Amherst Population Forecasts and Land Usage

Between 1960 and 1980 the town of Amherst, NH underwent tremendous population growth.  The US Census listed the town population at 2061 in the 1960 census and at 8243 in the one taken in 1980.  That is, in twenty years time the town’s population doubled twice.  This was a time when Amherst was transitioning from farms to the bedroom community as we know it today.  Some questions we might want to consider are what might the town’s population look like in the future and where will whatever growth we have take place in town.  The answers to these questions have a lot of impact on town planning needs, and frankly, these sorts of questions interest me in general.

In 1998 the town put together a master plan that, among other things, created a projection of the town’s population out to 2020.  As you can see from the graph below, the blue master plan projection numbers assumed that the growth rate of the last twenty years would continue into the next twenty years.   And maybe even increase a bit.  The forecast being created in 1998, the 2000 number matches well with the 2000 US Census, but overpredicts the 2010 numbers by about 1000.  Given the amount of developable land remaining in town and the zoning laws we have (e.g., 2 acre minimum lot sizes for new developments), the rest of the forecast looks suspiciously high.

Historic Amherst, NH population (red) and 1998 Master Plan projection (blue).

Historic Amherst, NH population (red) and 1998 Master Plan projection (blue).

In 2013 the State of New Hampshire’s Office of Energy and Planning put together municipal population forecasts for New Hampshire towns out to 2040.  Their projections are considerably more cautious than the ones the town created 15 years earlier, and suggest that we will slowly reach a peak population of about 12,000 people in about the next two decades.  In other words, population growth in Amherst is expected to continue, but not at rates even close to what the 1998 predictions suggested.

Historic Amherst, NH population (red) and 2013 state projection (yellow).

Historic Amherst, NH population (red) and 2013 state projection (yellow).

This seems to be reasonable.  Thanks to the fine folks at the Nashua Regional Planning Commission, we can take a look at the land usage in Amherst to get a feel for how much and where land is available in town for future growth.  In the plot below I have colored the various land usages in Amherst to correspond with how they are used.  So there are conservation land, lots currently used for housing, town property (schools, town offices, cemeteries, recreation land, etc.), commercial or industrial land, and wetlands and floodplains.  The uncolored lots are (or should be) available for development, although I can’t comment on how feasible they are.  It is an interesting map, and worth a close up look.  Perhaps 12,000 or so is the most people we can actually have in town.

Amherst, NH parcel map.  Colored lots are either developed, conservation land, town property, commercial/industrial, or floodplain/wetland.  Data courtesy of Nashua Regional Planning Commission.

Amherst, NH parcel map. Colored lots are either developed, conservation land, town property, commercial/industrial, or floodplain/wetland. Data courtesy of Nashua Regional Planning Commission.

The map above should be understood as a guide, as I can’t validate when the NRPC updates their parcel usage data.  But clearly the unused land that is available for potential development is in the minority of land in town, and that will be the limiting factor to the town’s future population.

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Clarifications on Amherst School District Spending

A few months ago, as part of my school district budget analysis, I published some numbers on Amherst’s cost per student spending.  This cost per student number is a commonly used metric to understand spending efficiency as well as to draw comparisons between districts.  As this year’s Ways and Means committee chair for the district, I sought answers to the reasons behind the significant jump in this number.  On October 8th, Ways and Means met with members of the School Board and the SAU to discuss these, and other numbers dealing with our school district spending.

I really need to applaud the transparency of the school administration here.  Significant time and effort was put into their response to the questions I posed, and they worked very hard to provide real meaningful answers, and the numbers to back them up.  To the point of contacting other districts to clarify their numbers, and sometimes being told to go away.

A few interesting things came out of the discussion.  In reviewing our numbers and comparing them with other districts, it quickly became clear that making comparisons between districts is difficult because different districts will report numbers differently to the state, and that the state’s formulas for some derived metrics (i.e. cost per student) can omit some very important considerations that aren’t immediately apparent, but have some huge implications in the numbers that are the most visible to taxpayers.

