Some jobs are just too local for the state government to handle, but too large for a town to deal with, and that's where counties come in. On this episode, we hear from the people who run county offices in New Hampshire about how this in-between governmental structure holds the whole state together.
NOTE: This transcript was generated using an automated transcription service, and may contain typographical errors.
Daniela Allee [00:00:00] Stu Wallace teaches New Hampshire history at a college in Concord. In his classes cover the New Hampshire primary. 1960s politics local government including towns and counties.
Stu Wallace [00:00:11] When I ask students about counties I usually get a blank stare. And very few of them have any idea what counties do.
Daniela Allee [00:00:22] And this mystery around counties isn't just limited to college students. Linda Lauer gets asked by folks in her town what she does for Grafton County all the time.
Linda Lauer [00:00:32] Counties in New Hampshire are probably the little forgotten part of government.
Daniela Allee [00:00:39] Hello and welcome to civics 1 to 1 New Hampshire. Today on the show we're talking about counties. New Hampshire has 10 of them. But what does this forgotten part of our government do. And what role does it play in our day to day lives.
[00:00:58] Counties have sort of been an afterthought in New Hampshire since it was a colony. People lived here in the 1640s but towns and townships were the primary form of local government. We didn't get counties until nearly one hundred and thirty years later.
[00:01:15] It's the 60s. The 1760s and New Hampshire's population is booming.
Stu Wallace [00:01:20] People are pouring into the lakes region. They're going up into the upper valley. Suddenly New Hampshire is covering the map with brand new towns.
Daniela Allee [00:01:28] Soon after three quarters of the New Hampshire towns we know and love today were in existence. But even with all these settlers moving further north and west Portsmouth was a colonial capital the hub of New Hampshire colonial life. People had to make their way over to the seacoast for jury duty to the court to take care of all their government business and the people away out in the Upper Valley and the lakes region.
Stu Wallace [00:01:53] Was saying hey wait a minute this is a major gripe for us to have to send somebody from say Hanover or Haverhill all the way down to Portsmouth just to be a juror or to file a deed or whatever.
Daniela Allee [00:02:06] These towns decided enough is enough. There has to be a way to handle local business well more locally so the lower house of the colonial assembly got together and.
Stu Wallace [00:02:17] Petitioned to have the state divided into. Four counties.
Daniela Allee [00:02:22] But the bigwigs in the Governor's Council who all lived in the Portsmouth area were like. No.
Stu Wallace [00:02:28] They thought it was just fine that everybody had to come to Portsmouth to stay in their taverns and eat their food and they didn't have go anywhere.
Daniela Allee [00:02:34] So the lower house said Let's do three counties. But the council said How about two. After some back and forth the province of New Hampshire was divided into five counties. It's basically a county is a geographic boundary in New Hampshire they were drawn along the already existing town lines. So by 1769 Cheshire, Rockingham, Grafton, Belknap, and Stratford, counties where in place named after some English nobleman friends of the governor. These new counties meant farmers wouldn't have to take several days off to make their way out to Portsmouth on foot or on horseback. Instead folks can head to their own county system like North Haverhill and Grafton County or Keene in Cheshire County to deal with land deeds and any justice issues.
[00:03:22] Five more counties were drawn up in the next 80 years. Coos, Sullivan, Merrimack, Hillsborough, and Carol. And that's what we have today. Ten separate counties. Each is a little different geographically demographically even culturally one might say.
[00:03:38] Hillsborough County for example is home to about a quarter of the state's one point three million people. It's where the cities of Nashua and Manchester are located. Coast County on the other hand I hear they have more moose than people. The state legislature gives counties limited responsibilities so counties in this state don't have a lot of power. Your only interaction with the county might be when you buy and sell a house. It's a county that records and keeps property deeds. Linda Lauer who is a Grafton County commissioner says there's a reason counties are the ones in charge of running the jail nursing home and Registry of Deeds.
Linda Lauer [00:04:19] Back behind the scenes there are a lot of things that it financially doesn't make sense for the towns to try to handle and a good example would be a nursing home.
[00:04:31] Or the Department of Corrections it just financially doesn't make sense to do those on a town to town basis. But at the same time it doesn't make sense to just do it on a state basis because they really are local operations and that's where the county stepped in.
Daniela Allee [00:04:48] For all the machinery in local government to run smoothly you need counties something that's bigger than a town but smaller than the state. So say if every town had a jail there'd be way too many. And the quality of the jail would depend on how much money a town could allocate. It might cost a lot for a town to start their own drug court and the state would be way too big to make sure that could run effectively carrying out those responsibilities falls on the county commissioners. Each county elects three of these folks. And you can think of them as the executive branch or the CEOs of the county in Grafton. The commissioners serve two year terms. Other counties have different term lengths. They're typically two or four years long depending where you are.
Linda Lauer [00:05:44] County commissioners are responsible for personnel and financial management of all the county operations.
