As the 2021 Fall election approaches, it is time for the citizens of Nashua to take a close look at their City government and the elected officials running it. In doing so we have found a lot to like but also some glaring deficiencies.
On the plus side there is a conscious attempt to celebrate individual and community achievements, some concern for the fate of small businesses, active support of non-profit and especially caregiver organizations, and the encouragement of civic pride.
The quality of City Services varies, but the City should point with pride to its Police and Fire Departments and to those charged with gathering up our trash and recycling what they can. In the Winter our road crews are tireless and efficient Moreover, the citizenry is pleasant and generally helpful. What then could be our concerns and why do we think some new leadership is required?
In order to move ahead and become the City it could be while living up to its New Hampshire title as the Gate City, political leaders must confront a number of key issues. First, a belligerent political divide. Some would label the opposing sides as liberals and conservatives or Left vs Right Wingers and still, others would use the term deplorable vs the rest of us or even Patriots vs Communists. These labels are almost never helpful assuming the political goal is to develop consensus rather than attempting to govern with a “winner take all ” mindset.
The social cost of the “winner take all” mindset is vividly displayed in the ongoing controversy surrounding the construction of Nashua’s new Performing Arts Center, the PAC. Approval for the project was granted with the passing of a City-wide referendum by the slimmest of margins. Rather than proceeding cautiously and attempting to address the misgivings of naysayers, the “winners” chose to ignore them. Instead they began a marketing campaign to overcome community opposition. A campaign that grossly exaggerated the long-term economic benefits of the project in order to stifle opposition.
The result after five years–a project yet to be completed. A project originally estimated to require 15 million in new borrowing is now projected to require 29 million in City borrowing and counting. A project which too many citizens hope fails. A project that jeopardizes the support needed for other vitally needed City improvements.
We want to thank Arthur Cozazzini for this Op-Ed. If you have an Op-Ed or LTE
you would like us to consider, please submit it to Editor@GraniteGrok.com.
New Leadership is Needed
New leadership is now required to restore confidence in our government. New leadership that will build on lessons learned and govern with the intent to build consensus.
To build consensus City government must encourage dialogue. Informed dialogue requires the sharing of data and information. Both the current Board of Aldermen and the Mayor’s Office are guilty of taking concrete steps to impede the flow of information and limit the ability of ordinary citizens to be heard in an open forum.
The Mayor’s Office has taken the extraordinary step of hiring a full-time lawyer to screen and respond to Freedom of Information requests from ordinary citizens. The obvious result is a chilling effect on those contemplating such requests and a significant increase in the monetary cost of pursuing all but the most simple and straightforward of those requests.
In a highly publicized recent case, the City lost in its attempt to deny access to information but that required a court hearing and the retention of lawyers. Rather than complicated legal matters, the City was cited for unnecessary delays in responding to the initial request.
As for the Board of Aldermen, their actions were simply ham-handed. They voted to severely limit the amount of time a citizen was allotted to speak at an open public meeting installing buzzers and red lights to enforce their rule. While reasonable safeguards are needed to ensure public order and the integrity of public meetings, the time limits chosen and other associated “rules” are simply meant to shut down citizen comments.
To move forward the City needs leadership truly dedicated to the goals of TRANSPARENCY and CITIZEN INPUT IN DECISION MAKING. The current government has no real interest in
Fiscal Conservatives, City Needs, and City Expenditures
Those who call themselves fiscal conservatives stress the need for efficiency in implementing government programs and rail against perceived overspending, inefficiency, and waste. There have been loud outcries of late that the City is engaged in excessive spending. However, there are many citizens who point out that this so-called waste and inefficiency is actually the dedicated attempt to assure access and equity in the delivery of City government services.
There is really no good way to resolve these differences of opinion without detailed, accurate data on program costs and program outcomes, as well as an accurate assessment of the overall fiscal condition of City finances.
At present, the city enjoys an excellent bond rating but does a poor job of detailing program costs and program outcomes. Why? Because it has a complicated line item budget system that does not lend itself to program evaluation. If Nashua were a small town in rural New Hampshire the system would probably work. In a city of ninety thousand with a budget in excess of three hundred million, it does not.