Most importantly, in the state’s calculations, bond payments are not factored into the cost per student number.  This is huge.  Some districts with newer buildings (Bedford, for example) have some very significant (millions of dollars) costs to the taxpayer in their budgets, but these costs are subtracted before computing their cost per student, making the latter not as representative for comparison as you might imagine.    In FY 2012 Amherst had about $600k in debt service payments.  Bedford had $4.6 million, and Merrimack had $1.9 million.  So it would seem that if we want to draw more meaningful comparisons in spending per student, that we should take the actual bottom line budget and divide by the total enrollment.

I’ll take a second to point out that the growth of our education taxes for all education spending in Amherst (not just Amherst School District) has increased much more slowly than our neighboring towns, which I showed before.  That is to say, yes your school tax bill has gone up, but considerably more slowly than if you were in some of our neighboring towns.

Growth in the total locally raised education spending, referenced to FY 2011 for Amherst, Bedford, and Merrimack.

Growth in the total locally raised education spending, referenced to FY 2011 for Amherst, Bedford, and Merrimack.

Before I get to our spending per student numbers, I want to quickly touch on the special education spending issue that I had raised earlier this year.  Previously I pointed out the differences in the fractions of our budgets that Amherst, Bedford, and Merrimack spend on special education.  Now you might think that by comparing line item to line item in the various district budgets, that the numbers would be directly comparable.  I certainly did.  They aren’t.  Here’s the difference.  Amherst includes benefits in their special education budget section.  Bedford and Merrimack don’t.  So when we take benefits out of our special education budget, we get the following numbers which we can compare, and they paint a very different picture than before.

District Special Education % of Budget (without benefits)
Amherst 11.2
Bedford 15.7
Merrimack 15.1

Now, to get to our spike in per-student elementary education spending back in FY 2011.  The one where we jumped to $4533 over the state average in a year.  In that year we saw our elementary school enrollment drop from 710 to 629.  That’s 81 students, or an 11.4% drop.  Inconveniently, they didn’t all fall out of the same grade, so this has made it somewhat difficult to make rapid adjustments to staffing.  But we have been making staffing adjustments.  We just can’t make them as fast as the enrollment has changed.

And yes, this will hit the middle school shortly, but we are making adjustments.  Draft 1 of next year’s budget will be presented at next month’s school board meeting and we should know more then.

Death and Burial Trends in Amherst

When it comes to understanding how we use our cemeteries in Amherst, something was still missing in my mind after going through the population growth in town, the annual burial numbers in our cemeteries, and also the cemetery lot sales numbers. To quickly review, since 1934, on average, we have a flat average of just 22 burials per year (+/- 6) in Amherst, NH cemeteries (see below).  The lot sales numbers indicate that we sell on average less than 8 cemetery lots per year (between 1971-2008), indicating that most of the burials are in lots that have been previously purchased (perpetual care lots).

Annual number of burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries. Data from Department of Public Works records.

Annual number of burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries. Data from Department of Public Works records. The red line shows the average value of 22.

This is rather surprising in light of the town’s population growth in that time. As per the US Census, we have gone from about 1000 people in Amherst to over 11,000 in that amount of time (see below).  So the conundrum is that even though there are 11 times more of us here now than there were 8 decades ago, the number interred in our cemeteries each year hasn’t changed.  At all.

US Census data for the town of Amherst, NH.

US Census data for the town of Amherst, NH.

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the numbers are all real.  Something to ponder while we press on.

One missing piece of this puzzle is the number of Amherst residents who die every year. Now you might guess that the number of residents who die and the number of people who are buried here would be basically the same.  This would make sense, but this would be wrong.  The number of resident deaths in Amherst is tabulated and reported every year in the annual town reports, which are available in the town library’s archive room, and that is where I obtained the numbers (graphed below). These are still remarkably small numbers, though they do show a slow growth trend, tripling in 8 decades.

Amherst Resident Deaths from 1934 to 2012, as recorded in Annual Town Reports.

Amherst Resident Deaths from 1934 to 2012, as recorded in Annual Town Reports. The blue line shows the running average.

So here is the conundrum now, since 1934 the population of Amherst has increased by a factor of 11, the number of annual resident deaths have gone up by a factor of 3, and despite those increases, the burial rate has not changed.

There’s a twist to this story, we just haven’t seen it yet.  It is difficult to plot resident deaths the same graph with the burial numbers for comparison, but we do need to compare them. So instead let’s look the ratio of burials to deaths.  This will be a much more useful graph.  Plotted here (see below) is our annual Amherst cemetery burials as a percentage of Amherst resident deaths each year. There is something quite surprising going on, do you see it?

Burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries as a percentage of Amherst resident deaths.  These numbers are skewed by the "Brought from away and buried in Amherst" burials.

Burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries as a percentage of Amherst resident deaths. The unlikely percentages are caused by the “brought from away and buried in Amherst” burials.

It turns out that it has been quite common for people to be “brought from away and buried in Amherst.” In some years those numbers have exceeded the numbers of Amherst residents who died. When that happens, we get some statistically very unlikely burial percentages, which you see above.  Now why people would be brought in for burial is a question for the historians.  But up until ten years ago or so, these “brought from away” numbers were in the town reports.  Whether or not this is still going on is an unanswered question at this point, and we have no information on the number “sent away” for burial.

One thing that is readily discernible here is that the percentage of dead which are buried is decreasing.  Let’s assume for a moment that the number of “brought from away” burials is currently the same as those who are sent away.  If this is true, the 2012 numbers show that about 50% of our residents who die are not buried.  Now if the number “brought from away” is greater than those sent away, as it must have been for many years, this fraction of residents not buried increases.  So what happens to the 50%+ who aren’t buried?

The answer, I believe, is cremation, an increasingly popular alternative to burial in this part of the country.  That explanation is consistent with the numbers that are reported here, and also with funeral homes reports in the area, which report that more than 60% are choosing cremation over burial.  The numbers from Amherst here are somewhat muddied by the fact that the head of DPW tells me that cremated remains are sometimes buried, requiring a lot and being recorded as a burial, so cremation rates in town are greater than what would be suggested here by burial numbers alone.

Now I think we have a reasonably complete picture of how we use our cemeteries in Amherst.  A useful thing to know for planning purposes would be the numbers of unsold and perpetual care (sold but unused) lots currently in town cemeteries.  We could use these, along with what we know from historic numbers, to forecast the number of years left before new cemetery space is required.

Amherst School District Health Insurance and NH Retirement Costs

In my last post I made a reference to the growth in expenditures in the health insurance and New Hampshire Retirement fund contributions in the Amherst School District budgets, and how they are driving forces in increasing the  budget over the years.  I also said I would dig through the budgets and come up with these numbers.  This is a somewhat cumbersome task because the budget is organized into sections like “regular education” and “special education,” with a complete set of spending numbers for each section.   So a subject like health insurance appears in about 12 separate places throughout the 30 or so pages of the budget, and then there are separate lines for the different schools in the district.

So with the caveat that I went through PDFs of these budgets by hand and could have missed a line in the tallies (though I was quite careful in doing this), here are the annual budgets for the NH Retirement contributions for non-teachers (NH Ret (NT)), contributions for teachers (NH Ret (T)), health insurance, and dental insurance for Amherst School District from FY10 through the budget we just voted on in March (FY14).  Click it for a bigger version.

Insurance and retirement costs for Amherst School District.  The major drivers here are health insurance and the contributions to the New Hampshire Retirement System for teachers.

Insurance and NH Retirement fund costs for Amherst School District. The major drivers here are health insurance and the contributions to the New Hampshire Retirement System for teachers.  NT denotes contributions made for non-teachers (red).  T indicates contributions made for teachers (blue).

Since we have been reducing the levels of staffing in the district in response to the decrease in enrollment that I talked about in my previous post on the budget, we would hope to see these numbers decreasing.  However, this is not a trend that we can see here.  There are a few modest occasional decreases, but these are nowhere near offsetting the increases.  From FY13 to FY14, the NH Retirement fund contributions for (not from) teachers increases by 20% ($231,551) and health insurance by 4% ($135,393).  Those changes are more than either the dental insurance or non-teacher retirement entire budgets.

Now that we have seen how each category changes independently, let’s look at them combined so that we can see their total impact on the school budget each fiscal year.  This one also gets bigger with a click of the mouse.

Insurance and retirement costs for Amherst School District.  The major drivers here are health insurance and the contributions to the New Hampshire Retirement System for teachers.

Insurance and NH Retirement fund costs for Amherst School District. The major drivers here are health insurance and the contributions to the New Hampshire Retirement System for teachers.  NT denotes contributions made for non-teachers (red).  T indicates contributions made for teachers (blue).

This is impressive.  Now, we can see that these four spending areas combined have increased from $3.8 million to almost $5.5 million since FY2010.  They increase by an average of just over $395,000 per year, with almost 40% (~$150,000/year) of that average increase being the beyond-our-control NH Retirement fund contributions for teachers that the state downshifts to us (that is, more of the fraction they used to pay is now taken on by the town).  Health insurance costs increase by an average of about $244,000/year – or about 1% of our most recent ASD budget.  And both of those dollar increases are with staffing reductions in place.

Almost every person I know in town has complained about rising property taxes in Amherst, and the school budgets are the majority component of them.  If we seek to reduce this overall budget, or even hold it constant, then without implementing any new initiatives, either $400k of new cuts must be made in other areas annually to compensate or we will have to find some way to get these annual increases under control.  Frankly, I’d rather see us find ways to make our insurance more affordable than to have to cut more teachers.

So why are these numbers what they are?  What we were told last year on health insurance is that there are contractual obligations in place that obligate us to keep certain health insurance programs available.  And that the more expensive option (the JY Plan) has been removed.  Also that there are a very limited number of insurers in the state, which keeps competition down and prices high.

Those may all be true.  But we should not be entering into the sort of contracts that obligate us to carry unaffordable options in perpetuity.  And what other plan options have we considered?  I have seen companies drop HMOs for PPO plans with secondary insurance plans to cover deductibles in order to reduce costs without reducing benefits.  Has this been investigated?  Would a consolidated school district allow us to reduce our health insurance premiums by increasing our group size?  Have those numbers been run?  Not a bad starting set of questions.

Historic Population and Growth of Amherst and Neighboring Towns

The town of Amherst, NH has had much growth in the past few decades.  Some insight into that growth can be found by digging through town records as published in our annual Town Reports (available in the Reference Room in the town library).  Page 80 of the town report for the year 2000 provides data on the town’s annual population, as taken by Selectmen’s census, since 1960 and is shown here.  I find it interesting that we had only 2000 people in town in 1960.  These are very informative data, but are somewhat limited in value because in their short time scale.

Amherst, NH population as recorded in annual town reports.

Amherst, NH population as recorded in annual town reports.

The US Census records the decennial population, something they’ve been doing since 1790, which is plotted below for Amherst from 1910 until the most recent one in 2010.  Take note that the US Census data and the Selectmen’s Census from above do not generally agree in their absolute numbers, though they do follow the same trends during the years they overlap.  These US Census data, while they does not contain the fine level of detail that the Selectmen’s Census does, paint a much broader picture of the history and growth of the town and are useful for that analysis.

US Census data for the town of Amherst, NH.

US Census data for the town of Amherst, NH.

From is information, we can consider how and when our population has changed significantly.  For this, we will examine the percentage of change of the population of town from the previous decennial census (graph appears below).  These values paint a remarkable picture of the town’s growth.  The 1960 and 1970 decades (1970 and 1980 census values) show enormous growth in the town.  Between 1960 and 1970, the town’s population more than doubled (from 2061 to 4605).  And from 1970 to 1980 it almost doubled again (4605 to 8243).  After 1980, the growth rate plummeted and has remained relatively low.

The percentage change in the population of Amherst, NH from its previous decennial US Census.

The percentage change in the population of Amherst, NH from its previous decennial US Census.

To understand if this trend was broad or simply localized to Amherst, we can look at the same historic data for nearby towns.  The US Census populations of Bedford and Hollis are plotted together below with the Amherst data from above.  Note the large similar large population growths at approximately the same times.

US Census data for the towns of Amherst, Bedford, and Hollis, NH.

US Census data for the towns of Amherst, Bedford, and Hollis, NH.

We can also calculate the percent change for Bedford and Hollis and plot those data with our Amherst data from above.  The absolute values vary somewhat, but the data for the three towns all have in common several decades of large growth which peaked around the 1970 time period.

The percentage change in the population of Amherst, Bedford, and Hollis NH from their respective previous decennial US Census.

The percentage change in the population of Amherst, Bedford, and Hollis NH from their respective previous decennial US Census.

From these combined charts, we can conclude that the rapid population growth in the 1960s and 1970s was not localized to just Amherst.  Amherst and its neighboring towns experienced a population boom in the decades following the “baby boom” (1946-1964).