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Regional Planning Commission Fears Loss of Federal Funding



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2017

Lebanon — The threat of potential cuts to federal transportation spending has left one Upper Valley agency questioning how it can continue to provide services without its main source of revenue.

The Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission, which represents 27 communities in New Hampshire, is currently discussing the formation of a nonprofit some say could attract foundation support and provide stable funding into the future, allowing the organization to continue its efforts promoting regional transportation projects.

“We need to be prepared for our traditional funding sources to not be there, and so how do we do that? What are ways for us to kind of make ourselves as flexible as possible?” Steve Schneider, the commission’s executive director, said during an interview last week.

Created by the Legislature in 1968, New Hampshire’s nine regional planning commissions are designed to help the state’s communities by assisting in the drafting of master plans, developing zoning ordinances and sometimes providing staff to work alongside local land use boards. The commissions also help municipalities secure grant funding and facilitates development of the state’s transportation plan.

“The commission, in my time, has been very helpful and instrumental in tackling some of the region’s traffic and transportation issues,” said Lebanon Planning Director David Brooks last week.

He said the commission encourages stakeholders and neighboring towns to discuss transportation issues on a regional level, and was instrumental in bringing groups together several years ago, when Lebanon was addressing pedestrian and bicycle issues around Route 120.

The commission also keeps good records and statistics, Brooks said, especially on regional housing issues.

But securing funding can be a challenge, said Schneider, a former Enfield town manager. Much of the commission’s budget relies on federal and state grants, which he worries could begin to dry up.

“It’s completely different from the municipal world in that we got two big checks twice a year,” Schneider said, referring to local property tax payments coming due.

“Here, it’s much more like a private enterprise in that you don’t know where most of your money is coming from year to year. You have to go out and generate it.”

The Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission hopes to bring in $1.3 million during its 2018 fiscal year, with $110,000 of that coming from town and city membership dues, according to its most recent budget.

Nearly $500,000 in revenue is expected from state grants, while individual projects and federal grants make up the remainder of projected revenue.

However, keeping that funding level into the future could be made difficult by the political climate, Schneider said, adding he expects both state and federal grants to lessen soon.

“It’s going to probably be that way for the next three plus years,” he said.

The Trump administration is calling for a 13 percent reduction in its proposed fiscal 2018 transportation budget, according to the Washington Post. Among those programs on the chopping block are $928 million in transit construction grants and elimination of the $499 million TIGER infrastructure grant program.

Jonathan Edwards, the commission’s former interim director, said he’s also heard of potential cuts to grant funding.

After the recession, the federal government offered several helpful programs to commissions as part of stimulus spending, he said, adding those days appear to be over.

“The liability on federal grant programs is a bit dicier than it used to be,” said Edwards, a former town planner in Hanover. “It blows hot and cold.”

Edwards said it’s prudent for Schneider to propose moving to a nonprofit system, saying it could provide a way toward long-term financial stability.

Schneider said forming a nonprofit will help stem potential losses in two ways. First, by allowing the commission to seek grants from foundations that shy away from donating to government entities.

“Some private foundations won’t consider you to be eligible for their funding” if the organization is an arm of state government, he said.

The arrangement would also allow the commission to branch out into work outside transportation and infrastructure, Schneider said, adding other commissions have formed nonprofits to work on demographic issues.

“(The work) may not be some thing that’s supported by a federal or state agency but is supported by a foundation that says ‘hey, this is something that we think is important,’ ” Schneider said.

There are downsides too, he said. The commission would have to form a separate organization, Schneider said, one that has separate financial records and its own board of directors.

“I don’t necessarily think that there would be much, at least initially, difference between the two organizations,” he said. “The nonprofit would be created to support the RPC (regional planning commission), so ideally, they would work really well together.”

It’s also not yet known how commissioners will react to the proposal. Schneider said he brought up the subject during an Executive Committee meeting earlier this month, and hopes to explore it more in depth at future meetings.

“The whole question of funding is an ongoing concern,” said Jeff Kessler, an Executive Committee member representing Newport.

In an interview last week, Kessler said he understands Schneider’s concerns but wants to hear more about the proposal before making up his mind.

Kate Connolly, who represents Grafton County on the commission’s finance committee, echoed those comments, saying she’d also like to hear a full proposal before making up her mind.

“It’s a unique agency. It’s an arm of the state and it has a particular set mission, but yet its financing is not guaranteed,” she said. “It’s a strange set up but it’s ours.”

In the meantime, Schneider said he intends to explore other funding options, including a possible partnership with Sullivan, Merrimack and Grafton counties.

“I think there’s the potential of doing even more programming work with them,” especially on health-related issues, Schneider said.

He and representatives of the North Country Council and Lakes Region Planning Commission are hoping to soon have a meeting with the Grafton County Commissioners to discuss a potential partnership. Schneider said he then hopes to do the same in Merrimack and Sullivan counties.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.