Wheels to Work program remains in limbo in New Hampshire

Mercedeze Moore of Newport, Vt., a mother of three, received a used SUV in 2021 — the recipient of Good News Garage’s 5,500th car. At the time, she said the car “is going to open up so many more opportunities for my family.” She said she previously had to walk her children well over a mile to get to child care and then walk another half-mile to her job. (Good News Garage photograph)

Mercedeze Moore of Newport, Vt., a mother of three, received a used SUV in 2021 — the recipient of Good News Garage’s 5,500th car. At the time, she said the car “is going to open up so many more opportunities for my family.” She said she previously had to walk her children well over a mile to get to child care and then walk another half-mile to her job. (Good News Garage photograph)

By MARK QUIRK

Granite State News Collaborative

Published: 06-22-2024 5:16 PM

On Feb. 1, early in the 2024 legislative session, the N.H. House of Representatives rejected House Bill 1520 by a slim 193-184 vote. The bill was aimed at reviving the state’s long-dormant Wheels to Work initiative.

The program had been sustained for 15 years with both state and federal support by the Good News Garage — part of the regional Ascentria Care Alliance nonprofit. It repairs donated cars and gives them to low-income individuals and families “striving for self-sufficiency,” according to its website. But while the program is alive and well in Massachusetts and Vermont, it has been stalled in New Hampshire since 2017.

Rep. Joe Schapiro, D-Keene, the bill's primary sponsor, emphasized that he’s pursuing pilot projects to assist marginalized communities. Transportation challenges are a persistent problem, so Schapiro embarked on the initiative to bridge those gaps.

Shapiro’s bill sought $220,000 from the state, to be matched by federal money, to create a family assistance car ownership pilot program within the state Department of Health and Human Services. The objective was to provide 20 vehicles to adult recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — TANF for short.

Schapiro argued the program would save the state money by helping people move off state benefits and remain gainfully employed. He said the recipients would be screened and complete the New Hampshire Employment Program to develop financial literacy, employment readiness, and knowledge about automobiles. 

The New Hampshire Employment Program, overseen by Health and Human Services, provides financial assistance, employment opportunities and job training to low-income families.

But not everyone agreed with Schapiro’s reasoning. Rep. Leah Cushman, R-Weare, who opposed the bill, said she believed the estimated value of $20,000 for each vehicle was high, and even if the recipient were to get off state benefits, it couldn’t be established that the savings would offset the amount the state invested. 

Cushman also said she was concerned about how recipients would pay for repairs to the vehicle and about how the program would prevent fraud.

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Cushman’s argument apparently won the day, and the bill was moved as inexpedient to legislate, essentially killing it for the session.

“We are disappointed, of course,” said Tom Kupfer, marketing manager for Good News Garage. “We hear from residents in New Hampshire every day. We would love to be able to give out cars in New Hampshire again.”

Good News Garage accepts donated vehicles from all six New England states and eastern New York. The organization performs any needed repairs to the vehicles and awards them to people striving for self-sufficiency. It also operates in Massachusetts and Vermont, where the nonprofit began in 1996.

According to a 2017 report by the Health and Human Services Bureau of Improvement and Integrity Financial Compliance Unit, the program was saving the state about $155,110 a year.

At that point, Good News Garage was awarding about 100 cars a year and the report cited a savings of $1,551 per recipient per year. It also showed recipients were less likely to go back on state benefits once they received a vehicle. At the time, the used vehicles were valued at $5,000 each.

Kupfer said the report “verified exactly what our hope was with this program. It confirmed all these things.”

Executive Council opposition

But at about the same time, Executive Councilor David Wheeler pointed out that Good News Garage had been operating without a used car dealer’s license for 10 years, something Good News Garage leadership said it was unaware it needed.

Wheeler had opposed spending $2 million in federal funds on the program — an appropriation he described as “the most wasteful contract I’ve ever seen,” according to a Union Leader article published in 2016.

As a result of that opposition, Good News Garage ceased operations in New Hampshire in the summer of 2016, and said it would be “actively pursuing” a dealer’s license.

Then-Gov. Maggie Hassan voiced her support for the program at the time. She said having a vehicle helped people get off welfare and keep a job, which she said saved the state about $18,000 a year per family. 

The state stopped funding the program in 2017. This session’s HB 1520 was the first time money has been requested since.

Since then, visitors to Good News Garage’s New Hampshire website have been greeted with the message: “Our New Hampshire Wheels to Work program is inactive at this time while we wait for the state to renew its contract for program funding. State support is the only way we’re able to feasibly award cars to NH residents. While we still graciously accept vehicle donations from NH residents, we are only able to award cars to neighboring residents in MA and VT at this time. We hope to be able to help Granite State residents again someday soon!”

Both Kupfer and Schapiro say there has been talk about the state starting a program run through New Hampshire auto dealers, but nothing ever came to fruition.

Karen Hebert, director of the Division of Economic Stability at Health and Human Services, pointed to the department's mission to foster self-reliance and independence — a goal exemplified by the Wheels to Work initiative. 

"It was an innovative idea to help people gain self-sufficiency,” she said of Wheels to Work, highlighting the program's goal to empower individuals. 

Despite the setback in February, Hebert noted recent efforts by the Statewide Coordinating Council for Community Transportation and the various regional coordinating councils across the state to launch keepnhmoving.com. 

That website offers a range of resources and has the goal of allowing Granite Staters to easily locate transportation options tailored to their needs, filtering options by community, region and transportation type.

Meanwhile, the people at Good News Garage — which does now have a used car dealer’s license that’s good until March 2026  — and Ascentria hope a lawmaker will take up the mantle and request funding for Wheels to Work in the 2025 legislative session.

Given the approaching budget year, Gilberto Calderin, director of advocacy for Ascentria, said he thinks there’s a good chance of that happening.

These articles are being shared by partners in the Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.