Providing greater insight into the sources and uses of funds along with accurate assessments of program outcomes is not a simple task. Nonetheless, we need elected officials who truly understand the task and dedicate themselves to meeting the challenge. Masterplanning, while a potentially useful exercise for some, fails as a substitute for program evaluation. Even worse, it can be and often is used as an excuse for foolish expenditures. Our elected officials can be ideologically inspired but they also need to be data-driven.
The Need to Listen
The City has recently embarked on a housing program aimed at increasing density in the Downtown area. Officials think the program will serve the twin goals of increasing the rental housing supply and increasing the potential customer base for the Performing Arts Center. However, the property tax subsidies handed out to developers as inducements are very expensive and not necessarily appropriate.
There is no assurance that the “moderate-income” rental objective, cited by officials as justification for the developer tax giveaways will be a long-term feature. The more successful the PAC the more likely market forces will drive rental prices higher, displacing “moderate-income “ renters but leaving the tax giveaway in place.
At the same time, the City has chosen to ignore key recommendations put forth by the original consultant report that supported the creation of the Center. That report urged an integrated Arts program be created involving the renovations of two additional City-owned structures and overall local control.
The City never moved forward on the associated renovations, never created a mechanism for an integrated program, and contracted out the programming of major performances at the Center. At this point, there is no general understanding of what the Center will add to the performing arts in Nashua or how the Center will integrate arts offerings throughout Downtown.
The suggested revitalization of the Court St Theater Building enjoys a half-hearted upgrade and a whole section of the building has been given over to a retail brewery enterprise that enjoys free rent. The suggested renovation of the major concert hall on Elm Street has not happened and worse the site itself may be lost.
The City needs candidates who will work to maximize the contribution of the completed Performing Arts Center to the civic and cultural life of the WHOLE COMMUNITY. Those candidates should also pledge to work toward implementing the vision of the original consultant’s report.
In 2018 a MIT study group undertook an extensive look at the economy and civic life of Nashua and submitted a detailed report on ways to build a brighter economic and social future. The report should have been required reading for anyone contemplating public office. It still is. The report contains a number of suggestions and directives for training our labor force building and creating a more dynamic Nashua and physically connecting the Millyard District to Downtown in a way that will foster the economic development of that area. The report has never been given the attention it deserves and New Leadership should correct the mistake. The implications for instructure planning and City encouraged business development are substantial
The Overwhelming Crisis the City Faces
At least fifty percent (50%) of all City expenditures are directed to your public schools. That system has failed. The reasons for the failure are complex and indeed some would argue that the basic accusation is wrong. They point out that the two large public high schools are competitive within the State.s hierarchy and the chartered high school gets very high marks in the State -wide competition.
Those defenders are correct with respect to the Charter High School, the “Academy for Science and Design.” Recent evaluations place it at the top of all High Schools Statewide and 108th nationally. However, a recent headline in one local paper that declared “ Gate City’s largest High Schools are ranked in the top 50 of New Hampshire Best High Schools” is, at best, misleading. The reality is that the survey also ranked one school 31st out of fifty and the other 44th out of the fifty. In the most recent survey, both schools had slipped to 44th and fifty-first respectively. Some bragging rights are permitted but they should be muted.
A look at national rating systems for high schools reinforces the cautionary tale. The Charter school does score well nationally. The two public high schools are just above the middle of a very large group. In a group of 17,000 high schools rated by US News and World Report Nashua’s two public high schools came in at nos 7,214 and 5,987. Obviously, there is a growing need for improvement. However, the real scandal is the pipeline which features struggling elementary schools. The student composition in those schools reflects the socio-economic composition of the community at large and continues to change in ways that have presented a challenge to our professional educators. Those educators have not been up to the challenge.
City officials love to talk about Nashua as a “Welcoming City” and to remind us of the importance of racial and cultural diversity. This author agrees with that message. We need to take a close look at demographic changes that have taken place in Nashua and the implications for the tasks ahead. Table #1 below details some of the changes that have occurred.