Daniela Allee [00:05:52] But that's mainly it. Counties don't have a legislative branch. They're not creating laws or policies. Only the state and towns have the power to do that. So you can think of counties as having a judicial branch and an executive branch the judicial branch handles jails and courts the executive runs the nursing home Registry of Deeds employee and personnel issues and they have to find the money to make sure those are all running. Putting the annual county budget together is one of the jobs that takes the most time for Linda and the two other Grafton County Commissioners. It's in February that that process really gets going. The commissioners sit down with each department head from nursing home jail the county attorney's office.
Linda Lauer [00:06:40] They will each come in and sit and spend time with what the commissioners and with the with our county administrator. We will go through the budget line item by line item and try to get justification see what what we think is critical. What isn't critical.
Daniela Allee [00:06:58] Then they meet with the employee council which represents the 400 people who work for Grafton County. A big part of that meeting concerned salaries for the next year.
Linda Lauer [00:07:07] They certainly want some say so in their cost of living increase.
Daniela Allee [00:07:11] And after all of those meetings the commissioners put a draft budget together and they have a public meeting about it. Because well you pay county taxes if you own property in that county.
Linda Lauer [00:07:22] On your property tax bill there will be a line for county tax. It typically is fairly small typically well under 10 percent of your total tax bill.
Daniela Allee [00:07:35] So if you live in Lebanon the biggest city in Grafton County the total tax rate is about thirty dollars per 1000 dollars of valuation. Lebanon gets about 10 bucks of that and the county just too. So some folks might pay more attention to what happens in their city or town than what happens at the county because in Linda's experience Grafton public hearings don't get big crowds.
Linda Lauer [00:08:01] It was so disappointing last year when we had our public budget hearing. Knowing that we're impacting the county taxpayers and I looked down into the room and I had two newspaper reporters one state rep and his wife who was a social service agency asking for money.
Daniela Allee [00:08:29] You might think the budget process ends here after all. Linda and the other commissioners have talked to pretty much everyone they have drafts and charts and excel sheets at the ready but the commissioners don't actually hold the county's purse strings. That power rests with the County delegation.
Stu Wallace [00:08:47] And the County delegation are the elected members of the House of Representatives in that county.
Daniela Allee [00:08:54] That's right. The folks you elected to represent you at the state house in Concord have a big say about what happens in your county. Each county has an executive committee that's made up of a few state reps.
Linda Lauer [00:09:05] The county commissioners meet with that executive committee at least every two months and we bring them up to speed on where we are financially. How do our expenses look compared to where they should be. How is revenue looking. Do we have any major facility issues that are coming down.
Daniela Allee [00:09:26] So once the commissioners have put a draft budget together and have had their public hearings they send the budget to the executive committee and then the process sort of starts all over again.
Linda Lauer [00:09:37] Department heads and county commissioners sit in front of the committee and go through they ask all of their questions they asked justification. The commissioners we tried to explain why we supported it or why we didn't support it.
Daniela Allee [00:09:52] The Executive Committee can add money or cut money where it sees fit to. And once they have a draft all 27 Grafton County delegates get together at the end of June to vote on whether or not to approve the budget. And unlike the state budget nobody can veto the budget. The delegation passes they get the last word.
Linda Lauer [00:10:13] Our job as commissioners is to manage the budget they give us and to tell them what we think the budget should be.
Daniela Allee [00:10:19] They also set the salaries of the County's elected officials. So if you look at how much you're paying in county taxes there are two pretty big budget items. Those dollars go to the nursing home and the county jail. All 10 counties have one of these nursing homes. Grafton spent about three million dollars on it last year. But why do counties have this type of elder care.
Linda Lauer [00:10:47] It actually grew out of the old poor houses.
Daniela Allee [00:10:50] If you don't know what a poor house is it was a publicly funded place in the 17th 18th and 19th centuries where folks struggling to make ends meet would be forced to live. They were often considered the undeserving poor. They would get food and shelter often at the cost of grueling work on a farm or factory.
Linda Lauer [00:11:10] There was some of the very very old Grafton County annual reports. You'll have the names of the poor that were housed here and somehow the poor houses transitioned into a nursing home.
Daniela Allee [00:11:41] After the 13th Amendment passed and involuntary servitude was outlawed people were no longer forced to be in poor houses and by the 20th century reforms were made to these places. More specific institutions were established for children and the mentally ill and the people left in the poor houses were the elderly. Then comes the Social Security Act of 1935 which said aid would not be provided to poor houses.
Daniela Allee [00:12:11] So public officials move the elderly left in those homes to private boarding homes and those eventually became the precursors to the nursing homes we know today. Nowadays there are hundred and thirty five beds in the Grafton County nursing home and the place is almost at capacity but the hundred and twenty six people staying there as of February of this year. Many of the residents there are on Medicaid the government program that assist low income families or individuals.
Linda Lauer [00:12:45] A lot of the money that comes in is from Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement from the nursing home.
