Revolution: Belknap Convention majority strips commisioners of budget transfer authority & goes after wages & benefits
Published Date Written by Michael KitchLACONIA — The Belknap County Convention, voting largely along party lines, last night tied the hands of the Belknap County Commission while denying a pay raise and trimming the benefits of county employees — all much to the delight of all but a handful of some 75 of their constituents at a public hearing on the 2013 county budget.
Although the convention approved the recommendations of its sub-committees to reduce a number of expenditures, the size of the dent in the $26.8-million budget proposed by the commissioners remains to be calculated. Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, said that she aimed to cut $1.3-million from the budget, which would entirely offset the 8.9-percent increase in the county tax burden projected by the commissioners.
Shortly after Worsman opened the meeting, Rep. Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) proposed stripping the commission of much of its authority over the budget, in particular it power to transfer funds from line-to-line within the plan. Reading from a prepared statement, the freshman lawmaker, said that "the power of the purse belongs to you — the convention. The enumerated powers of commissions are very limited," he continued, charging that the commissioners "attempt to assign to themselves the powers granted to you."
Burchell cited state law (RSA 24:14) which reads "unless otherwise ordered by the county convention ... whenever it appears that the amount appropriated for a specific purpose will not be used in whole or in part for such purpose, the county commissioners may use such sum to augment other appropriations, if necessary, provided the total payments for all purposes do not exceed the total sum of appropriations in any year made by the county convention." The law, he insisted, is clear and the convention would be derelict in its duty to grant the commission discretion to transfer funds.
"The commission is not accountable" he declared, urging the convention "not to hide behind the veil of executive discretion."
For some years the commission has enjoyed authority to transfer funds, only seeking the approval of the executive committee for amounts of more than $10,000. Moreover, the convention's authority over the budget has been limited to the bottom-line, much as in towns where the budget committee and town meeting approve the total spending package while the board of selectmen retain the power to transfer funds between departments and line-items.
Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) cautioned that by taking away the authority of the commission, the convention would make a lot of work for its executive committee, which could find itself managing the budget day-by-day.
Rep. Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton) said he would votes against the motion because "I don't know what the legal ramifications are."
In fact, the delineation of budgetary authority between the convention and the commission is neither straightforward nor settled and according to Betsy Miller, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Counties, opinion and practices vary among the 10 counties.
Burchell's motion carried by a margin of 10-to-8 as Fields, along with fellow Republicans Don Flanders and Bob Luther, both of Laconia, joined Huot and the other four Democrats — Ian Raymond of Sanbornton, Lisa DiMartino of Gilford, Beth Arsenault of Laconia and Ruth Gulick of New Hampton in the minority.
The convention then spent nearly three hours retracing the steps of its subcommittees, which met in marathon sessions last week, after Worsman apparently ordered them not to take formal votes on their recommendations. Those who flouted that directive, and those who followed it, reported their recommendations to the entire convention last night.
"Why are we voting without hearing from the public?" asked Gulick.
"This is a completely improper procedure," added Huot, who said that the convention should get information from the sub-committees, formulate a budget and present it to the public.
They were echoed by Fields who has questioned Worsman's conduct of the budget process from the outset. "I don't like this being rammed down our throats," he said, prompting Worsman to say "representative you are out of order."
"I may be out of order," Fields shot back , "but this is wrong." He told Worsman the convention would not be in this situation if she had asked the sub-committees not to make recommendations. "This has been a transition," Worsman replied.
"For you maybe," Fields remarked.
Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith), who chaired one of the sub-committees, offered the motion to strike funds for a proposed three-percent step raise from the budget, along with funding for sick day and longevity bonuses. At the same time, he proposed requiring employees to pay the entire 7.3-percent increase in health insurance premiums, more than doubling their contribution.
Gulick asked why her sub-committee was told not to deal with salaries and benefits while apparently others were not.
"I either didn't hear or didn't listen," Vadney quipped.
The Democratic members of the convention questioned the wisdom of the measures, which they said would lead to higher rates of turnover among employees and a diminution in the quality of county services, especially the nursing home.
"I'm appalled" said Huot, who claimed the Republicans were "performing arthroscopic surgery with a meat axe."
Worsman took it upon herself to make the case for freezing wages and trimming benefits. "Every part of the economy is continuing to shrink," she said, stressing that public employees were receiving more generous raises and benefits than their counterparts in the private sector. ""This budget is $1.3-million too much and we must cut operating expenses," she said.
The motion to deny the pay raise was adopted on a straight party-line vote, 13 to five, but Fields joined the Democrats in seeking to spare employees the increase in health insurance premiums.
At 8 p.m. the public hearing, which was posted for 5 p.m., was opened to the pubic, who with few exceptions applauded the decisions of the convention, particularly the steps to control the growth of salaries. "Unions are not are friends," proclaimed one woman from Sanbornton, who added "the only check we have is you people. We don't have a union. If you fail us, you're not doing your duty."
Raymond was among several to remind the convention that the commissioners were in the midst of negotiating collective bargaining agreements with three unions representing county employees. He noted that the terms and conditions of the prior contract, including the bonuses for sick days and longevity as well as the employee's share of health insurance premiums, remain in effect until a new contract is reached.
Asked about the issue, Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) said "we will not discuss contracts in a public meeting," but advised Worsman to top off the budget for legal expenses. Later she added $5,000.