Capital Comments: Budget Cuts Stir Things Up in Concord

By State Senator Bob Odell

The Governor’s proposed budget cuts for the next fiscal year that starts on July 1 have stirred up things in Concord.  The spending reductions are in an amendment to Senate Bill 450.  In its original form, the SB 450 deals with costs and expenditures at the Department of Health and Human Services so it is an appropriate vehicle for the Governor’s budget changes to be made.

Every reduction in spending, of course, means some program, contract or facility is going to be cut or eliminated.  And with that will go the jobs associated with those activities.  So, lobbyists and advocates for these programs are walking the State House halls looking for support to keep them from losing money in the next year.

One proposal that has drawn attention is the elimination of state contracts for three shelters for children ordered there by district courts.  The children would be sent to the Sununu Youth Center in Manchester.  The Governor’s plan says the state will save $4 million per year.

But will we save that money?

One of the shelters which would lose its contract, the Antrim Girls Shelter, has been run by Lutheran Social Services of New England since 1988.  Although girls are sent there from around the state, the shelter is a community institution supported by many churches, donors and volunteers from the Antrim area.

The shelter was expanded in recent years at the request of the state.  That expansion included raising money locally so the facility could handle the number of girls assigned there.  There was no cost to the state.

I took a tour of the Antrim Girls Shelter on Friday.  It is an attractive and well run operation.  Quoting from their information flyer, “The Antrim Girls Shelter provides girls between 11 and 17 with a safe, caring and compassionately challenging environment where they can gain confidence, learns skills to become productive citizens and start healing the wounds that brought them there.”  The shelter can accommodate up to 15 girls at a time.

Ann Gratton from Lutheran Children and Family Services says 90 percent of the girls have been sexually, physically or emotionally abused and many have alcohol and drug addictions.  While the girls at the Antrim Shelter are there because of a judge’s order, they are victims, too, and need help to turn their lives around.

The Sununu Youth Services Center is a detention facility built several years ago and is underutilized.  The center is simply too large for the number of children being sent there.  And to be sent there a youngster must be a danger to themselves or to others.

While the state will try to remodel the Sununu Center to make it more home-like, there are some real questions if we should be mixing hardened youth offenders with those who suffered abuse back home.  For forty years, the trend in New Hampshire and across the country has been to use less restrictive facilities to serve vulnerable youngsters.

Now to the money.  Advocates say the cost per day for each child will actually cost the state more than keeping these youngsters in the three private, nonprofit shelters.  Private shelters access contributions and volunteer assistance.  The Antrim shelter raises about $50,000 per year and this year received $5,000 from the Loudon speedway to rebuild its low ropes course.

The economic impact, too, will be significant if the shelters are closed.  There are at least 75 jobs that will be lost statewide.  And, as private institutions, the shelters pay local property taxes.  That amounts to $36,000 a year to the town of Antrim.

There is also debate about whether or not the state can receive Medicaid matching funds if the children are moved from the shelters to the government run Sununu Center.

There are many questions to be answered about the shelter closings and many other parts of the Governor’s plan.  The action is in the House where different elements of the plan have been distributed to different standing committees.  In a couple of weeks, the amendment will come to the floor as part of Senate Bill 450.

If it passes, it will then come to the Senate where we will not be able to amend the bill.  The Senate’s options will include not concurring with the House’s action which would kill the bill, concurring which would pass it and send it to the Governor or not concurring and asking for a committee of conference.

*   *   *

Friends, townspeople and former legislative colleagues gathered in New London last weekend to say farewell to Alf Jacobson.  Alf was a dedicated member of the State Senate and House of Representatives where he served for three decades including two terms as President of the Senate.

In floor speeches at our Senate session last week, Senators who had served with Alf remembered his principled and intelligent approach to issues before the legislature.  And they remembered most vividly his annual address in the House about Iwo Jima and the bravery and loss of his Marine Corps colleagues who served with him in the Pacific theater in World War II.  When you pause for a moment in the House chamber, it is easy to recall those brilliant speeches.

Alf’s service to his town of New London and to his state will be long remembered.  He is a fine example of a good and effective leader.

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