Convention pushing commissioners toward taking move from John Lynch playbook: employees must take less or face layoffs
Published Date Written by Michael KitchLACONIA — The tussle between the Belknap County Convention and Belknap County Commission over the 2013 county budget will resume this evening when the convention holds the first of three remaining scheduled meetings beginning at 5 p.m. at the county complex.
The budget process has been overshadowed by sharp differences between a majority of the convention and the commissioners over both the structure of the budget and their relative authority over it.
Since December, when the commission proposed its $26.8-million budget, which included an increase in the amount to be raised by property taxes of 8.9-percent, the convention has sought to cut appropriations by $1.3-million. So far its has identified approximately $745,000 in revenue adjustments and reduced expenditures, which include trimming compensation and benefits for county employees by approximately $372,000.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, the commission presented a counter proposal amounting to $1.2-million, which consists of $449,000 in spending cuts, among them $115,000 for step raises, and the balance in additional revenues, including drawing another $500,000 from the fund balance to offset property taxes.
Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, yesterday acknowledged that that there is some agreement between the convention and the commission on both increasing revenue estimates and decreasing proposed expenditures and said "I think we are getting closer." However, she noted that "the convention requested the commission find $1.3-million without using fund balance."
The full convention has yet to openly discuss the commission's proposal. However, there were reports that Worsman summoned a caucus of the Republican members in Concord immediately following the governor's budget address last Thursday. Worsman said "I can't speak to that," but Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) allowed that "several of us got together and went over the numbers."
Ever since January, when Worsman summoned a caucus of the Republican representatives, who account for 13 of the 18 members of the convention, some have suspected that the course of the budget process has been charted by the GOP leadership. Speaking to local Democrats last week, Representative David Huot (D-Laconia) said "it appears to me that people are making decisions in a back room somewhere."
Likewise, Commissioner Ed Philpot, a Laconia Democrat, has expressed his frustration with the unwillingness of the convention to entertain a dialogue with the county commission and administration over the budget. "They have completely ignored the governing body of elected officials entrusted by statute with operating county government," he said.
Apart from the differences between the convention and commission over specific appropriations and fund balance, they remain at odds over their respective authority over the budget. At the outset of the budget process, the convention, by a vote of 10 to 8, stripped the commission of much of its authority over the budget by claiming the authority to add or remove, raise or lower particular line items for itself.
On the strength of that resolution, members proceeded to rewrite lines in the budget. The centerpiece of the package was adjustments to employee compensation and benefits, including the elimination of funding for bonuses for unused sick time and longevity of service as well as a funds to pay for 7.3-percent increase in the cost of health insurance premiums. These line items are subject to collective bargaining agreements negotiated between the commission and the State Employees Association (SEA), the union representing county employees.
In return for foregoing the right to strike — prohibited since 1973 — public employee contracts in N.H. are governed by the so-called "doctrine of status quo," which stipulates that when collective bargaining agreements expire its terms and conditions, except for so-called cost items, remain in effect pending ratification of a new agreement. The county's union contracts expired at the end of 2012 and negotiations are currently underway between the county commissioners and union officials.
Step raises, or new rates of pay specified by a salary schedule for an additional year of service, qualify as cost items and are not awarded in lieu of a new contract. But, since health insurance is a defined benefit in the contracts, without an assigned dollar value, public employers are obligated to continue to pay their agreed upon percentage for specified policies, regardless of cost of the premiums.
According to the minutes of the meeting on January 18, the convention voted not to increase funding for health insurance to defray the 7.3-percent increase in premiums "so the employee pays the increase." Worsman likened the move to that taken by Governor John Lynch in 2010, which faced state employees with the choice of contributing a greater share to the cost their health insurance or laying off enough employees to provide health insurance to the remainder at the new cost.
"We allocate money to the line item," Worsman said. " The commission decides how best to spend it. We don't affect policy."
The commissioners have challenged the claim of the convention to wield line item authority over the budget and last week Philpot revealed they have a legal opinion upholding their position. Withholding comment, Worsman said she only knew "what I've read in the newspaper." The opinion is expected to be provided to the convention when it meets.
The commission has argued that the authority of the convention is confined to the "Statement of County Appropriations and Revenue as Voted," called the MS-42, which the chair and clerk of the convention sign and submit to the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration.
The form lists 21 appropriations divided among nine broad categories: general government, public safety, corrections, county nursing home, human services, cooperative extension, economic development , debt service and capital outlay. The categories do not correspond to line items, but instead designate total appropriations for the various county departments and particular purposes. In particular, appropriations for compensation and benefits, which appear as line items throughout the different departmental budgets, are not singled out on the statement. The summary consists of the total appropriations and revenues and the amount to be raised by taxes.
Moreover, the commission claims authority to transfer funds among line items within and among these categories.
It remains unclear how this issue will be addressed, let alone resolved, though Philpot has said "there is nothing to be gained by having a struggle over line-item authority."
Worsman said that she does not expect the convention to vote on the budget tonight, adding that further meetings have been scheduled on Monday, February 25 and Monday, March 4, both beginning at 5 p.m. The convention must adopt a budget within 90 days of the start of the fiscal year on January 1. Otherwise the budget recommended by the commission is adopted by default.