Commissioners still eye fund balance to meet Delegation's $1.3 million reduction target for county spending
Published DateLACONIA — Faced with a changed playing field in the wake of a Belknap County Delegation which is determined to make major cuts in its proposed $26.8 million budget, Belknap County Commissioners have identified a possible $1,263,500 in adjustments to the budget, cuts which it is reluctantly considering in anticipation of a Feb. 4 meeting at which county legislators will renew their discussion of the budget.
''We have to do our duty and do our best to appease some of the misguided leadership they have,'' said John Thomas, commission chairman, who said that the delegation had laid down a set of markers for the commission to follow in making recommended changes to the budget which will meet the $1.3 million goal set by the delegation.
The delegation voted 10-8 Monday night to assert line item authority over the budget and to deny the commission any discretion in transferring funds from one account to another. It then proceeded to go through the budget line by line and came up with cuts which County Administrator Debra Shackett said totaled $745,000.
County administrators met Tuesday afternoon to identify areas which could be trimmed or where additional revenues might be realized and are finalizing that for presentation to the delegation.
Shackett said the $1,263,500 cut includes elimination of three positions from the budget, two of which were new and one of which is vacant, along with the use of $500,000 from the county's fund balance.
Included in the changes are a cut of $115,000 in step increases for county employees, elimination of $50,000 for improvements to the Sheriff's Department communications system, and $150,000 in County Nursing Home improvements, including a new van, replacement of the kitchen floor and in supplies and overtime.
Other adjustments include budgeting a $150,000 increase in nursing home revenue and $100,000 in additional revenue for the Registry of Deeds.
Heeding the suggestion from Commissioner Steven Nedeau that outside agencies should bear some of the hurt of the cuts sought by the delegation, commissioners yesterday tentatively cut $25,000 from the Cooperative Extension Service, $10,000 from the Belknap County Conservation District and $10,000 from the Belknap County Economic Development Council.
Some of the cuts which the delegation wanted to make were not included in the list, including a reduction in the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid request and passing along the 7.3 percent increase in health insurance premiums to county employees.
The Mutual Aid reduction was not seen as feasible in the current budget cycle and the increase in health care costs is covered by an existing union contract.
But commissioners said that Mutual Aid would most likely not be included in next year's budget and those Belknap County towns which want it to continue being funded at the county level will have to make their own case to the delegation.
''Next year they're off the list'' said Nedeau.
County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen thanked the commissioners for standing by employees on the health insurance issue, noting that it would cost those on the family plan an additional $1,700 a year, which come on top of the loss of the step increases.
She also said that the loss of a position within her office for a juvenile court prosecutor would mean that local police would have to prosecute cases although she would be available to assist.
The budget review process is still ongoing and commissioner Ed Philpot said that he hopes that as much as $750,000 of the county's fund balance can be used to reduce the impact on county services of the cuts sought by the delegation, which he said had ''cut to the bone.''
Whether the delegation will agree to any use of the fund balance is problematic as one of the conditions which Thomas said was set by the delegation was that the proposed budget adjustment not affect the fund balance or outside agencies.
Thomas said that the delegation has said it wants to control all cuts and will control 100 percent of the transfers, which led Shackett to ask, ''what's the problem?"
She said that last year there was only one request for a budget transfer made of the delegation's Executive Committee and that took over an hour before it was agreed to.
Thomas said that the delegation's assertion of complete line item control of the budget was unprecedented and that he hoped that the legislature would clarify the issue.
''From my view the leadership wants to take over the county. Their other condition is that if they don't like what we suggest, they'll do it their way,'' said Thomas.
That led Nedeau to wonder aloud what would happen next. ''What bothers me is that we made our budget and they waited until the other night to act on it. Now when we agree to adjustments are they going to slash and burn it again?''
Thomas said that he regrets that all of the work the commissioners have done over the last four years to reduce staff, consolidate positions and modernize county operations has not been taken into consideration.
A budget presentation made last year by the commission included a chart showing that since 2009 the county has eliminated 37 full-time employment positions, going from 208 in 2009 to 171 in 2013, while increasing the number of part-time positions from 26 to 46.
Philpot said that he thinks the commission should try and ''make reasonable and responsible decisions'' and ''not give them control over throwing all these things out the window.''
With regards to the commissioner's efforts in developing plans for a new county correctional facility and a drug court Shackett said the delegation had made it clear ''all of your planning ends and their planning now starts'' and that they had shown a ''clear intention to stop these plans and balance the budget on the backs of our employees.'' She pointed out that the average impact of the budget proposed by the commission was an increase of $25 per year for the average homeowner.
Philpot said that there was a perception problem faced by the commission but it should be made plain ''that we will not accept a step backwards.'' With regard to the criminal justice system projects he said we ''should keep going right on.''
Shackett said that the cuts which were being considered should not be viewed as cutting ''fat'' but reflect the reality of what the delegation is doing. ''There's an absolute clarity that they have the will and the votes to cut the budget.''
Thomas, who confirmed Tuesday that the commission is seeking an opinion from an attorney with expertise in county law with regard to the legality of the delegation's assertion of line item control over the budget, said it was incumbent on the commission ''to do our best until the rules change again.''
He said that what he saw Monday night from the delegation was a ''coordinated thought process going on. It was very disconcerting. In my 20 years in public life I have never seen anything like it.''