TABLE # 1
Changes in Racial Composition of Nashua NH
White 79.4% 72.9%
Hispanic 9.6% 13.5%
Asian 6.4% 8.2%
Black 2.2% 3.0%
Two or more 2.2% 2.8%
Total Population approx 85 Thous approx 90 thousand
The White population has decreased both as a percentage of the whole and in actual numbers relative to ten years ago. The minority populations have all gained in numbers and as a percentage of the total with the Hispanic population registering the largest increase. These changes are reflected in the changing composition of our public school student body.
The City and the School Board have focused on the overall decrease in public school enrollment, fretting about possible consolidations and closures. They have followed a well-worn “educators path” in continually stressing the overall physical condition of some school buildings and hiring the usual “gang” of school construction experts to tell them that renovation is always more expensive than new construction.
One result, the ongoing commitment to erect a major new middle school facility that will result in dramatic changes in many students’ journey to school. Is this major expenditure of public funds optimal? Perhaps! It all depends on whether the new physical facilities are accompanied by major changes in the way “schooling” is carried on inside the new structures.
To be sure, good teaching and good educational programs require appropriate facilities but the most elaborate of facilities cannot assure educational program success. The reality is that despite extensive empirical research in an attempt to identify and specify the components of an educational production function, no one has been successful. Experts can tell you if you are doing something awful or obviously counter-productive. They cannot tell you precisely how to change the mix of school inputs to produce a better outcome.
Now the School Board and the City are under the gun to produce a better outcome. The United States Department of Justice is directing the City to focus on the education of Hispanic elementary school students, correct the City’s shortcomings and generate much better outcomes. A careful reading of the Settlement Agreement between the United States of America and Nashua School District signed May 24, 2021, asks for comprehensive initiatives and evaluations as well as detailed reporting.
The current School Board has reported on the Agreement but has minimized the scale of the undertaking asked for and expected by the US Department of Justice. This is no time to waffle and trout out the usual excuses i.e. funding constraints, coved 19, critical competing demands on the School Boards time, or whatever another excuse seems handy. Furthermore, the evaluation called for requires expertise not necessarily currently employed by the school system. If a consulting firm is hired it needs to be a Nationally recognized entity NOT a local underqualified firm. Only political candidates capable of recognizing the seriousness of the situation and the need to carefully monitor the corrective actions required should be supported in their quest for office.
While the complaint of the US Department of Justice is directed at the mistreatment of elementary school Hispanic children, there is yet another school phenomenon that should be addressed. Specifically, the overall decline in school enrollment has been driven by a precipitous decline in the enrollment of white children offset by a rise in minority enrollment.
The decline exceeds the change in overall City demographics and demands further study. Second, while the Academy for Science and Design (a City charter School) gets a well-deserved “shout out” for its growth and success, the racial composition of its student body is a disappointment. Only a handful of Black and Hispanic children have been able to enroll.
Finally, our new School Board needs to declare that the existence of two elementary schools that rank near the bottom of 231 public elementary schools in NH is simply unacceptable and then pledge to do something about it! (see tables and rankings)
The list of half-finished City Projects is a long and discouraging one. While the River Walk and the area adjacent to the library remain “half done,” the City has embarked on a new project to create a Frisbee Course.
While the Public Works Department lobbies for a new building, the City fumbles with the sale of its last mistake in acquiring one and then refuses to use the sale proceeds to pay off a bond it used to buy the “the mistake.”
The City looks with pride at a rather impressive, expanded Library Building, then refuses to provide the funds that would make it an outstanding resource (It is half empty).
The City reads the results of the National engineering survey on the condition of bridges, notes the existence of severe deficiencies in two vital links spanning the Nashua River, sends out for bids on the repair of one, and ABANDONS the project.
The City announces with great fanfare the plans for the Park/Walk along the Nashua River. The whole project proceeds at a snail’s pace. As part of the project the City rips out and cuts down all the foliage behind and adjacent to the library exposing an uncultivated ugly bank on both sides of the River and replaces the trees with….NOTHING.
The City decides to place barriers on Main Street to encourage outdoor dining during the Cov19 emergency. As the idea of encouraging outdoor dining as a way to mitigate the effect of the pandemic on restaurants picks up steam, the City decides to lock itself into cement barriers as the ideal way to extend outdoor seating options. The result is less than aesthetically ideal. Now the City is faced with cumbersome barriers it owns along with expensive removal, retrieval, and storage costs.
