Worsman sets goal as $1.3 million cut; Republican reps take action to hold cost of county employee pay & benefits on flat line
Published Date Written by Michael KitchLACONIA — "We knew this was going to get ugly," Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) remarked yesterday when a sub-committee of the Belknap County Convention voted to deny county employees a proposed pay raise while increasing their share of health insurance premiums and scuttling other benefits as part of a package to trim the 2013 budget proposed by the County Commission.
Although Vadney chaired the sub-committee, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, charted the course of its proceedings. While others seek to reduce the 8.9-percent increase in the county tax burden projected by the commissioners' budget, she aims to eliminate it altogether, which will require reducing expenditures by approximately $1.3-million.
The convention will hold a public hearing on its changes to the budget at the county complex on Monday night at 5 p.m. It is possible they could take a final vote on the appropriation for 2013 that same night.
When the budget process began, Worsman broke with past practice by directing the sub-committees appointed to review the departmental budgets not to take votes and make recommendations to the convention. But, yesterday, when the sub-committee met to consider the budgets for Sheriff's Department, County Attorney Office, Corrections Department and Diversion Program, Worsman, although not a member of the sub-committee, offered motions to strip a three-percent step pay increase for eligible employees from the commissioner's budget and pass the entire 7.3-percent increase in health insurance premiums to the employees. She also moved to eliminate bonuses for unused sick days and longevity from the budget.
The motions carried by majorities of four-to-one with Worsman and Vadney joined by Representatives Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) and Michael Sylvia (R-Belmont) in the majority, leaving Representative Ian Raymond (D-Sanbornton) the lone dissenter.
County Finance Director Glen Waring said that the aggregate value of the measures remained to be calculated, but estimated it would fall between $300,000 and $400,000, well shy of Worsman's target of $1.3-million. The cost of the step raise, together with consequent increases in Social Security and Medicare taxes, is approximately $115,000, to which must be added the increased health insurance premium along with bonuses for sick days and longevity.
Requiring employees to bear the increase in health insurance premiums, Waring said would raise the contribution of those with two-person and family plans, who currently contribute five-percent, to 11.5-percent.
"I hate to ask the employees to pick up more," Worsman said, "but we have to find a tremendous amount of money."
"We have a budget that is $1-million too high," said Tilton. "The biggest item is employees' salaries and benefits."
Vadney suggested that regular cost-of-living adjustments and step increases in past years had swelled the payroll, raising wages and salaries by 25-percent or more. "They may have been deserved," he allowed, "but that doesn't mean they were affordable."
However, County Administrator Debra Shackett countered that since 2009 the total cost of compensation and benefits has risen by $971,000, or seven-percent, while wages and salaries have grown by four-percent.
Furthermore, Shackett pointed out that the commission is currently negotiating contracts with unions representing employees of the Sheriff's Department, Corrections Department and Nursing Home. Since the contribution to health insurance premiums, along with the sick day and longevity bonuses, are terms and conditions of employment included in past collective bargaining agreements, the commission was bound, under New Hampshire law, to pay for them until new contracts are ratified.
Tilton replied that without sufficient funds to meet these obligations, the commission may have to consider reducing the number of employees. "There may have to be some lay-offs," echoed Vadney.
After listening to the discussion, John Thomas of Belmont, who chairs the three-member county commission, said that "we will do nothing with wages and benefits and if the contracts cost more than they do now, the money must come from somewhere." As for the prospect of lay-offs, he declared "I will do everything possible not to put people on the street. That is my personal goal." Thomas said that he is confident the commission is of one mind.