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Cheshire County leads in new COVID cases per capita — but also tests more

New COVID cases in Cheshire County have ticked up a bit lately. And while the overall numbers remain far below their January peak, the county has led New Hampshire in new cases per capita over the past two weeks.

But Cheshire County is also doing more than its share of testing — which likely contributes to its above-average case rate — and has a lower positivity rate than the state overall.

Cheshire County added 249 new positives in the two weeks ending Thursday — a rate of 326 per 100,000 residents, the highest in the state, according to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services. It was followed by Manchester, with 307 per 100,000, and Strafford County, with 296. (New Hampshire’s health department breaks out Manchester and Nashua in its county-level data.)

Paul Cuno-Booth / Sentinel Staff 

A chart of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the two weeks ending Thursday for every New Hampshire county, as well as Manchester and Nashua.

New cases statewide peaked in December and January, averaging more than 800 per day at times, before starting to plummet around mid-January.

Cheshire County saw a similar rise and fall this winter, though daily cases have rebounded a bit over the past several weeks. The county has averaged 18 new cases a day over the past two weeks, compared to 13 per day for the first two weeks of February.

The uptick corresponds with the return of students to Keene State College and Franklin Pierce University, which are testing thousands of people per week between the two of them. Both schools have reported dozens of cases since beginning their semesters.

But that also means Cheshire County is simply testing more than most other places.

With less than 6 percent of the state’s population, Cheshire accounted for 11 percent of its tests in the week ending Thursday. Adjusting for population, Cheshire County was doing more tests than every jurisdiction except Grafton County — and testing at more than twice the rate of Manchester.

That shows up in the rate of tests coming back positive, an important indicator because it takes the number of tests a place does into account.

Graphics by Paul Cuno-Booth / Sentinel Staff  

A graph showing the percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in Cheshire County and New Hampshire overall.

According to state data, Cheshire County’s positivity rate has consistently been lower than New Hampshire’s as a whole over the past six weeks. The seven-day average for the week ending Thursday was 1.8 percent in Cheshire County, compared to 3.4 percent for the state.

As New Hampshire’s winter surge has receded, health experts have described the trends as positive, though urged continued caution through mask-wearing, social distancing and other steps. Relaxing those precautions too soon, they have said, could spark another surge — especially with new, more contagious variants circling in the United States.

Latest numbers

The state averaged 255 new COVID-19 cases per day for the week ending Thursday. After a sustained decline, the seven-day average has bounced around a little in the past week, though remains lower than it was at the start of the month.

On Friday, the state health department announced 287 new cases, at least 19 of them in Cheshire County, two in Sullivan County and 34 in Hillsborough County outside of Manchester and Nashua.

The state also announced four more deaths related to COVID-19: two men and one woman from Hillsborough County, and a Rockingham County man. All were at least 60 years old.

Seventy-three people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Friday, and the state had more than 2,100 active cases.

To date, more than 78,000 Granite Staters have tested positive for COVID-19, and 1,195 have died.

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Supporters of Spofford slope regs vow to try again with revised ordinance

CHESTERFIELD — Residents who helped draft the controversial steep-slope ordinance rejected at this week’s town meeting say they plan to revise the measure and reintroduce it next year.

Chesterfield voters shot down the proposed zoning amendment, which would have restricted new development near Spofford Lake in an effort to prevent soil erosion, 608–242, during ballot voting Tuesday. The drive-thru session at the town garage on Brattleboro Road also included consideration of the municipal warrant and drew nearly 28 percent of registered voters — a much higher number than typically attend the annual business meeting, election officials said.

Several voters said opposition to the steep-slope ordinance was their primary reason for voting, arguing the measure would have interfered with individual property rights and calling for revisions to reduce harm to landowners.

The amendment was intended to limit construction in the Spofford Lake watershed that causes soil erosion into the lake, which helps invasive plants grow. Chesterfield’s planning board voted 6-1 last month to back the ordinance, which would have restricted development on land in the watershed exceeding a slope of 15 percent. (Projects would have been eligible for an exemption if they were on slopes less than 20 percent and property owners could demonstrate that they would limit runoff to the surrounding area.)

Kate Chase, 40, said Tuesday that officials needed to “go back to the drawing board” and find a compromise that would be less restrictive for people with property near the lake. She and other voters, including Jason Goldsmith, said residents should have also had more time to review the proposal.

“All of a sudden, it just kind of popped up,” Goldsmith said.

But planning board member John Koopman questioned that argument Thursday, saying board members began drafting the ordinance three years ago and first held a public hearing on the proposal in January 2020. Koopman said the board considered feedback from several other meetings held during the pandemic, which he added drew more attendees than pre-pandemic sessions because residents could watch them remotely.

