Published Date Written by Michael KitchLACONIA — "We have a lot of work left to do," said Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the Belknap County Convention, after the Belknap County Commission presented the convention with a proposal to trim the amount to be collected in county property taxes in 2013 by $1.2-million last night.
Although the commission's package of reduced expenditures and increased revenues nearly matched the convention's stated target of $1.3-million, Worsman deferred discussion to a future meeting scheduled for February 19.
"I have time to digest this," she said.
The commissions original budget called for an 8.9 percent in the amount to be collected in property taxes and Republican members of the convention found that unacceptable. The jump was not due so much to a hike in spending as to a sharp reduction in the amount of fund balance — surplus revenues and unspent appropriations from previous years — being used to help offset the tax burden.
The commission said it needed to keep a healthy fund balance to appease bond rating agencies. The county has a $40+ million jail project on the horizon it will need to borrow money for.
The commission now proposes eliminating a juvenile prosecutor at the County Attorney's office at a cost of $31,000, an additional position at the Corrections Department at a cost of $52,000, improved communications and an additional vehicle at the Sheriff's Department at a cost of $70,000 and a position at the Youth Services bureau at a cost of $31,000. Another $150,000 in expenses would be pruned from the nursing home budget.
Furthermore, following the lead of the convention, the commissioners struck $115,000 designated for a 3-percent step raise for eligible employees from the budget. Altogether these measures would spare $449,000 in expenses.
The spending cuts would be complemented by $270,500 in revenue adjustments. These include $2,000 in income from the commissary at the county jail, $150,000 in increased Medicaid reimbursement rates at the nursing home, $100,000 in proceeds from filings at the Registry of Deeds and $15,000 in higher fees from the Sheriff's Department.
Finally, the commissioners, who initially recommended applying $2.1-million of fund balance to offset the amount to be raised by property taxes, proposed adding another $500,000, to complete the package of $1,219,500.
When the convention met two weeks ago, members voted for revenue adjustments and spending cuts totaling some $745,000, which included some $197,000 in increased revenues. The centerpiece of the package was adjustments to compensation and benefits of some $372,000. These included the elimination of the three-percent step raise along with bonuses for longevity and unused sick days. At the same time, employees would be required to bear the entire 7.3-percent increase in the cost of health insurance premiums.
While Worsman sought time to weigh the commissioner's proposal, Representative Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) asked Finance Director Glen Waring to prepare a comparative analysis of the positions of the commission and the convention, complete with the account numbers of the line items contained in each.
Representative Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton) was surprised at the reluctance of the Republican majority of the convention to discuss the plan. "We asked them to cut $1.3-million and they've done that," she remarked.
Representative Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead) reminded Gulick that Worsman had directed the commission to trim $1.3-million without increasing the amount of fund balance used to supplement revenue.
Representative David Huot (D-Laconia) noted that the commission was in the process of negotiating collective bargaining agreements with the unions representing county employees, explaining that the costs of compensation and benefits included in those contracts represented legal obligations that must be met.
"We have no control over union contracts," Worsman replied.
At the outset of the budget process, the convention asserted its authority to adjust line items throughout the budget as well as to limit the authority of the commission to transfer funds within the budget. Subsequently the convention voted to remove funding for increases in wages and salaries and health insurance premiums as well as longevity and sick bonuses from the budget. The commissioners indicated their willingness to drop the pay raise, but not to eliminate funding for either the longevity and bonuses or increased health insurance premiums, issues that could test the respective authority of the convention and commission.
Meanwhile, prior to the convention, the Executive Committee of the convention authorized the commission to borrow up to $10-million in anticipation of tax receipts. County Administrator Debra Shackett explained that because the county does not collect property taxes from the municipalities until December, it would run short of cash by March 28.
Tilton, the newly elected chair of the executive committee, was reluctant to authorize the borrowing before the adoption of the budget. Waring said that apart from 2011 and 2012, when federal funds allotted by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act buoyed the fund balance, the county has usually borrowed in March. He said that between four and six weeks may elapse between authorizing the borrowing and drawing the funds.
Representatives Don Flanders (R-Laconia) and Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) said that they saw no harm in authorizing the borrowing in advance of the budget and Huot offered a motion that carried by six-to-one vote with only Tilton dissenting.