Published Date Written by Michael KitchLACONIA — The Belknap County Convention and the Belknap County Commission last night reached an impasse over their respective roles and authorities in the budget process.
The convention majority, on the strength of its reading of state statutes, has claimed the authority to rewrite the budget recommended by the commission by adding or deleting, raising or lowering particular line items.
The commission has countered that the authority of the convention is confined to the "Statement of County Appropriations and Revenue as Voted," or MS-42, which lists 21 appropriations for the major county departments and programs along with a summary of the total appropriations and revenues and the amount to be raised by taxes. The form is signed by the chair and clerk of the convention and submitted to the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration (DRA).
When Commissioner John Thomas (R-Belmont) presented the convention with a legal opinion upholding its position, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, replied that "the MS-42 has nothing to do with our job as a convention. Our job," she insisted, "is to approve the line items in this budget."
Thomas, who began by offering the "hope that this will be received as good news and will spare all of us many more hours of unnecessary debate, morale concerns and potential legal issues," closed by declaring "it is the intent of the commission to follow this counsel."
Thomas explained that the opinion, prepared by Sharon Cuddy Somers of Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella of Exeter, relied on state statutes, case law and administrative rules of the DRA. In an opinion from 1975, the New Hampshire Supreme Court held that "the county convention does not possess the general legislative powers which our Constitution . . . has vested in the state Legislature." Instead, Somers concluded that the court as well as the statutes and rules, "suggest that the Delegation (convention) must itemize appropriations and must do so in accordance with DRA and the Secretary of State procedures" and that the MS-42 form is the proper format for listing appropriations."
"Save this for another meeting," said Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia). "We're here to discuss the budget."
"Why aren't we discussing this issue in front of everyone?" interrupted Rep. Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton), who has repeatedly challenged the budget process charted by Worsman. Leaving his seat, he stepped in front of the commissioners and some two dozen members of the public and read from a prepared statement.
Recalling that he has served 14 terms in the Legislature, Fields said he had "never seen a county budget prepared in this manner. I have been to two Republican caucuses which were convened to discuss the county budget and asked to keep everything in the meeting secret," he continued. "How can that be doing the people's business in a transparent way?" He noted that neither the commissioners nor the taxpayers could "know what we're doing if we meet in small groups, between public meetings to discuss our plans."
Closing to a round of applause, Fields turned to the chair, charging "Representative Worsman you have done us a disservice." When Worsman asked him "to get control of yourself," Fields countered "I tell it like it is and if you don't like it that's too bad."
When the convention returned to the budget, Tilton, working from proposals offered by the commissioners, added $600,500 to revenues while halving the commission's recommendation to draw $500,00 from fund balance to offset property taxes. At the same time, he proposed reducing expenditures by an aggregate amount that remains to be confirmed. The package, he said, "gets us closer to where we want to be."
"We have a budget we can vote on next Monday," Worsman said.
But, Thomas repeated "we are going by our legal opinion."