Published DateLACONIA —The Belknap County Convention yesterday voted, on the recommendation of its chairperson, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), to retain an attorney to resolve the differences between the convention and county commission over their respective authority over the budget.
The vote on a motion offered by Rep. Bob Greemore (R-Meredith) carried nine-to-seven. In addition, to Greemore and Worsman seven of Republicans — Representatives Richard Burchell of Gilmanton, Jane Cormier and Stephen Holmes of Alton, Michael Sylvia and Chuck Fink of Belmont, Frank Tilton of Laconia and Herb Vadney of Meredith — formed the majority. Three Republicans — Representatives Don Flanders and Bob Luther of Laconia and Dennis Fields of Sanbornton — joined four Democrats — Representatives David Huot of Laconia, Ruth Gulick of New Hampton, Lisa DiMartino of Gilford and Ian Raymond of Sanbornton — in opposition. One Democrat —Representative Beth Arsenault of Laconia — and one Republican — Guy Comtois of Barnstead — were absent.
The decision followed close on the heels of a meeting of the Executive Committee of the convention, which confirmed that the commission has shuffled money within departmental budgets to fund employee benefits the convention stripped from the 2013 budget as well as withdrawn funds from the contingency account without the approval of the committee.
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.
Worsman told the convention that the commission has no intention of confining expenditures to line item appropriations prescribed by the convention. "It has become quite clear that unless we settle this issue, we will have created a situation that will never be resolved." She said that she had approached the Attorney General, who declined to represent the convention, and spoken with a number of private attorneys and state representatives, one of whom recommended attorney David Horan of Manchester.
Horan, a former assistant attorney general and assistant Hillsborough County attorney, she said, told her that there was "no real question about the authority of the convention to approve all transfers among line items." She said that he was willing to represent the convention.
Raymond, recalling that the authority to retain and pay legal counsel to represent the county is vested with the commission, asked "who will pay him?" Worsman replied that $10,000 has been appropriated for legal expenses and there are legal means of compelling the commissioners to pay the bill, an apparent reference to a so-called "writ of mandamus," or court order requiring a public official to do his duty. "It is the responsibility of the county to pay the fee of an attorney representing the convention," she said.
The prospect of the convention and commission dueling in court arose after another stormy meeting at which members of the Executive Committee again charged the commission and administration of obscuring expenses. As requested by the committee, Finance Director Glen Waring presented a report of miscellaneous revenues collected in 2012 together with expenditures for training and housekeeping for the same year.
Tilton, who chairs the committee, was dissatisfied with the level of detail, insisting that along with the cost and purpose of the expenditures the report should identify the venues and content of conferences and workshops attended by county employees. Worsman asked that each expense be accompanied by an explanation of how the training benefitted the taxpayers.
Commissioner Steve Nedeau (R-Meredith) explained that each week the commission reviews a stack of invoices before authorizing the expenditures. When Tilton persisted Nedeau told him "If you want that kind of information, you should have been a county commissioner." Knowing that lost his bid for the commission to Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) in 2010, Nedeau added "But that didn't work out for you, did it?"
Cormier stressed that the convention was elected to represent and protect the taxpayers and wondered why its questions were met with "angry commissioners and a defiant administration." She insisted that the questioning was not disrespectful or intended to disparage the commission.
Her remarks prompted Commissioner John Thomas (R-Belmont) to refer to a letter harshly critical of the work of the commission printed in local newspapers over Worsman's signature.
When the committee turned to the first quarter expenditures of the 2013 budget Tilton noted that the commission withdrew money from the contingency "fund" without the express permission of the Executive Committee, County Administrator Deb Shackett said that the county does not have a contingency "fund", but simply an contingency "account" in its budget.
"This is a contingency fund. There is illegal activity here," said Worsman.
"You wonder why we're angry, when you say things like that," Thomas replied.
"You deserve it," countered Worsman.
"Do you want to take that on, lady?" asked Thomas.
After the Executive Committee meeting, the full convention convened to consider the commission's request for a supplemental appropriation of $200,000 to increase the capacity of the nursing home to accept Medicare patients and provide skilled services, which are projected to generate $400,000 in revenue.
Mathew Logue, director of the nursing home, explained that Medicare pays 14-percent above cost for occupational, physical and speech therapy as well as pharmaceuticals laboratory work and X-rays. In the past, less than 4 percent of nursing home residents have been Medicare patients. In the first three months of this year the proportion has risen to nearly ten-percent, representing $106,000 of revenue in January, $105,000 in February and $134,000 in March.
Logue said that because the average stay of Medicare patients is about 30 days, they can be admitted without unduly restricting capacity for residents on Medicaid. Currently Medicaid resident occupy 65 of the 94 beds while 9 are occupied by Medicare patients and 6 by private paying residents. Stressing that the role of the nursing home is to care for those who have no alternative, Logue emphasized that "nobody is being turned away," noting that the home has been 95 percent occupied since January.
Since the number of Medicare patients was already rising, Logue told the convention that without the supplemental appropriation the program would have to be curtailed for lack of sufficient funding in the budget.
Worsman said that she was reluctant to authorize a supplemental appropriation. "To give the commission $200,000 to move around makes me very uneasy."
But, Flanders said "we should maximize the use of the nursing home to reduce our costs and produce income." His motion to schedule a public hearing on the supplemental appropriation and asked Logue to prepare a formal written proposal carried with only one dissenting vote.