Published Date Written by Roger AmsdenLACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners, struggling to come to terms with a 2013 county budget that is now $600,000 less than they requested, reviewed a proposed list of budget transfer requests when it met Wednesday morning that would limit the total number of layoffs in county departments to just two.
''These cuts will allow us to operate,'' said County Administrator Debra Shackett, whose proposal included cutting two full-time positions in the activities department at the Belknap County Nursing Home. She said that many long-needed items would have to be dropped from the recommended spending plan, including two new cruisers for the Sheriff's Department, along with maintenance projects.
Simply put, the Belknap County Convention did not allocate enough money to cover the level of health insurance the county is obligated to pay for each employee. If transfers are not allowed into the health insurance accounts, the primary option would appear to be layoffs to get the number of employees down to a level where each receives the required level of benefit.
No mention was made at the meeting as to how many layoffs would be necessary if the requested transfers are not approved by the convention.
Shackett told commissioners that she had worked all day Tuesday with County Finance Officer Glen Waring to come up with a list of spending reductions totaling $198,606 and budget transfers of $258,606 in the $26.2-million budget that was approved by the convention Monday night.
She said the recommendations were based on the premise that there would be no merit pay raises for anyone but that all contractually agreed upon benefits would remain intact.
Among the major transfers from the delegation's approved budget would be $48,107 from the $202,000 contingency fund, $25,000 from the Probation and Diversion Division for Drug and Alcohol Services, $20,000 from outside agencies; $17,500 from the County Attorney's office — for dropping a part-time position conversion to full-time, $15,000 in overtime from the Sheriff's Department, and $6,900 from the Corrections Department by elimination of the farm program.
Major transfer requests would include $68,315 to the Corrections Department, $52,000 of which would be for a full-time position; $56,650 for the Nursing Department at the County Home and $41,729 for county administration.
Shackett said that the the commissioners could make the transfer requests of the county convention next Monday if the delegation still intends to meet on that date.
But Commissioner Ed Philpot said that he would like to see the plan further fine-tuned before approaching the convention and wondered if there had been any approach to the unions representing county employees on whether their members would voluntarily accept contract modifications which would lower health care costs to the county, possibly through a short-term modified contract.
''Every option should be on the table on potential negotiations with the unions,'' said Philpot, who later said that he was reluctant to approach the convention as early as next week with any proposals for the transfer of funds.
The convention and commission have been at odds over who has line item control over each and every item in the county budget, with the delegation asserting that it does have that power while the commission believes that authority is limited to the broad subtotals that largely define departments, such as the nursing home.
Commission Chairman John Thomas has told the delegation that their actions may result in legal action over that issue.
Commissioner Steve Nedeau said that he, too, was loathe to approach the convention at this time. He added that he could envision a scenario in which the convention would say ''thank you for your input'' and then deny any requests for budget transfers, triggering widespread layoffs.
Shackett said that in the event the delegation denies the transfer requests a Plan B would be developed which would involve layoffs in order to stay within the individual line items of each department's budget.
Thomas said that would mean ''going down that nasty, rutty road'' of layoffs and more contention between the commission and delegation.
''It appalls me. I'm dismayed about the way the delegation has acted towards us. I've never seen anything like this in the 40 years I've been involved in government.''
Thomas said he was frustrated by what he sees as the delegation's determination to cut the budget without weighing the consequences or seeking input from the commission or the departments affected by the cuts.
''We couldn't even get them to consider the cost items in the contracts we negotiated with the unions until public pressure forced them to,'' said Thomas.
Shackett said that the convention had made changes to the budget which they know will cause layoffs but has adopted a stance of trying to keep their hands clean and place all of the blame on the commissioners.
''They want to cut money but don't want to be responsible for the cuts. They want to put that on you without giving you the ability to do your jobs,'' said Shackett, who said that in the case of the Department of Corrections, the convention had ''cut $52,000 without knowing what they were doing.''
Shackett said that she and Waring will work to come up with a so-called Plan B in the event the delegation won't approve the requested transfers.
''I have no confidence that the delegation is going to agree to anything we put forward,'' said Thomas.
Commissioners agreed to meet in a work session next Wednesday on how to manage the budget they have been presented with.