Published DateLACONIA — Last month, after weeks of bickering over their respective authority over the county budget, the Belknap County Convention and Belknap County Commission left the dispute to their attorneys, who have since fired their opening shots.
Throughout the budget process the Republican majority of the convention has insisted that the convention can rewrite the budget proposed by the commission by adding or deleting, raising or lowering appropriations for particular line items. And, in the course of managing the budget, the commission may only reallocate funds from one line to another 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 lines without the approval of the convention as long as expenditures do not exceed the total appropriations of the particular categories.
On June 17, attorney David Horan, representing the convention, wrote to John Thomas, chairman of the commission reminding him that in March, when the convention adopted a line-item budget, it resolved "that all funds appropriated for all line items in 2013 shall be non-transferable without prior approval of the Executive Committee or full delegation."
The centerpiece of the convention's budget was the elimination of a merit increase for county employees, together with the associated costs of payroll taxes and retirement contributions, 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.
But, the commission, claiming it was bound by its collective bargaining agreement with the union representing county employees, reallocated 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 included the increase. The longevity bonus is paid toward the close of the year. Apart from restoring funding for the benefits, the commission also reallocated funds within several departments to increase budgets for employee training.
Writing to Thomas, Horan noted that the commission had changed the amounts the convention budgeted in 91 separate line items and added dollar amounts to lines the convention left blank without seeking the approval of either the convention or its Executive Committee. He cited state law which prohibits elected county officials and appointed county officers from paying money for any purpose for which the county convention has made no appropriation. Noting the payments made for benefits and bonuses for which the convention made no appropriated, Horan wrote "This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed immediately!"
Horan continued to request that the commission "immediately cease spending money from budget lines where zero money was appropriated, comply with the budget adopted by the convention and submit written requests to the Executive Committee for all transfers. He noted that the Cxecutive Committee was meeting on June 24 and asked the commissioners to reply before the meeting.
Yesterday, nearly a month later, Sharon Cuddy Somers of Donahue, Tucker & Ciandella, representing the commission, responded without yielding an inch. "Having reviewed your points," she began, "I believe and have advised the commission that your conclusions are not supported by New Hampshire law and that . . . the commissioners have acted correctly, prudently and legally."
Somers claimed that the authority of the convention was confined to appropriating funds and does not extend to "oversight of expenditures." Any other interpretation, she said, would run contrary to both "the authority of the commissioners and . . . common sense." The oversight claimed by convention, she concluded, "would cripple the abiulity of the commissioners to manage on a day to day basis and would gut the managerial power of the commissioners."
Somers grounded her argument in the "statement of appropriations," or MS-42, and assured Horan that the commissioners would seek approval from the convention before transferring funds between the categories on the form. "What this means," she wrote, "is that they will continue to expend funds within the appropriation categories on a day to day basis consistent with their managerial obligations." In keeping with this position, Somers denied that the commissioners had spent money where none was appropriated.
Somers closed by remarking that commissioners wish "to move past this current impasse" and to that end would like for the chairman, vice-chairman and clerk of the convention, together with one of its five Democratic members, to meet with County Administrator Debra Shackett and Finance Director Glen Waring. The meeting, she said, would provide opportunity "for casual discussion and further explanation" of the differences between the convention and the commission.
Both attorneys have copied the correspondence to Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice.