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Bedford officials hear that money from Concord isn't coming

BEDFORD - State legislators told school board members and town councilors Monday night not to expect the state to reconsider its decision to cut its contributions to the New Hampshire Retirement System to zero.

Representatives Dave Danielson, John Graham and John Cebrowski, all Republicans, met with the school board and town councilors to discuss a broad range of topics, but it was the cost shifting of the N.H. retirement system from the state to the towns that generated the most concern among local officials.

Danielson told Bedford officials that the State House doesn't have the money to make such contributions, adding that local officials also likely won't see money for school building aid or new construction aid from the state.

"We don't have this money, and I don't know where we'll find it," Danielson said.

Town Council Chairman Christopher Bandazian said that for decades the state has underfunded the pension system, and that it's wrong to expect local municipalities to make up the difference now.

"I think as a matter of fairness, that burden shouldn't be placed on the towns and the school districts," he said, adding that the state should not be deciding the percentage of payroll that goes to retirement, which he estimated was about 35 or 40 percent of Bedford's municipal budget. "It's a huge amount of money and that decision should be made town by town."

The downshifting of costs in the retirement system meant the Bedford School District last year had to make up about $725,000, said SAU 25 Superintendent Timothy Mayes. On the town side, Bandazian said Bedford had to make up about $286,000 as a result of the Legislature's decision to reduce contributions to zero.

Last October, Bill Dermody, who was council chairman at the time, said he was "gravely concerned" about the town's ability to maintain the current level of services in light of the situation with the retirement system.

"When municipalities were initially mandated by the Legislature to participate in the NHRS, the state paid 40 percent of the cost," Dermody told fellow councilors. "Subsequently, the Legislature began reducing the state's participation until two years ago when the Legislature cut the state's share to zero."

At the time, Dermody estimated that even with no changes to the number or salary of Bedford's employees, the rate increase would add close to $1 million "to our NHRS obligations."

Bedford School Board member Cindy Chagnon, who is also on the state Board of Education, brought up the issue of charter schools, and said, with money being so tight, New Hampshire communities have to separate needs from wants.

On the subject of charter schools, Chagnon said "we can't keep approving more and more and more of them."

As a member of the state Board of Education, she said "We will look at the needs of the state as opposed to just approving them. I think we need to look very carefully because they cost."

As a general principle, Chagnon said she doesn't believe public schools in the state are awash in money.

"I can hardly tell you of any school system in New Hampshire that's over-funded," Chagnon told the legislative delegation. "I think we're all on a pretty lean budget."

Danielson responded by saying that savings have to be made at every level of government. "You can't take care of everybody," he said. "Somehow we've got to look at things a little differently."

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