State Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, is right about one thing: Derry’s taxes are out of control.
The town’s tax rate is currently $30.48 per $1,000 of valuation, which places Derry among the more heavily taxed communities in the state.
But the actions of just a handful of voters at the Feb. 2 school deliberative session could change that. Just 83 voters attended — less than one-half of 1 percent of the town’s 17,700 registered voters. They voted to restore $800,000 that had been cut from the school budget. That decision, according to Rausch, could raise the town’s tax rate to $33.45 per $1,000, which could give Derry the highest tax rate in New Hampshire.
“I’m very upset with the process,” Rausch told reporter Julie Huss. “I’m almost positive our tax rate will be the highest in the state.”
Rausch is quick to blame school spending for Derry’s tax woes. He’s right that the school budget should not have increased by 116 percent over the past decade while school population has declined by 18 percent. School backers cannot blame state funding, which has increased 20 percent over that period. Nor can they blame the rise in the cost of living, which has increased 30 percent from 2002 to 2012. As Rausch notes in his letter (see elsewhere on this page), the School Board has outspent the rise in the cost of living by 86 percentage points. But municipal budgets have been increasing as well.
Rausch suggests a solution. Derry should abandon the town form of government and incorporate as a city.
Under Derry’s existing town government structure, the Town Council makes the spending decisions. But for school district expenses, voters decide at the polls whether to approve the annual budget and bonds.
Under a city form of government, all spending decisions would be consolidated.
“I am now convinced it’s the only way for us to get budgets under control is by changing to a city form of government,” Rausch said. “That would bring the budget process all under one roof.”
It’s worth considering.
Changing to a city form of government would require the election of a charter commission to produce recommendations to be placed before the voters.
Derry does not have a strong track record in this regard. A charter commission was last formed in 2009 to look at town government and recommend improvements. The commission came up with 47 recommended changes, most of them minor revisions in language. The changes were set to go on the September 2010 ballot, but were removed by state order as state officials had not received the proposals in a timely manner. The recommendations since have been placed before voters a few at a time.
A move from town to city government is a big change. The pros and cons of the change would need to be researched and presented to voters. But it is worth a look.
Derry should consider electing a charter commission tasked solely with examining a change from a town to city form of government. Make the case for a change, then let the voters decide.
Derry’s taxes are out of control. And taxpayers seem to get little for their money.
If converting to a city form of government could bring order to Derry’s budget chaos, it’s worth considering.