Published Date Written by Michael KitchLACONIA — As expected the Belknap County Convention voted last night not to fund the collective bargaining agreements negotiated between the Belknap County Commission and the State Employees' Association (SEA), representing county employees, and proceeded to adopt the 2013 county budget as agreed to by a majority a week ago.
The cost items totaled $283,474, of which $96,000 was allocated to fund a merit pay increase. The remaining costs of $187,474 consist of $63,113 in health insurance premiums, $22,640 in retirement contributions, $17,400 for longevity bonuses, $49,579 for sick pay bonuses, $9,240 for payroll taxes, $2,400 in workers compensation and unemployment payments and $23,100 for uniform allowances.
The convention voted eleven-to-six to reject the cost items, with eleven of the twelve Republicans present — Representatives Frank Tilton and Bob Luther of Laconia, Colette Worsman, Bob Greemore, and Herb Vadney of Meredith, , Chuck Fink and Mike Sylvia of Belmont, Jane Cormier and Stephen Holmes of Alton, Richard Burhell of Gilmanton and Guy Comtois of Barnstead — in the majority. The five Democrats — Representatives David Huot and Beth Arsenault of Laconia, Lisa DiMartino of Gilford, Ian Raymond of Sanbornton, and Ruth Gulick of New Hampton — were joined Republican Dennis Fields of Sanbornton.
During the budget process, the convention reduced personnel costs for both union and non-union employees by more than $450,000. Funding for merit raises, together with the associated costs of payroll taxes and retirement contributions was eliminated. The convention stripped funding to defray a 7.3-percent increase in health insurance premiums. The bonuses for unused sick time and longevity of service were also struck from the budget.
Without the convention's approval of the cost items, the commissioners cannot ratify the collective bargaining agreements and county employees will work without a contract. However, under state law, in order to ensure employers an incentive to negotiate, the terms and conditions of the prior contract, including benefits that do not have a detailed cost attached to them, remain in effect during what is called "the status quo," and are contractual obligations, which must be funded.
Public employee union in N.H. do not have the right to strike in order to gain a new contract.
When the convention turned to the budget, Fields said "we've still got time to do it right and we have not done it right" and moved to adopt the budget presented by the commission back in December. When Worsman, who chairs of the convention, reframed his motion to read raising property taxes by 8.9-percent, as the commission's original budget required, Fields protested, prompting Cormier to shout "you're being disrespectful of the chair," to which Fields shot back "I'm telling it like it is and you don't like it."
Fields motion failed by the same eleven-to-six vote.
Burchell then questioned the obligation to fund the terms of the conditions of the union contracts, claiming that the New Hampshire Supreme Court, in a recent ruling involving the Laconia Police Commission, ruled otherwise. Commissioner Steve Nedeau and Norm O'Neil, the county human resource director, both explained that the decision had nothing to do with the funding of benefits in the absence of a contract.
"If I had my computer, I could show you I'm right," said Burchell.
"Go get your computer," Nedeau replied.
Huot offered a motion to fund contractual obligations by drawing $125,000 and transferring money from other line items to make up the balance. In opposing the motion, Cormier insisted "we are not bad people. We are good people. We are not mean people. We appreciate the county employees," she continued, "especially at the nursing home, where I volunteer." She said that the convention did not cut the employees benefits, but instead "level funded" them.
"You're making a budget out of ignorance and arrogance, not information," charged Commissioner Ed Philpot.
"This is our meeting," Worsman interrupted.
"I forgot about the rules," Philpot remarked, alluding to an exchange last week when Worsman confessed the convention had no rules and Philpot replied "so they're your rules."
When Huot's motion failed by an 11 to 6 margin, Raymond reminded the convention that "there are cost items in the agreements that must be funded and without knowing where the money is coming from the alternative could be layoffs." Vadney answered "that's up to the commission," prompting boos from the public attending, along with at least two charges of cowardice.
Commissioner John Thomas told the convention "if you take $500,000 out of the budget that we must fund, I will guarantee you will end up in court."
The convention adopted the line-item budget completed last week with the stipulation that the commissioners seek the approval of the Executive Committee of the convention to transfer funds between line items. It appropriates $26,184,616, which is offset by $12,085,456 in revenues from sources other than property taxes, leaving $14,099,160 to be raised by property taxes, an increase of 0.3-percent.
The convention reduced the total appropriations recommended by the commission by $651,980 and raised the revenues projected by the commission by $600,500, reducing the amount to be raised by property taxes by $1,252,480. Personnel costs represent approximately 70-percent of the reduced expenditures. On the revenue side, the convention drew $2,350,000 from the fund balance to offset property taxes. Originally the commission recommended applying $2.1-million, but subsequently suggested $2.6-million.