Commission sees handwriting on wall; towns will start paying for mutual fire aid directly

LACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners say they may find themselves with no option other than eliminating funding for the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association from next year's county budget.
They discussed the funding issue yesterday, after receiving a copy of a letter Center Harbor selectmen had sent to the association informing the organization that it would pay its annual assessment for 2014 directly rather than through the county.
Commissioners noted that Meredith selectmen have already voted to pay directly to the association and that Gilford appears set to go the same route.
The current county budget has an appropriation of $554,037 for the LRMFAA, $22,457 of which is from Center Harbor, which would have saved $4,721 had it paid directly rather than having the assessment paid through the county. Meredith, which was assessed $100,545, would have paid $25,445 less, and Gilford, whose share was $88,631, would have seen a reduction of $14,326 with direct payment.
That's because the formula used to assess county taxes is different from the one used by the LRMFAA to bill non-Belknap County communities who are members of the 36-community mutual fire aid association.
The LRMFAA calculates the shares of the 25 municipalities in Carroll, Grafton, Merrimack and Stafford counties and bills them directly according to a formula consisting of the sum of a fixed charge of 10-percent of the total assessment plus charges based on the municipalities' total property values and population.
However, Laconia and the 10 towns of Belknap County are treated differently. Instead of billing the eleven municipalities directly, their total share of the LRMFAA budget is included in the county budget and apportioned among them according solely to their share of the total assessed valuation of the county.
In the past, many Belknap County Fire Chiefs have supported having the mutal aid bill included in county taxes because they candidly did not want to carry the extra expense in their own town budgets, where it would be more obvious to taxpayers.
''We have no say in the matter. The selectmen have voted to pay directly,'' said Commission Chairman John Thomas of Belmont, ''It's a service the county has provided, but every budget cycle we keep taking heat for it.''
''At what point do we say we're not going to do it?'' asked Commissioner Steve Nedeau of Meredith.
County Administrator Debra Shackett said that the mutual aid group has been talking with boards of selectmen about the issue and that no matter what happened some towns would benefit financially while others would not if the county stops funding mutual aid altogether.
She said that it appears there is no way that the county can carry only a portion of the mutual aid assessment in its budget, because there's no way that funds to pay for it wouldn't also come from towns which want to pay their assessment directly.
''There's no way to please everybody. If Lakes Region Mutual Aid costs were in the local budgets there would be some oversight. Currently there is no direct scrutiny by taxpayers.'' said Shackett.
Commissioner Ed Philpot of Laconia recalled that when he proposed cutting the mutual aid item from the county budget about five years ago concern was expressed that ''if it's not run through the county that means the voters can turn it down.''
He said that from his standpoint ''when one withdraws, they all do.''
Thomas indicated that he didn't see any way to continue mutual aid as a line in the county budget.
''It's all or nothing,'' said Thomas.
If the appropriation for the LRMFAA are stripped from the county budget, the eleven municipalities, like the other 25 members of the association, would be billed directly. This year they would pay the same total amount, $554,037, but the shares would be distributed differently.
Billed through the county tax, Alton would pay $81,048, Barnstead $27,350, Belmont $34,381, Center Harbor $22,457, Gilford $88,631, Gilmanton $25,680, Laconia $106,731, Meredith $100,545, New Hampton $17,528, Sanbornton $22,072 and Tilton $27,614.
Billed directly, according to the formula applied by the LRMFAA, four towns would pay less; Alton would save $18,922, Center Harbor $4,721, Gilford $14,326 and Meredith $25,445. The other seven would pay more: Barnstead $9,206, Belmont $18,290, Gilmanton $6,237, Laconia $17,606, New Hampton $3,372, Sanbornton $4,527 and Tilton $4,176.