The structure of local government in New Hampshire and the other New England states is such that there can be a tendency to downplay the importance of county government. Compared to many other states, county government here has relatively few responsibilities, limited principally in Cheshire County’s case to operating the county jail, the Maplewood county nursing home, the registry of property deeds and the county courthouse, and providing court security and secondary law enforcement under the county sheriff. Outside New England, county governments typically have much broader primary responsibilities extending also to, for example, building and maintaining roads, coordinating public health and operating hospitals, providing primary policing and implementing regional planning and economic development. The result here in New Hampshire is a decentralized regional structure in which coordination among town and city governments can be difficult to achieve and tackling regional problems and planning is often a challenge.
The recent announcement by Cheshire County of its plans for allocating $7.2 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, however, provides a look at how beneficial enabling more proactive involvement by county government can be for municipalities and residents. In the first instance, credit for the funding goes to the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats, including New Hampshire’s delegation, which pushed to include direct local county and municipal government support in the ARPA coronavirus aid bill earlier this year. That marked a significant change in approach to federal COVID-19 relief aid to governments, which in 2020 was mostly funneled through at the state government level. While in New Hampshire that has generally been very effectively administered by the Sununu administration, the ARPA aid will now provide direct relief to the state’s local governments over two years. In Cheshire County, that makes available this year about $4 million combined for Keene and the other towns and $7.4 million for the county, with equivalent amounts available for 2022.
The county’s plan for spending its 2021 allotment is sensible and innovative. It will use close to half the federal funds to address the county’s own infrastructure needs. These include spending $3.4 million for pandemic-caused cost overruns at the Maplewood renovation project and energy upgrades for county facilities to replace outdated systems and generate savings. And it will devote $750,000 to raise county staff compensation, ensuring all employees make no less than $15 per hour, an important investment to remain competitive at a time when staff hiring and retention needs throughout the region are acute, particularly at long-term care facilities like Maplewood.
But beyond those direct needs, the county will also use the ARPA money to provide additional aid to its municipalities and to local businesses and nonprofit organizations. In the case of the municipalities, it will mean an additional $1 million in federal relief coming to them — a roughly 25 percent increase — to be used for qualifying improvement projects and unplanned pandemic-related costs. And it will use $1 million to establish two equivalent funds to provide one-time grants to businesses and nonprofits in the county seeking emergency relief assistance.
Taken together, these steps should ease the burden of pandemic-related costs on the county taxpayers — both directly through the county tax and indirectly via the municipal aid — while also addressing critical staffing concerns and providing additional assistance to local businesses and nonprofits that have struggled during the pandemic. Further, the county’s plan is an enlightened approach to addressing regional concerns in a way that the state’s balkanized government structure often discourages. It is noteworthy that the approach was stimulated by federal funding, and it’s one the state should take more often.
In commenting on the plan to The Sentinel, County Administrator Chris Coates credited the county commissioners and the county delegation of state representatives who approved the plan, saying “they should be recognized for their foresight and thoughtful and pragmatic thinking on this.” They should indeed.