Key Republican rep says county tax bite will have to be reduced by at least $1 million; cuts will be part of the recipe
Published Date Written by Michael KitchLACONIA — The Republican majority of the Belknap County Convention aims to fashion a package of reduced expenditures and increased revenues that will shrink the amount raised by property taxes projected by 2013 county budget proposed by the County Commission by at least $1-million, trimming the estimated hike in the county tax burden from 8.9-percent to nearer two-percent.
"Reducing the tax increase is paramount," Representative Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) said yesterday. "My target is 2.1-percent and that's probably on the high end among the Republican members of the delegation. We've got to do some hard massage," he continued, "but we'll get there."
Tilton said that he set his target after speaking with Laconia City Manager Scott Myers, who told him that if the county tax burden rises more than 2.1-percent, municipal spending would have to be reduced by a commensurate amount in order to keep the 2013-2014 city budget within the limits of the property tax cap.
Titon's vote is important because it is widely presumed that the commissioners cannot hope to build convention majority support for their budget without adding him and several other less hawkish Republicans — most likely Laconia Representatives Don Flanders and Bob Luther and Sanbornton/Tiilton Rep. Dennis Fields — to the five Democrats in the delegation.
Laconia pays slightly more than 19-percent of the total county property tax burden and its share would jump by about $250,000 if it rose by 8.9-percent.
Republican representatives hold 13 of the 18 seats in the convention and 6 of 13 are freshmen lawmakers tackling the county budget for the first time.
The commission has insisted that the projected increase in taxes is the result of diminished revenue, not increased spending. Last year the commissioners used $3,750,000 of fund balance, which accrues from excess revenues and unexpended appropriations, to offset property taxes, but this year propose using only $2.1 million. They note that if another $1-million of fund balance were applied the tax increase would be two-percent.
County officials have heretofore proclaimed they need to keep the fund balance high to keep bond rating agencies happy.
However, the Republicans are determined to cut spending, particularly a proposed 3 percent step raise for eligible employees.
Representative Jane Cormier (R-Alton) said this week "we're not cutting salaries, we're not raising them".
The chairman of the convention, Representative Colette Worsman (R-Meredith) has called that increases in compensation and benefits for county employees "are a tremendous part of this budget increase." And Tilton agreed that "the big dollar item is salaries and benefits. and we have to address them across the board."
County Administrator Debra Shackett said that the cost of the step raise, together with consequent increases in Social Security and Medicare taxes, is approximately $115,000. Together with significant increases in the employer contributions to the New Hampshire Retirement System and a 7.3-percent rise in health insurance premiums, she projected personnel costs to rise nearly $250,000 in 2013. She noted that a share of wages and benefits are subject to collective bargaining agreements that remain to be negotiated with unions representing county employees.
Tilton suggested that in addition to stripping the step raise from the budget, the convention may consider costs, such as bonuses for sick days not taken and stipends for opting out of the health insurance program.
The commissioners stress that they have taken steps to control personnel costs, including reducing the number of full-time employees by 18-percent, from 208 to 171, between 2009 and 2013. Likewise, Shackett said that county salaries and wages are comparable to or less than those paid by municipalities with similar budgets while the package of benefits, which unlike those offered by many towns, does not include dental, disability and life insurance.
Tilton acknowledged that the approach he outlined presumed that the convention has authority to add, delete, raise and lower specific line items in the budget, a presumption the commission contests.
The commissioners contend, for instance, that while the convention can cut an amount equal to the proposed wage increases from the budget, it cannot prevent them from transferring money from other accounts to fund them. They insist that the authority of the convention to increase or decrease appropriations is limited to the bottom-line and does not extend to particular line items.
Citing a number of state statutes, Tilton, like Worsman and others, contends that what authority the commission exercises over the budget is at the discretion of the convention, which may limit or curtail it.
Tilton said that in addition to cutting expenditures, he expected the convention would adjust revenue estimates, some of which he believed are unnecessarily conservative, as well as consider supplementing revenues with more of the fund balance to reduce the county tax burden.