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Executive council OKs spending $200K to plant seven acres of roadside wildflowers

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 21. 2018 3:19PM
Hundreds of sunflowers and other wildflowers have created a bright spot in the median of Route 101 in Epping. Similar flower beds have been created along other New Hampshire highways. (JASON SCHREIBER)

CONCORD — More wildflowers will bloom along New Hampshire highways, or at least along certain portions of them, now that the Executive Council has approved nearly $200,000 to sow them, and another $60,000 to plant purple lilacs.

But the decision did not come without controversy, as two councilors opposed the planting in a 3-2 vote on Wednesday, and Gov. Chris Sununu expressed concern about the cost.

What looked like a fairly routine item on the council agenda stirred Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, to protest the expense as an inappropriate use of money from the sale of moose license plate, created to fund land preservation.

“This has always been a pet peeve of mine,” he said. “We are spending $200,000 to plant flowers along the highways, with money coming from the moose plate fund. I think if the public knew we were spending money for flowers and not protecting land, they would be upset. The flowers we planted years ago are all grown over and we’re mowing them again.”

The specialty moose plate is enormously popular, with more than 50,000 issued in the past 20 years, raising more than $20 million.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan pointed out that the moose plate statute allows $50,000 annually from the fund for planting of wildflowers and lilacs along state highways, which hasn’t been done for the past five years as DOT allowed the fund to build up.

None of that appeased Wheeler. “It appears there was one bidder for this item and we went forward with the project anyway, with a bid that is close to 10 percent higher than what the department thought we should pay,” he said. “It’s too much money, from the wrong place, with only one bidder. We should be fixing bridges with the extra money we have, not planting wildflowers.”

Wheeler said he didn’t oppose funding for the lilacs because they survive, propagate themselves, and, after all, it’s the state flower.

The council initially voted unanimously to table the request, but in an unusual move, Sheehan later in the meeting asked them to reconsider. Any delay in approving the contract would mean another round of Fiscal Committee review for the funding and no planting until next spring.

When told the $200,000 covers about seven acres of wildflower planting, Sununu said, “That comes to $30,000 per acre to plant wildflowers. That seems like a lot of money per acre.”

“Maybe someone at DOT could come back and do an analysis of whether this is the highest and best use of those dollars,” he said.

When the vote was called, Republican Councilor Russell Prescott joined Democrats Chris Pappas and Andru Volinsky in approving the contract, while Wheeler and Republican Joe Kenney voted “no.”

With the state fiscal year drawing to a close on June 30, the council agenda was loaded with more than 150 items as contracts had to be finalized or adjusted before the new fiscal year starts on July 1.

“The wildflowers shall be planted,” said Sununu after the vote. “We are approving more than a billion dollars in contracts, but we are going to get the wildflowers right.”

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