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May 07. 2012 7:14PM

Kathy Sullivan: NH voters should oust Republicans who oppose Meals on Wheels

Elected Republican officials in New Hampshire are causing yet another “Are you kidding? Seriously? No way!” moment. This time it is an attack on the Meals on Wheels program. It may be called the Grand Old Party, but some of its members want to throw Grandma from the train.

Listen to Rep. Fred Leonard of Rochester. In an online discussion, Leonard said, “any reduction in government funds to that program makes perfect sense to me.”

In fairness to Republicans, Rep. Leonard is not what one would call a leader in his party. He does not serve on any committees, and of the four bills he sponsored this session, three were voted “inexpedient to legislate” and one was sent to the limbo known as “interim study.” But his position is not that of a Republican gone rogue.

A majority of the Hillsborough County Commissioners, the body that oversees county operations, voted to eliminate $63,450 for Meals on Wheels from the county budget. This allocation is a minuscule fraction of the County's $84 million budget. All three commissioners are Republicans. Only one, Toni Pappas, a member of the endangered species wing of the Republican Party known as “moderates,” voted to keep funding the program. The others, Sandra Ziehm and Carol Holden, want to defund it.

There is a better idea: defunding Ziehm and Holden. According to the 2011 budget posted on the county website, Hillsborough County taxpayers pay $49,500 in wages to the commissioners. We also are paying $1,500 for dues and periodicals. There is a $10,000 item for legal expenses, which makes little sense since we also pay approximately $400,000 annually to support the county attorney's office. The “county convention” — which is what the county's delegation to the state Legislature is called when meeting to discuss county business — has a $20,000 legal budget.

Another confusing item in the 2011 commissioner budget is $30,000 for “Recruitment and Retention.” I don't know who they are recruiting and retaining. I thought perhaps the County Nursing Home was hiring more staff due to an influx of seniors who won't be able to live at home anymore because of cuts in Meals on Wheels, but the county nursing home has its own line item for recruitment and retention.

And what about the line item for out-of-state travel? That was $2,300. That was a little better than out-of-state travel in 2009, which was $3,209. What county business is there outside the county? If they need to keep up with the latest trends in county government, can't they do it through their membership in the NH Association of Counties, to which they paid more than $13,000 in 2011?

Defunding Meals on Wheels is just plain mean-spirited. Supporters of the program point out that in addition to providing a meal to a person in need, the volunteer who delivers the meal sometimes is the only person an elderly client may see in the course of a day. But if basic humanity is not a good enough reason to support the program, simple economics provides a rationale.

That meal delivery can be the difference between someone living in their own home with some independence or having to go into a nursing home at a likely greater expense to county and state taxpayers. The largest budget item for Hillsborough County is the county nursing home. The $63,450 savings from defunding Meals on Wheels will be wiped out with the admission of one indigent senior into the Hillsborough County Nursing Home.

I do not believe that the people of Hillsborough County have become so focused on shrinking government, no matter the human cost, that we are not willing to pay what is about 16 cents per county resident to help homebound seniors. I hope that the legislators who make up the Hillsborough County delegation will agree and vote to reject the proposal to defund meals on Wheels.

I also hope that some good people, whether Democrat or Republican, step up and run against Carole Holden and Sandra Ziehm. They may be perfectly nice people, but their penny-wise, pound-foolish attitude that puts cutting spending today above looking at the long-term economic consequences to the taxpayers defies common sense. It also is just wrong.

Our tax dollars should not be paying each of these commissioners $16,500 in an annual stipend when they not only can't figure out a way to fund Meals on Wheels, but also don't understand the likely increased future costs to the county. Ziehm's district includes Nashua, Hollis, Hudson and Pelham; Holden's district is the rest of the county, excluding Manchester and Bedford. Our county taxpayers, and the seniors who live in our county, deserve better.

Kathy Sullivan is a Manchester attorney and member of the Democratic National Committee. She was chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1999-2007.


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