Jim Kenyon: Hanover’s Basement Bargain

Selectboards and town managers across the Upper Valley seem infatuated with user fees. Want your preschooler to play rec T-ball? Want access to your town’s transfer station?

Chances are you’ll pay a user fee. Which for my money is just a hidden tax — a game that town officials play to put an artificial lid on property tax bills, so the public doesn’t get any more riled up than it already is about what it really costs to run local municipalities and schools. Instead of raising property taxes, officials turn to user fees to pump up town coffers.

The town of Hanover has gone even one step further. Actually, it’s more like 35 steps.

Last year, Hanover started charging a minimum $30 “search fee” to anyone who needs to look at archived planning and zoning records that provide details of completed construction projects, big and small, around town.

The paper files and maps are stored in the basement of the town office building on South Main Street. The planning and zoning department’s office is only two flights of stairs — or 35 steps, I counted — above the basement.

But I guess Town Manager Julia Griffin and the Selectboard, which approved the search fee, figure that time is money. If anyone, whether it be a lawyer, architect, newspaper reporter or John Q. Public, requests a file that requires a town employee to make a “basement run,” the time clock starts ticking.

It doesn’t matter if takes five minutes or 55 minutes, the charge is still $30. How can the town justify charging more than the actual expense of locating and retrieving a file from the basement?

“It’s not stopwatch-based; it’s a flat fee,” said Griffin. The fee is based on the “average amount of time it takes to do a typical search” while figuring in the hourly wages of the employees conducting the search-and-retrieve missions.

Hanover makes it seem as though it’s doing people a favor by granting them access to the records. It’s not. Under the state’s Right-to-Know law, the town is required to make the records available to the public.

Planning and zoning records are essential for potential home buyers and anyone else interested in a property’s history. Information on building code violations, compliance with town permitting requirements and project costs can often be found by sifting through the files.

“I suppose you could say that we’re creating a barrier by charging a fee for people to access information,” said Griffin. “But if someone came to us and said they couldn’t afford it, it wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve waived a fee.”

The fee schedule, which the Selectboard approved last June, was “developed to generate revenues from individuals who benefit from services,” said Griffin. (I just hope Hanover doesn’t adopt the same use-fee approach with its fire department. Imagine having a chimney fire, and later getting a bill from the town for sending a couple of trucks and firefighters to your house.)

As hard as it might be to believe (or sympathize with), Hanover apparently is still suffering the effects of the Great Recession. Since 2008, the town has lost about $1 million in state funding. Revenue collected from building and zoning permit fees has gone from $600,000 a year to less than $250,000. That’s largely because Dartmouth College has “throttled way back on its construction” said Griffin.

Still, in a town where the median assessed value of a single-family house is $561,500, I can’t imagine that many residents would have to give up their Starbucks lattes if their property tax bills jumped a few dollars.

Besides, even with a $30 minimum, how much can the search fee raise?

It’s expected to be only a “nominal amount,” said Betsy McClain, the town’s director of administrative services. “It’s certainly nothing we can balance the budget on.”

But I suspect it’s more than just about the money. Hanover residents tend to be a guarded bunch. Rich people don’t like the idea that an out-of-town lawyer or nosy reporter has easy — and free — access to information about their heated swimming pool or indoor basketball court.

Hanover’s attempt to discourage people from looking at archived public records becomes more striking when compared with how some other Upper Valley communities handle requests for planning and zoning information. Hartford and Lebanon don’t charge search fees. And by the way, Lebanon also keeps its archived records in the basement.

Claremont, however, does have a $40-an-hour minimum search fee on its books. “If it takes us 15 minutes, we’re not going to charge someone,” said city attorney Jane Taylor. “But if it takes an hour, we feel we have to charge for that. It doesn’t happen very often, maybe once last year.”

Public officials in other communities seemed amused by the notion that Hanover thinks it’s struggling so much to make ends meet that it needs to start charging $30 to perform a routine task.

As one official put it, “They could always increase their parking fees. That’s Hanover’s surefire way of making money.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com