll County Attorney’s office is the assistant county attorneys are paid much less than their peers in the other New Hampshire counties. This forces Carroll County to hire attorneys with little experience. They stay for a short time and then leave for higher paying jobs elsewhere.

The commission is responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the county. Sometimes it has tough issues to handle. For example, a jail inmate is suing the county and the commission expects a U.S. Marshal serve them shortly, said Sorensen.

Carroll County has three commissioners. Commissioner Asha Kenney wasn’t at Eggs and Issues. Each commissioner must come from one of three districts in the county. However, all the commissioners are elected in countywide elections in November. Commissioners are paid $10,500 per year. In contrast, state representatives are paid $100 per year.

The county officials also aired their grievances about sheriff Christopher Conley, who wasn’t at the event.

Clashes between Conley and the county commission have made headlines for years. County sheriffs in New Hampshire are also elected officials. However, the county commission still drafts the sheriff budgets.

“When there’s a personality conflict with an elected official there’s no procedure as to how to handle that,” said Sorensen. “There’s no process of reprimand for elected officials.”

McCarthy replied conflicts between commissioners and sheriffs have come up in other New Hampshire counties. The New Hampshire Supreme Court says a sheriff “must” cooperate with the commission unless the commission is interfering with his or her law enforcement responsibilities, according to McCarthy.

One recent conflict between the commission and the sheriff involves Conley’s decision to hire a prosecutor when there’s no money for that position in the budget. Sorensen said when department heads anticipate going over their budgets (line items) by over $1,000, then they need to get approval from the county commission to move money around.

“He can’t do that,” said Sorensen of Conley’s decision to hire a prosecutor. “We told Lt. (Mike) Santuccio that they have to terminate that position.”

McCarthy agreed that department heads can’t spend money on items that haven’t been approved by the delegation and the commission. McCarthy said Conley defied that rule last year when he spent a few thousand dollars on exercise clothes for deputies without having such a line in the budget. McCarthy said Sorensen has tried to put a stop to undisciplined spending.

The tone of the forum started off nicely. Rep. Karen Umberger (R-Conway) diplomatically explained there’s a “natural tension” between the commission, which drafts the budget, and the delegation, which approves the money. There’s also tension between delegation subcommittees and the full delegation.

“We tend to appear as though we’re having these horrible arguments back and forth, said Umberger. “On the other hand, that’s a healthy exchange because what we end up doing is providing a better budget than we would have otherwise.”

McCarthy, one of the most fiscally conservative members of the delegation, said the cost of county is reasonable. His last county tax bill was $1.05 per $1,000 of property value. McCarthy said his tax bill from North Conway Water Precinct cost about the same amount.

“I think the county gets a pretty good bang for the buck,” said McCarthy.

Finally, Epstein asked Sorensen how a jail inmate David Hobson, 34, of York County Maine, was able to escape from the jail last month.

Sorensen said the county is in the process of hiring a former county jail superintendent from another New Hampshire county to do an “external investigation.” Sorensen said in his opinion it was a failing of management not to have enough corrections officers at the facility. Other inmates may have helped push Hobson over the fencing. Also the county is looking at changing the “fencing arrangements.”

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6 Comments

  1. Counties are stupid inventions of the state- counties are administrative divisions of the state, unlike cities, towns, and villiages that are independent. Theyve talked about getting rid of the county sheriff (good idea), and letting the regular police patrol the towns of Duanesburg and Priceton, because those ones dont have their own. The state troopers usually fly in all the ruaral areas anyway, so whats the need?

  2. Stupid is a harsh word. But it is interesting that some legislators are thinking outside the status quo and looking at alternative systems of governance that won't cost the people so much.

  3. Bad, bad idea.

    One of the reasons this country has evolved into such a police state is because most of the powers of the elected county sheriffs have been transferred to the state police—professional militarized police appointed by bureaucrats (the “department of safety”) in turn appointed by the governor—or down to the local police, which are also in most places unelected.

    We‘d be losing a major potential check on the power of the state if we eliminate the office of sheriff.

    And what with some liberty activists recently talking about beginning to run people for the office of sheriff, the paranoid side of me says there’s a more sinister reason the State suddenly wants to eliminate county government here.

  4. @SMASH CAPITALISM

    In New Hampshire, the towns are not at all independent—this is not a “home rule” State. They’re as much creations of the State as the counties are.

    And I am quite sure that whatever scheme the State House comes up with, eliminating the counties will result in a centralization and consolidation of power upward to the State, not down to the towns and cities here.

  5. J,raxis, I believe you are correct. The sheriffs out west are actually defending residents from federal encroachment on local land use and other concerns. There maybe serious statist impetus behind this move.

    Check out what Sheriff Richard Mack ret. has to say.

    http://sheriffmack.com/

  6. Great start.. Just a few more levels of extorters to go. County, local , State and National then we have our freedom.

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