Published Date Written by Roger AmsdenLACONIA — A subcommittee of the Belknap County Convention voted Friday morning to add a line item to the Register of Deeds budget for $5,200 to pay legal fees incurred by Registrar Barbara Luther in her dispute with Belknap County Commissioners over accounting procedures.
The unanimous vote of the subcommittee came after a brief discussion in which Rep. Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) said that the county should pay the bill ''out of elemental fairness.'' Burchell said the explanations offered by the commission about the eventual settlement which was reached were ''disingenuous.''
County Administrator Debra Shackett said that the county took legal action against Luther to compel her to adopt procedures recommended by the county's auditors which would have required her to close the registry's bank accounts and deposit the taxes and fees it collects directly into the county general fund.
''The county asked for cooperation but didn't get it,'' said Shackett in defense of the commissioners' decision to file legal action.
But Burchell said that the settlement which had been reached last summer didn't really change anything. "To our knowledge the same procedure she had been following remained in place. $18,000 later and we're no better off than we were. She (Luther) continues to hold all the money collected and cuts one check at the end of the month to the state and one to the county.''
During the dispute, which began in May of 2011, Luther, maintained that the state law only required her to transfer funds from the registry's account to the county treasurer every month. She also balked at claims of the commission's authority over her office, maintaining that she was an elected official and that the registry was independent, not a department of county government.
The settlement which was announced last August allowed the existing checking account used by the Register of Deeds to be continued and required that any checks or withdrawals from that account be signed by the Register of Deeds and the Belknap County Treasurer.
It also established procedures for the daily handling of payments and operations at the office.
Commissioners said at the time that the settlement was consistent with recommended best accounting practices and removed a negative comment from the county audit.
Attorney Paul Fitzgerald represented the county in the negotiations while Luther was represented by attorney Philip McLaughlin.
Last month Luther requested that the county pay the $5,200 in legal fees that she had incurred and the commissioners said that was being negotiated by Fitzgerald and McLaughlin.
The vote on a motion by Rep. Ruth Gullick (D-New Hampton) to add a line item to the budget under the heading legal for $5,200 was unanimous with Burchell, Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) and Rep. Robert Greemore (R-Meredith) in support.
Commission Chairman John Thomas, who attended the subcommittee meeting, said after the meeting that the commission looked on the additional line item as a request from the County Delegation and that it has a history of accommodating such requests.
The subcommittee also increased the revenue estimate from the Registry of Deeds office from $600,000 to $700,000 after Tilton, who chaired the subcommittee, asked ''is it realistic or can we be less conservative?''
The subcommittee also reduced the amount budgeted for heat in the county maintenance budget from $98,000 to $90,000. Dustin Muzzey, facilities manager, said that a switch to natural gas boilers at the county courthouse is helping to lower heating costs.
The convention holds a public hearing on its overall budget recommendations on Monday night at 5 p.m. at the county complex.