“We incorporated a number of opinions,” he said. “We made some modifications based on some of those things.”

Still, Koopman said the planning board felt its final proposal was imperfect and would have been willing to amend it, if passed, to assuage further concerns.

He expressed frustration that much of the debate around the ordinance before Tuesday focused on residents’ beliefs that it would restrict property rights, rather than concern that the growth of invasive plants in the lake could render it inaccessible or require a costly cleanup. Koopman said the public conversation largely ignored data and information that he and other proponents of the regulation offered, arguing that it would have imposed “reasonable controls” on development.

“We recognize property rights,” he said.

Nonetheless, Koopman said he believes the planning board will consider adjusting the ordinance to address residents’ concerns.

“If it has flaws, we’re committed to listening to people,” he said. “… We have an obligation to revisit it.”

An outspoken critic of the steep-slope regulation, Tom Woodman, said Tuesday that while he wants to protect Spofford Lake, he felt the proposed zoning rules were not narrowly tailored to address conservation issues and would have punished landowners.

Woodman, who owns Road’s End Farm, a horse farm and summer camp on Jackson Hill Road, said the ordinance would have made at least 320 acres of his property — more than half of its total area — and a lakefront beach owned by the farm “virtually worthless.” Adding that he does not plan to develop that land, Woodman said he protested the ordinance to defend other residents near the lake.

He noted that it would not have addressed existing developments that are contributing to soil erosion, arguing that town officials seemed to have put “the cart ahead of the horse.”

“It just indicates to me that they’re not as interested in the lake as they are in curtailing development,” he said.

Supporters of the ordinance said it would have reduced runoff containing silt and other nutrients that, when introduced into the lake, can create conditions favorable to milfoil, an aquatic weed that can make swimming difficult and reduce waterfront property values, according to the N.H. Department of Environmental Services.

Woodman suggested that to prevent milfoil from growing in the lake, however, town officials should instead consider barring large boats from the lake, since they may be likely to have been in other bodies of water. (Milfoil is often introduced to new bodies of water via residue on boats’ hulls.)

Woodman could not be reached this week for comment on the result of Tuesday’s vote. He said that morning, however, he believes the measure will eventually pass.

“It would be nice if it was a little less rigid,” he said.

Koopman declined to specify which aspects of the steep-slope regulation may be revised, explaining that the planning board needs to discuss those issues. Asked whether he thinks a revised ordinance could be on the ballot at next year’s town meeting, Koopman said he is “sure it will.”

Pam Walton, a Chesterfield Conservation Commission member who lives near Spofford Lake and supported the ordinance, expressed disappointment about the outcome this week. Walton added, however, that proponents of the measure are committed to revising it and will speak with critics about their concerns.

“The lake needs and deserves protection,” she told The Sentinel in an email. “… I’m hopeful that with input from many and education/compromise on both sides, the 2022 version of the Spofford Lake Watershed Steep Slope Overlay District Ordinance will be acceptable to the residents of Chesterfield.”

Homes in poor neighborhoods taxed at twice the rate of those in rich areas, study shows

Homeowners in America’s poorest neighborhoods face effective property tax rates roughly double those levied on the richest ones, according to a massive new study by a University of Chicago researcher.

In theory, all homeowners in a given jurisdiction are subject to the same property tax rate, regardless of home value. But the methodology cities use to assess property values skews the final effective tax rates dramatically: Some homes are assigned considerably lower assessments than their actual market prices, while others are given much higher valuations.

These measurement errors aren’t random, according to study author Christopher Berry of the Harris School of Public Policy. Across the country, in city after city, homes in low-income neighborhoods are systematically over-assessed relative to their actual market prices, while those in rich areas are under-assessed. The net result is a transfer of billions of dollars of tax burdens from rich households to poor ones.

Berry gathered data on 26 million residential homes sold between 2006 and 2016 from CoreLogic, a real estate analytics firm. The data included addresses, sale prices, property taxes due the year of the sale, and tax values as assessed by local officials. He calculated effective property tax rates by dividing taxes due by the sale price.

In theory, property tax rates within a given city should be the same regardless of home value. Cities typically apply a flat property tax rate across the board. If you were to chart that tax rate against home value, you’d get a horizontal line.

But in practice, the numbers often don’t work out that way, as seen in the actual property tax curve for Chicago using real-world data covering nearly 10,000 home sales between 2015 and 2017.

Owners of the least expensive homes in the city, selling typically for less than $100,000, paid an effective property tax rate of nearly 4 percent. But effective rates on the most expensive properties — those with sale prices approaching $1.5 million — were less than 1.5 percent.

