County officials will take budget case directly to towns

LACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners, citing ''a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding'' about the Belknap County budget, are preparing to go directly to local boards of selectmen and budget committees to explain the $27 million spending plan they are working to finalize over the next few weeks.
''We should be going out into the towns to tell them that spending levels are unchanged since 2008 despite increases in areas like health insurance and fuel oil. This is something people should get an understanding of,'' said Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) when the commissioners met Wednesday morning.
The commission is bracing for another contentious budget setting process with the Belknap County Convention, the 18-member group of legislators from the county which recently voted to go to court in a year-long battle with the commissioners over line item budget authority.
Last year the battle began at the organizational meeting of the convention at which there was a failed attempt to strip all funds for employee pay raises from the proposed budget, which was followed by a closed-door meeting of the Republican majority of the convention which developed a strategy for cutting the proposed budget through asserting control over line items, a move which was resisted by the commissioners, who ultimately transferred funds within departments to restore money to line items, including contracted benefits, which had been cut by the convention.
A budget presentation made by the commission last year included a chart showing that since 2009 the county has eliminated 37 full-time positions, going from 208 in 2009 to 171 in 2013, while increasing the number of part-time positions from 26 to 46.
The 2013 budget proposed expenditures of $26.8 million, which were not only less than the three previous budgets but also $2.9 million, or 9.9 percent, less than in 2008 and $2.2 million, or 7.6 percent, less than in 2009. However, the commission recommended augmenting revenues from sources other than property taxes by $2,100,000 compared to $3,750,000 the year before, which increased the amount to be raised by property taxes 8.9 percent. The convention reduced spending and adjusted revenues, trimming the tax commitment to $13.8 million, 1.1-percent less than the $14 million raised in 2012.
This year commissioners have developed a preliminary budget which will increase appropriations 2.4 percent to $27,013,237 and the amount to be raised by taxes 7.2-percent — to $14,887,599.
They will present their proposed budget to the convention next month, at which time a public hearing will be held, and plan to make their case at that hearing.
''Since the dialogue is more difficult lately, we'll have to have make the case in our presentation,'' said County Administrator Debra Shackett.
Philpot said ''we've had tremendous cutbacks in revenue across the board'' and pointed out that since 2008 revenues, exclusive of fund balance, have declined from $13.4 million to $10.1 million, almost 25 percent. Meanwhile, the tax commitment has risen from $14.3 million to a projected $14.9 million, an increase of 4.3 percent. In 2008, $2 million of fund balance was added to revenues and the commission recommends applying an equal amount in 2014.
''The state is taking a larger chunk of the money that was going to the counties.'' said Philpot, who doubted that a public information session on the budget solely for local officials would draw a large enough audience to have any impact on the budget discussion.
''We'll have to go the selectmen. And that will mean a lot of meetings,'' said Philpot.