Editorial: Lebanon’s Welfare Budget; Councilors Raise Good Questions

It’s not often that elected officials complain that their city or town is not spending enough, but that’s the case in Lebanon, where some city councilors are questioning why the city is failing to spend money set aside in the welfare budget to help low-income households. It’s a good question, and they deserve credit for raising it.

As staff writer Ben Conarck reported last week, the city spent only $20,581 out of the $101,700 set aside for direct assistance to the needy in the 2011 city budget. And in August and September of this year, the Human Services Department referred 398 requests for assistance to outside agencies, while accepting seven applications and denying one.

This led Councilors Suzanne Prentiss, Karen Liot Hill and Bruce Bronner to wonder at a budget review session whether the city is meeting its obligation under New Hampshire law to provide a safety net for those struggling to make ends meet.

We would argue that the obligation is not only legal, but moral as well, although that may be a harder case to make in the context of crunching numbers at budget time. The relevant context for this discussion is that the need for assistance is not likely to contract markedly while economic recovery lags. Nearly halfway through its current fiscal year, Listen Community Services says it has seen no decrease in requests for crisis services such as fuel, food and rental assistance. For instance, the Lebanon-based nonprofit reports that it provided fuel assistance to 506 households in 2012, a 30 percent increase over the previous year, and that as winter approaches, the uncertainty surrounding fuel prices, the weather and the employment situation in the Upper Valley leaves many households in a precarious position.

With that said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the city collaborating with nonprofit agencies to provide services to needy residents. The Upper Valley is home to many such organizations, a number of which do excellent work. If the city believes that services for the needy can be provided more efficiently and at lower cost through nonprofits, then by all means it makes sense to work through them. But given that the city reduced its support for these nonprofit social service agencies this year by 13 percent from the prior year, and proposes to freeze that level of support in next year’s budget, one could infer that the city is merely shifting the costs of meeting its obligations onto others.

As Hill says, “If we’re giving out less assistance directly, we need to be thinking about putting some of those dollars to the people who are providing help to needy families.” City Manager Greg Lewis correctly observes that reallocating unspent money in the welfare budget is not the right way to proceed if the idea to establish a sustainable and predictable partnership with these agencies. But it’s not exactly clear what he has in mind when he says “we don’t have the resources to do the full wrap-around. We’ve just got to pick our part, and that’s what we’re doing.” It’s worth noting that Claremont, a far more hard-pressed city when it comes to financial resources, set aside $431,440 for welfare in 2012 and spent $319,389 of that through September. So perhaps it comes down to a matter of priorities as well as resources.

Anyway, Lewis says that in his budgeting approach, “The outcomes are everything here.” So maybe the council needs to focus first on whether the needy are being served adequately and then whether the city is doing its part, either directly or indirectly.