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CAMPAIGN 2012 | THE PULSE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

N.H. town sees no easy fix for deficit

By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / December 21, 2011
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One in a series of stories taking a look at the 2012 Republican race through the eyes of residents of Ashland, a bellwether town in New Hampshire.

ASHLAND, N.H. - When Mitt Romney descends here tonight for a spaghetti supper at the Dupuis-Cross Post 15 of the American Legion, he is likely to get an earful about the ways of Washington.

Budgets have been slashed in this working-class town, and painfully so. But down in Washington, Congress dithers. Yesterday came news of the continued stalemate over how to pay for extending payroll tax cuts. The much-hyped supercommittee proved to be not so super when it failed to come up with a grand bargain for cutting the deficit.

Yet amid the gibes, people here struggle to name their own solutions for the country’s fiscal woes - perhaps a confusion reflecting the national soul, befitting a bellwether town like Ashland that almost always picks the GOP primary winner.

“It’s hard to know what to do,’’ said Dan Uhlman, a Republican and manager of Ashland Lumber Co. “I can complain but I don’t know the fix.’’

The prescriptions offered up by the Republicans vying for the presidential nomination tend to get knocked down with a swift blow, including Romney’s proposal to raise the eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security.

“They shouldn’t even think about that,’’ said June Tackett, a 75-year-old Republican and retired bookkeeper, to a chorus of cheers on a recent Tuesday evening at the weekly “Food for All’’ donated dinner at the Booster Club.

At the other end of town, 22-year-old Matthew LePage, an astrophysics instructor at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, has felt the sting of federal cuts. Trims to NASA’s budget earlier this year eliminated an internship he had been looking at. LePage has been considering Romney for his vote, but his proposed cuts to Medicaid and Medicare strike him as radical.

“I consider preventative health care more important than reactive health care,’’ LePage said. Generally, he said, he favors “moderate cuts with tax increases.’’

Ashland, at a distance, moves at an unhurried pace. Fly-tying classes offered by the town are in demand, and there are three blinking traffic lights. But the economic downturn has forced many to scramble for wages, leaving scant time to follow Washington’s twists and turns. To decide what should be done about the budget deficit, many fall back on time-honored, New Hampshire-steeped faith in local control and mistrust of Washington.

Yet Ashland is more dependent on federal aid than many other Granite State towns. With 2,076 residents, Ashland makes up .16 percent of the state’s population, and received about .51 percent of the $2.3 billion in federal funding that came into New Hampshire in fiscal year 2011.

Ashland’s take of the federal money - approximately $11.7 million - was nearly twice the town’s budget. Some three-quarters of the money went to Medicare and Social Security. But there was also $196,000 for education and $109,000 in home heating assistance. The WIC program provided $22,000 in food assistance to 54 women and children.

“I am just shocked,’’ said Jeanette Stewart, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, when told of the federal figures. “I didn’t figure the federal government was paying that much for all those programs for Ashland. That’s a lot of money.’’

The sums are not totaled in a government ledger. The Globe requested the data from state and federal agencies, and in some cases, such as Medicare, was told the federal dollars sent to Ashland were impossible to ascertain. (The Globe estimated that figure by multiplying the average Medicare payment in Grafton County, where Ashland sits, in 2009, the most recent year for which data was available, by the number of residents 65 and older in Ashland, per the Census Bureau.)

Federal dollars make their way to Ashland in less direct ways, too.

Ashland’s largest employer is Freudenberg NOK. At the Ashland plant, 35 percent of business is producing oil seals for light trucks made by companies such as GM, which Washington bailed out in 2008-09. The plant also makes seals for defense companies that potentially stand to lose federal contracts under the defense cuts mandated following the supercommittee’s logjam, unless Congress intervenes.

Cindy Ruiter lives in Ashland and works at the plant molding and inspecting parts for the aerospace department. She is concerned about potential defense cuts. But not because they could impact her job. “Just look at all the terrorists out there in the world,’’ she said.

Meanwhile, on the home front, she said, federal dollars in some cases could be dispensed with and state and local dollars substituted. Take the case of her two daughters. They are trying to make a go of a roofing company with their husbands, who are brothers. Last year, they relied on federal money for heating their homes and expect they will again this year.

If that money is choked off in Washington, Ruiter said, they will turn down their heat, or perhaps everyone in their community could pitch in. That’s what Freudenberg workers recently did, raising $270 in a raffle for a nonprofit group that aids low-income families.

“If everyone just helps everyone just a little,’’ she said.

Often in Ashland, there is help. The heavy tourist trade in the region, with its lakes and mountains, means that Ashland residents live in proximity to the wealthy. One of the state’s high-profile entrepreneurs, Alex Ray, got his start here with his first restaurant, The Common Man, now a statewide chain. Ray often helps out the town in a pinch. Lakefront owners, too, have come through for their Ashland workers. When Eric Murdock, a construction worker, was home recovering from radiation treatments, the homeowner he was working for permitted him to clock in for time worked.

It makes for a strain of thought here that views the wealthy as benefactors, not “the 1 percent’’ whose tax rates should be hiked for the sake of lowering the federal deficit.

From her apartment overlooking the hills that surround Ashland, Kelly Decker designs period wallpaper - elaborate brocade patterns that evoke an earlier era. She works almost exclusively for a woman in the town next door who recently built a large home on Squam Lake, the idyll pictured in “On Golden Pond.’’

Decker, who leans Republican, said her gut tells her that cutbacks to programs for the elderly and the poor favored by Republicans seem wrongheaded. But just as assuredly, higher taxes on the rich favored by Democrats would dry up work like her own.

“People who are wealthy create the jobs. You can’t take that away from them,’’ said Anita Gray, who is 80 and worked in the L.W. Packard Inc. & Co. woolen mill as a weaver, alongside her husband, a loom technician.

Gray and her husband live in a house on land given to them by the Gliddens, the mill operators.

“They did a lot for an awful lot of people in town,’’ she said.

Marjorie Glidden still lives in town, too, in a Victorian at the top of Highland Street, once referred to as millionaires’ row because of all the mill owner homes lining the way. Her family’s mill closed a decade ago, with the work shipped to China.

Glidden, a Republican, takes a different view of the tax matter.

“Those of us in the middle class and who have more income should not fuss if they are asked to pay a little more,’’ she said. “I’m not an economist but my little pea brain says we should pay more and spend less.’’

Then she waved the federal budget matter out of mind.

“Oh, somebody else can figure it out,’’ she said. “I can’t.’’

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sschweitzer@globe.com.

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