LACONIA — The Belknap County Convention yesterday voted to petition Belknap County Superior Court to resolve its dispute with the Belknap County Commission over their respective authorities in the preparation and management of the annual county budget.
The vote was 10 to 4, with all 10 of the Republican members present voting in favor and all four of the Democratic members present voting against. Those in the majority were Representatives Colette Worsman, who chairs the convention, Bob Greemore and Herb Vadney of Meredith, Jane Cormier and Stephen Holmes of Alton, Guy Comtois of Barnstead, Chuck Fink and Mike Sylvia of Belmont, Richard Burchell of Gilmanton and Frank Tilton of Laconia.
The four Democrats present were Lisa DiMartino of Gilford, Ruth Gulick of New Hampton, David Huot of Laconia and Ian Raymond of Sanbornton. Three Republicans — Don Flanders and Bob Luther of Laconia and Dennis Fields of Sanbornton — and one Democrat — Beth Arsenault of Laconia — were absent.
The vote followed another stormy meeting of the Executive Committee of the convention earlier in the afternoon, which was marked by disagreements between the committee members and county commissioners. When Tilton, the chairman of the Executive Committee, later reported to the full convention, Worsman voiced her frustration at wrestling with two budgets, one adopted by the convention but amended by the commission. "It is becoming," she said pausing, "disheartening."
Vadney then read a motion authorizing attorney David Horan, who has been retained by the convention, to seek a declaratory judgment "concerning the legitimacy or lack thereof of the Belknap County Commissioners rewriting the 2013 county budget by making multiple line transfers" without the review or approval of the Executive Committee. Furthermore, the motion authorized Horan "to take any and all other legal action he sees fit to protect the fiscal integrity of the County Delegation's original budget."
In August, when a similar motion failed by a single vote — 9 to 8 — Vadney and Tilton both voted not to litigate. Yesterday Tilton told his colleagues that he voted intending to allow 60 days for improvement in relations between the convention and the commission. "I don't see any," he remarked.
Throughout the year 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 13 categories accord with the "Statement of County Appropriations and Revenue as Voted," or MS-42 form, submitted to the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration. 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.
The issue came to a head when, after the convention stripped appropriations to fund bonuses for unused sick time and longevity of service as well as the employer share of a 7.3-percent increase in health insurance premiums from the 2013 budget, the commissioners shuffled money within departments budgets to fund employee benefits. Altogether the commission drew from 91 lines to fund 27 accounts the convention left empty.
The convention budget includes $10,000 for legal expenses, of which $7,061 has been spent. Raymond asked Worsman if the cost of litigation would be capped and if not, "where is the money going to come from?" She replied "I can't answer that question."
Meanwhile, Worsman, Tilton and Huot have introduced legislation to address the issue by clarifying the role of the convention and commission in the budget process. Worsman and Tilton would codify the position of the convention in statute while Huot's bill would authorize the commission to transfer funds between line items within accounts but require the approval of the convention for transfers of $1,000 or more between accounts.
The tensions overshadowed yesterday's meeting of the Executive Committee when the commissioners repeated their requests, which the committee denied in August and deferred two weeks ago, to transfer funds from contingency to defray overruns in the convention and corrections budgets.
The committee again unanimously refused to transfer $5,000 to pay the stipend and reimburse the mileage of members of the convention for attending meetings. The convention is projected to spend $20,025, over spending its line-item budget by 32 percent. Tilton has advised members not to expect either stipends or reimbursements for the remainder of the year.
County Administrator Debra Shackett reminded the committee of the statute requiring that members receive a stipend and reimbursement and later, when the full convention met, suggested members vote to forego both. The 14 members present agreed, but some were concerned that absentees might disagree, suggesting any vote should be unanimous. Worsman suggested polling the members by e-mail. Instead, the convention asked Shackett to draft a motion for the next meeting.
The Executive Committee also shelved the commission's request to transfer $52,000 to the Department of Corrections, which has coped with a swelling jail population by shunting inmates to facilities in other counties at a cost of $57 per day, not including the costs of providing them medical services and transporting them to court appearances. Shackett said that there was an outstanding bill of $31,000.
Commissioner Ed Philpot said the "budget crisis" arose from "a mistake in the budget," prompting Tilton to snap "that's not correct," to which Philpot replied "there are a lot of things around here that are not correct."
Worsman suggested that rather than transfer funds from contingency, the money be drawn from appropriations for fuel, which she said were over budgeted, sparking a heated exchange between Tilton and Philpot.
"I can't tell you today that because the projections look favorable, that we can transfer those funds," Philpot said. Tilton challenged him, noting that $265,000 was budgeted for fuel purchases, but only $90,000 had been spent through September. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do the math," he said, doubting that the balance of the appropriation would be spent in the next 10 weeks. Philpot insisted that major fuel purchases were in the offing and until they were made he could not ensure there would be sufficient funds. Ultimately the commissioners agreed to review the budget to determine if there was an alternative to drawing from contingency.
NOTE: The Belknap County Convention adopted a "Memorandum of Understanding" (MOU) with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. Suzanne Cagle, a field specialist with the cooperative extension, explained that the MOU expires every six years and by statute must be reaffirmed. She said that the service has undergone an extensive reorganization, including eliminating 37 positions statewide and reordering its priorities. The county funds approximately a third of the service's budget with federal and state monies providing the balance. Only Representative Jane Cormier (R-Alton) dissented. "It's full of regionalism," she said.