We’ve made this point previously, but its importance begs reiteration.
Taxpayers in Keene pay one of the highest rates in the state; for 2019, the taxes on a $200,000 home are about $7,520. Many property owners decry how high those tax bills are, but steadfastly fail to involve themselves in the process, therefore abdicating any opportunity to lower them.
In almost all New Hampshire towns, tax bills have four components. But one is the state education tax, which assesses the same rate across all property in the state. Only the Legislature can affect that rate.
The other three parts are the county, municipal and local school taxes. Of these, the largest is typically the school tax. In Keene, for example, the school budget approved by voters in 2018-19 was $66,758,527. The municipal budget was $44,065,864. (But the actual rate for what needed to be raised through taxes was much closer; the municipal tax rate was $14.81/$1,000 in property value, while the local education rate was $16.68.) The Cheshire County budget of about $50 million was spread throughout all the county’s communities, so Keene taxpayers paid just under $4 per $1,000 in property value.
Of course, voters don’t have a direct say in very much of this budgeting. The county delegation, composed of Cheshire County’s 23 state representatives, actually votes on the county budget. Likewise, Keene’s 15 city councilors approve the city’s budget. So while unhappy voters can eventually vote out those they feel spend too much or too little, or on the wrong things, they don’t get to change the budget numbers in the short term.
And in the case of the school budget, though voters will get to give a thumbs up or down to the total on March 10, there’s a big caveat to that vote. If the budget is denied, it doesn’t mean starting over, or even trying to whittle that number. It means the district’s “default” budget goes into effect. That’s meant to provide stability, but in reality, it most often renders moot the voters’ will, because the administration’s interpretation of “obligated” spending mysteriously works out to exactly the amount proposed in the official budget — or more. That’s by no means limited to Keene, by the way. It’s how many school and town budgets work in communities that rely on the “official ballot” system of governing.
Still, there are chances to influence the school budget or, at the very least, to gain a better understanding of what’s in it and how it’s put together. One such opportunity comes this evening, when the Keene Board of Education holds its lone hearing on the budget, prior to setting its final proposal. Saturday, the district’s finance committee had its say on the administration’s proposal. It lopped $360,000 from the requested figure, though that number could still change.
The second chance to have a direct say comes at the district’s deliberative session on Feb. 8, when voters will set the district’s warrant. There, the budget can be cut, or added to. And it’s worth mentioning that other expenditures could be raised at that session, such as new contracts for district employees — this year, custodians, office staff, tutors and clinical service providers.
Those contracts aren’t up for debate — voters in March will say either yes or no — but the budget is certainly malleable at these meetings. Important, too, is the simple opportunity to ask questions and be heard, even if your interest doesn’t change the bottom line.
A year ago, the board’s official hearing on the Keene school budget took all of 20 minutes. Not a single question was asked or comment made from the audience, which itself consisted of a handful of voters, most with ties to the schools. The annual deliberative session generally draws less than 1 percent of the district’s voters.
Considering how much criticism we hear each year regarding the city’s tax bills, we’d have to say there’s quite a lot of griping coming from people who can’t be bothered to show up when it might matter.
It’s time to show up or stop complaining.