See you in court? Worsman says Belknap Commission clearly in violation of state law by transferring funds to pay for health insurance
Published DateLACONIA —The bell has rung for the final round of the struggle between the Belknap County Convention and the Belknap County Commission for control of the 2013 county budget as the commissioners have shuffled money within departments budgets to fund employee benefits the convention stripped from the budget.
When the commissioners met last week they approved the plan to fund the benefits, which are included in the collective bargaining agreements with the union representing county employees, recommended by County Administrator Debra Shackett and Finance Director Glen Waring. Anticipating the benefits would be funded, scheduled payments were made in January and February according to the monthly expenditure reports.
In effect, the commissioners threw down the gauntlet, by not only challenging the convention's opinion of its authority but also undoing the centerpiece of its budget.
On Tuesday, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), the convention chair, said that she was not aware of the commissioner's decision taken a week earlier. But, thumbing through state statutes, she declared that if the commissioners have made such payments, "they are in violation of RSA 24:15." Then she read the law stipulating that "no county commissioner, or elected or appointed county officers, shall pay, or agree to pay, or incur any liability for the payment of, any sum of money, for which the county convention has made no appropriation, or in excess of any appropriation so made except for the payment of judgments rendered against the county."
John Thomas of Belmont, who chairs the commission, said yesterday that "we are not going to sacrifice our employees if at all possible. If we have to go to court and let the courts decide this issue," he declared, that is what we will do."
Throughout the budget process the convention and the commission quarreled over their respective authority to allocate funds within various departments and functions. The Republican majority has insisted that the convention possesses the authority to rewrite the budget proposed by the commission by adding or deleting, raising or lowering appropriations for particular line items. In the course of managing the budget, the commission may only move funds between lines with the approval of the executive committee of the convention.
With equal resolve the commissioners claim that the authority of the convention is limited to itemizing appropriations in accord with the "Statement of County Appropriations and Revenue as Voted," or MS-42 form, signed by the chair and clerk of the convention and submitted to the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration. The MS-42 lists appropriations under 13 categories, encompassing departments and functions, and revenues under five categories. Within these categories, the commission contends it can distribute funds among different purposes without the approval of the convention as long as expenditures do not exceed the total appropriations of the particular categories.
Earlier this month the convention adopted a budget appropriating $26,184,616, or $651,980 less than initially recommended by the commission. The centerpiece of the convention's budget is the elimination of a merit increase for county employees, together with the associated costs of payroll taxes and retributions, along with bonuses for unused sick time and longevity of service. In addition, the convention stripped funding to defray the cost of 7.3-percent increase in health insurance premiums.
Meanwhile, the commission and the State Employees' Association (SEA) agreed to a new contract, but the convention refused to fund it, leaving employees to 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 specific cost attached to them, remain in effect during what is called "the status quo" period. In other words, the bonuses for unused sick time and longevity of service as well as the health insurance premiums, which the convention left unfunded, are contractual obligations, which must be paid for any employees who remain on staff. The only way to honor that contractual commitment and stay within the constraints on an inadequate budget line item would be to reduce force.
Instead, last week the commission agreed to reallocate more than $150,000 within eight departments to fund the benefits eliminated by the convention. In the meantime, by the end of February the commission authorized the expenditure of more than $47,000 in bonuses for unused sick time accrued in 2012 . Likewise, payments for health insurance premiums, which are billed monthly, included the increase.The longevity bonus is paid toward the close of the year.
Apart from restoring funding for the benefits, Shackett said that the commission also reallocated funds within several departments to increase budgets for employee training. As if to underline their point, the commissioners eliminated a line item and with it the funding added to the budget by the convention to reimburse the Register of Deeds for legal fees incurred in a dispute with the commission arising from her reluctance to comply with the recommendations of the independent auditors.
Thomas said that "from the get-go the leadership of the convention has ignored our contractual obligations to keep the status quo. From the get-go they have gone after our employees and their benefits." He explained that the only alternative to funding the benefits to honor contractual obligations would be to lay off a sufficient number of employees to meet the cost of benefits of those who remained. Lay offs, together with the cuts to the budget, he stressed would have a severe impact on county services.
Shackett said that with the adjustments made by the commission "there does not appear to be any need for lay-offs as a result of the budget process."