Naturally, there is now talk of making the barriers permanent.
The social cost of ad hoc budgeting was on vivid display at a recent Aldermen’s meeting during a discussion about what to do with a newly recognized surplus in year-end funds. A well-constructed program budget should have been in place. That budget would have had appropriate program level metrics assessing progress, success, and failure with an assigned priority to the overall effort. It was not and that left the Aldermen with an unhelpful debate over whether to use the funds to lower taxes or spend them on last-minute new and/or pet projects.
The list of specifics can be extended, but the point is made. The City needs a new and better budgeting system in order to make the right choices among competing demands for funding.
Before summarizing our concerns, it is important to take a look at the issue that always hovers over every discussion. It is the proverbial “Elephant in the Room” –. Property taxes and the assessment process. New Hampshire relies heavily on its property tax base for operating revenue. Many people would argue too heavily. Most opposition to broadening the tax base is rooted in the assumption that broadening the base would simply lead to wasteful new spending, not property tax relief.
We cannot settle that question here but we can point out some of the problems that elevate fear and distort policy debates here in Nashua. In a write-up to follow we will discuss some of this in detail. For now, it is sufficient to point out that the political climate in Nashua is such that Citywide re-assessments are avoided.
Instead of the regular process of assessment updates adopted by many progressive cities of size, Nashua officials have been forced by the State to conduct updates to comply with State law. Instead of a City-wide list of updated housing values that reflect increases in sales values brought about by improvements that have been Permitted and Inspected by the City, Nashua has an “Endless List” of open permits.
The Office of the Assessor is understaffed and does not even try to establish a system whereby new realtor listings carry complete and accurate property descriptions, including any information on open permits. This one omission can be the source of many problems and there is much more.
Finally, given all of these issues, it is astounding that at present the City leadership has spent and continues to spend time and effort in an attempt to wrest control of the Commission that oversees our City Police Force from the State. This is one vital City service that apparently does an excellent job in so far as the City gets high marks nationally for low crime rates and the favorite rating system of the Mayor “Wallet Hub” also commends the City for its safety.
Instead of expending time and resources on a “nonproblem to date” the City should focus on several obvious problems that must be addressed…
A CALL TO ACTION
What follows is a list of initiatives that the City should undertake in order to make Nashua a better place to live. The list is suggestive, not exhaustive. Candidates for City office who can support major portions of the list should receive YOUR SUPPORT. Candidates who consider the list esoteric, or impractical or too expensive, or offensive should be avoided.
Both City Hall and the Board of Aldermen should adopt changes to their rules and regulations that will make it easier for citizens to be heard at public meetings. Speaking time limitations should be revised and expanded and written statements published as part of the record.
Right to Know guidelines should be written and made generally available. Guidelines should favor the immediate release of public information upon request, should err on the side of openness. Above all, the guidelines should pledge to avoid the misuse or overuse of the” working paper” or” draft” designation in order to restrict access..
The City should immediately fund a pilot program to convert the existing budget format to a program budgeting format with an appropriate “crosswalk “ between the two
The City should modify the directive associated with the $100,000 recent allocation to “Study” the possible future use of the Millyard area. Those funds should be used to add significant specificity to the recommendations contained in the MIT study submitted in 2018. Studies by government entities are often used to delay action. The MIT overview already contains many specifics. Those specifics should be refined so that concrete action directed at converting the area and tying it to Downtown can commence.
Public School reform should become the #1 social goal of the City. The City Needs to modify its view that good schools are generated by better bricks and mortar and inspire an “all hands on deck” effort to improve its school programs to the point where it can successfully educate ALL its children. It should aim to make “School Choice” stand for a choice between equivalent outcomes generated by different methods. The City should start by admitting it has a problem.
The City should reassess its efforts to integrate its performing arts efforts, establish more local oversight of the PAC offerings and make every effort to upgrade the Elm St Auditorium and the Court Street facility.
The City needs to establish a smarter Capital Budgeting process that provides for far better prioritization.
Final note: The Board of Aldermen should strengthen its voice as a Voice, Not an Echo.