Tuesday is Town Meeting day, and if history is any indication, getting voters to sign off on multi-million dollar infrastructure projects could prove challenging.
Last year, voters in towns across New Hampshire turned down proposals to replace aging police and fire stations, construct new town buildings, and renovate old schools.
And New Hampshire’s rapidly aging population may have a lot to do with that.
Peter Francese is a demographer from Exeter.
He joined NHPR’s Morning Edition to look at this issue.
We’ve been hearing about New Hampshire’s aging population, but what do the numbers tell us?
Since the 2010 census, the population of New Hampshire has risen only 1 percent in five years. That’s a fourth of the growth rate of the nation as a whole, which went up about 4 percent. But even that small growth was entirely in the population 65 and older. Most people don’t realize that the working age population – 18 to 64 – has been shrinking. We have fewer people every year of working ages.
What’s the connection between that trend and what we’re seeing when it comes to these projects failing year after year at Town Meetings?
The population 65 and older is in a situation where their income is not what it used to be. They don’t have the income they did when they were 55. So it’s understandable that they would be not as willing to finance big projects.
With more older voters, do school construction projects face a particularly difficult challenge?
Yes. It’s one issue that we have an elderly and aging population. New Hampshire is not only the second-oldest state in the nation, but is the most rapidly aging state in the nation. That’s an issue in and of itself. But we compound that by the fact that we have over 160 school districts in a state with only 1.3 million people. That’s more school districts than the entire state of Florida, which has 20 million people. So we have many small school districts and more than 200 towns. The vast majority of those towns have their own fire department, their own police department, and their own municipal services. So we have these very small communities, all of which need or want new buildings. To me, it’s fairly understandable that a town of 8,000 or 9,000 people looks at a $5-10 million municipal complex and asks whether we really need that.
For town officials who say there’s a need, but these projects keep failing, what’s the alternative? Should they be looking at less costly, incremental fixes?
In my view, what they have to do is to look around them and say, “OK. I’m here and I’m in Exeter, for example. Two miles down the road, there is the town of Stratham. The town of Stratham has a fire department, the town of Exeter has a fire department. Why couldn’t those two towns get together and have one fire department for the two of them? Or they could add in a surrounding town like Newfields? This is true all over the state and all over the region. Adjacent towns could get together and have one municipal complex for three or four towns, rather than one municipal complex for each and every small town.
We’re seeing some of that in the North Country and in Vermont there’s been some consolidation of school districts. Do you see more of that happening here in New Hampshire?
I’ve not seen any indication of that at all, which is unfortunate. It is happening in Vermont. It’s also been happening in Maine, to a certain extent. I think this consolidation, which is a dirty word to a lot of people who don’t want to share their municipality with somebody else, but it has to happen.