Daniela Allee [00:12:53] And as New Hampshire's population gets older there's more and more need.
Linda Lauer [00:13:00] It's expensive nursing homes are expensive.
Daniela Allee [00:13:08] The second big budget item is the county jail. This is where prisoners serve out sentences for misdemeanors. That usually needs a sentence of less than a year or if they don't have enough money to make bail. They weight in jail until they get a hearing and no bail to clarify is basically a payment you make to the court if you want to get out of jail after you're arrested. Last year Grafton County Jail averaged about 83 inmates per day according to the Department of Corrections annual report. A lot of the inmates work on the county farm. Grafton has the only remaining County farm in New Hampshire and these farms used to employ people in the poorhouse Grafton County farm has a dairy operation a small piggery a tree stand and a farm stand. Some of the food even goes to the nursing home and the Department of Corrections as well as to a food pantry and some local schools.
Linda Lauer [00:14:02] We actually have inmates that run our farm stand during the summer. They handle all the cash. They do everything. So it's a good learning experience for the inmates.
Daniela Allee [00:14:13] But they aren't paid for their labor.
Linda Lauer [00:14:15] They get fresh air and a chance to talk to their buddies and get away from the TV.
Daniela Allee [00:14:22] County jails in New Hampshire and across the country have had to face a growing opioid crisis. Oftentimes county jails are serving as the main mental health facility for communities. And there have been efforts to divert people who have substance use disorders from jails. Often that takes the form of drug court.
Linda Lauer [00:14:42] Rather than put them in the jail taking them away from their families away from their homes away from their jobs. They went into a drug court program under. They saw that to a judge every week they got counseling they had drug testing on a random basis pretty intensive program.
Daniela Allee [00:15:02] Drug court is primarily funded by the state. But for it to really work the judges and caseworkers and police all need to be a part of the community. And that's one reason why drug court is administered at the county level. The key player in helping Grafton County become the second in the state to have a drug court was the county attorney in other parts of the country they're known as District attorneys in New Hampshire. You elect these attorneys. This position has major influence over the local criminal justice system in part because they're the ones in charge of prosecuting crimes and deciding how they'll charge people because the county attorney is the one that has to make the offer.
Linda Lauer [00:15:44] That these are not programs that anybody can just say oh I don't want to go to jail let me go into drug court. These are programs that the county attorney or their staff has to agree to put them in.
Daniela Allee [00:15:57] A large portion of the rest of the criminal justice system is administered at the county level.
Linda Lauer [00:16:02] We also have adult diversion and we have juvenile diversion programs and again things that just require people to make restitution require them to do community service. They have a chance to get their record wiped clean. They get a chance for a fresh start across the country.
Daniela Allee [00:16:18] A lot of district attorneys or county attorneys ran unopposed so your vote does matter if there are certain kinds of changes you want to see at the local level. In recent years because of these alternative sentencing programs the number of inmates at the Grafton County Jail has actually gone down.
Linda Lauer [00:16:38] Our population at the Department of Corrections has gone from the 90s and 100 plus down to 60. So we just don't have the number of inmates and unfortunately that doesn't translate to a big cost savings because we still need to run the same number of units. So we still need the same number of corrections officers it just means we have this almost the same expense for fewer people.
Daniela Allee [00:17:08] There's one more elected position that's vital to a county's criminal justice system. The sheriff. It's a partisan position because as it's written in state law all county office positions are partisan. You have to pick which party you're representing other parts of the country do have nonpartisan county positions. Grafton Sheriff through 2018 was a Republican and last November he lost to a Democratic challenger. The sheriff is in charge of a few things. Transporting prisoners to court apprehending folks who are indicted and serving civil proceedings so a summons for court for example in Grafton.
[00:17:45] The sheriff's department also oversees a dispatch call center which handles emergency calls for more than 50 communities. In some states especially the further west you go folks can tell you which county they're from. In my middle school we had to fill out a map of all the counties in central Illinois and oftentimes further west.
[00:18:11] Counties have more power. For example some counties run the public school system. Others have the power to make laws or ordinances. Some run libraries and public parks. Most of those responsibilities though in New Hampshire are left to the town or the state. And that might be more visible to the average New Hampshire resident than what happens at the county level.
[00:18:35] If you have questions call your call your county commissioner call any one of us. I'm not I'm not going to say Don't call me unless you're in my district. Call me. I don't care if you're in Grafton County and you have a question or you have a concern. Call me.
[00:18:51] Call one of the other commissioners make us earn our money. We work for you.
[00:18:56] For a lot of folks. The county is just out of sight out of mind. But so much is happening at this level of government decisions get made about how we take care of the elderly and sentencing in the criminal justice system among other programs. Knowing who's running these institutions is important when you head to the polls. But if you have questions concerns issues that you want the county to take up or listen to. Just give Linda a call. Civics one on one New Hampshire is produced by me. Daniella Ali along with Jackie Hopper and Ben Henry our executive producer is Erica Jinich refunded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.