How that is possible, if the same tax rate is applied across the board, comes down to the difference between the market price of a home and its value as assessed by city tax officials.

“Property tax is not levied at the time of a transaction, but at regular intervals, usually annually,” Berry explains in the paper. “Because most properties sell infrequently, their value in any given tax cycle must be estimated, a job that falls to the office of the local assessor. The accuracy and fairness of the property tax depends fundamentally on the accuracy and fairness of the valuations estimated by assessors.”

Berry believes a fundamental flaw in the assessment process is the prime driver of property tax regressivity: When estimating home values, assessors don’t have access to the same information buyers and sellers do.

“Generally speaking, assessors are not allowed to enter homes to do inspections, nor do many have the labor power to do so,” Berry said via email. As a result, they’re unable to account for variables such as custom or upgraded fixtures or the condition of a home.

“Consider two neighboring homes that were identical at the time of construction (same square footage, number of bedrooms, etc.),” he said. “But over the years, one owner has not maintained the property and now has peeling paint and a leaky roof. The other owner has kept the property in pristine condition and even added a chef’s kitchen and spa bathroom.”

Buyers and sellers can see those differences — indeed, they may be some of the most readily apparent features of the homes. But assessors can’t. From the outside, the two houses may be virtually identical. The assessor assigns the homes an identical value, which turns out to be higher than the price the poorly maintained home could bring on the market, and lower than the true market value of the improved home.

Repeat this process across an entire city and you end up with a skewed property tax curve, as illustrated by the Chicago example. A similar pattern is evident in counties and cities all across the country.

Mike Ardis, a spokesman for the International Association of Assessment Officers, a trade group for property tax assessors, said in a statement that “homes at both ends of the value spectrum tend to present a valuation issue for assessors because there can be a lack of quality data, and the motivations of market participants tend to be different at those extremes.”

He added that the group is “focused on improving the accuracy and precision of the appraisal methodologies on which assessments are based, and helping assessors more accurately identify and locate regressive assessments.”

There probably are other factors driving property tax regressivity as well, although Berry believes they have a smaller effect than the assessment process. Many states, for instance, impose limits on how much a home’s assessed value can rise in a year to guard owners against huge tax increases. In booming markets, those caps may result in assessors undervaluing homes, particularly at the high end of the market, where prices often rise most rapidly.

Similarly, many cities allow property owners to appeal assessments, typically in hopes of lowering a valuation for tax purposes. Because these appeals “are disproportionately brought by owners of high-priced property,” Berry writes, their net effect is to lower property taxes for the rich relative to everyone else.

Finally, one major area of concern in analyses like Berry’s is the multitude of external, unpredictable factors that can influence any given home’s sale price. Some buyers and sellers may be better negotiators than others, for instance, able to nudge a sales price higher or lower than it would be otherwise.

Berry runs a number of complex statistical tests demonstrating that these unobserved factors are not likely driving his results. His findings are further strengthened by the simple fact that thousands of counties and cities across the United States show the same general pattern.

Because of the interplay between race and economic outcomes in this country, property tax regressivity results in stunning racial inequities, Berry said. He found, for instance, that in neighborhoods where 90 percent or more of the residents are Black, homes are taxed roughly 50 percent higher than they are in other neighborhoods in the same county.

“This is an example of structural racism,” Berry said. “African Americans and other minorities are more likely to own low-priced homes. This means that minorities are more likely to be overtaxed because they are more likely to own low-priced homes.”

However, Berry points out that even within communities that are overwhelmingly white, the same pattern of over-assessment and under-assessment remains. “The key fact is that low-priced homes are over-assessed,” he said. More accurate assessments would create more home equity for owners of low-priced homes regardless of their race.

Berry says transparency is one step that would help cities produce more equitable assessments. “Assessors are supposed to do their own studies and report on assessment quality, including regressivity, regularly,” he said. “But I am shocked at how many major jurisdictions either don’t do or don’t release these studies. Taxpayers have a right to know.”

There are also alternative ways to structure the assessment process. California, for instance, assesses home value at the time a property sells, pegging it precisely to the sale price. That solves much of the regressivity identified by Berry — so much so that he excluded the state from his analysis. But it creates separate issues: Homes that are nearly identical can theoretically be levied dramatically different tax rates based on when they were last sold.

Berry’s findings have potentially major implications, as homes are the primary driver of middle-class wealth. According to data from the federal Survey of Consumer Finances, home equity accounts for more than 60 percent of middle-class American families’ net worth.

Higher tax rates on lower-priced properties make it harder for the families living in those homes to build wealth and save for the future. And because those families are disproportionately non-white, regressive property taxes may also be contributing to the country’s staggering racial wealth gap.