Acrimony over county budget process picks up right where it left off

LACONIA — Last evening the Belknap County budget process for 2014 began where the one for 2013 ended, amid acrimony and confusion between the county convention and county commission.

County Administrator Debra Shackett presented the $26.6 million budget recommended by the commissioners, noting that it would increase the total appropriation by 0.7 percent increase and the total tax commitment by 4.0 percent. Calling the budget "a very bare-bones plan," she said that expenditures in 2014 would closely match those of 2008 "with virtually no tax increase since then." Meanwhile, she continued the cost-of-living has risen 10 percent. As a result, she concluded that the "the nominal wage increases included in this budget (a 1.6-percent cost-of-living adjustment and 3 percent step increase for eligible employees) will not come close to making up for the decreasing take home pay for our employees over the past three years."

Shackett said that the commissioners recommended drawing $2 million from the undesignated fund balance (reserve fund), $350,000 less than last year, to reduce the amount to be raised by property taxes. Recalling that the commissioners aimed to maintain a fund balance of between $5 million and $6 million to ensure the county's credit rating stay healthy, she described the projected fund balance of $2.2 million as "dismal." A string of tight budgets, she feared, would leave the county with little or not fund balance, which would "result in a significant tax rate increase and the credit rating at an all time low."

Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), who chairs the executive committee of the convention, challenged the assertion that the proposed budget represented an increase of 0.7 percent in appropriations and 4.0 percent in taxes as "deceptive." He explained that in 2013 the budget included an appropriation of more than $553,463, representing the cost of the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association (LRMFAA) to the 11 municipalities of the county. This year the appropriation has been struck from the county budget and the LRMFAA will bill the municipalities directly. Adjusting for the difference, he said that the cost of providing the same services next year as this year would rise by 2.8 percent and the tax commitment by 8.2 percent.

Shackett called the charge of deception "rude and offensive," but when Tilton pressed the point and repeated his calculation she insisted "the commissioners had no intent to deceive."

Commissioner Steve Nedeau of Meredith calmed the troubled waters by thanking Tilton for his part in removing the appropriation for the lRMFAA from the county budget.

"I'm wondering," said Representative Jane Cormier (R-Alton), "if the budget process is the same one we had before."

"I hope not," Shackett remarked.

Just how the convention intends to handle the commissioner's recommended budget is not at all clear, Representative Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, announced she intended to convene a "budget hearing" on January 7 at 5 p.m.

Shackett asked Worsman if she expected the administrative staff and department heads to assist when the convention met. "I do not know at this point," Worsman answered.

But, Worsman asked Shackett to provide the payroll, with salaries, wages and benefits, for each department. "What is the purpose of your request? asked Representative Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton), who cautioned her against micro-managing. "It's information I would like," Worsman replied.

"It's all about the salaries," said Gulick. "That's what I think and that's what I'm afraid of."

Rep. Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton), who is serving his 14th term in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, asked if the convention would first divide into sub-committees to review the budgets of the county departments then present their findings to the convention as it has done in the past.

"I haven't made that decision yet," Worsman replied.

Fields insisted that the sub-committees should be convened then report to the convention. When Worsman repeated that the convention should meet in January, Fields said "you're doing a disservice by not having our sub-committees do their job." He charged that a year ago Worsman derailed the budget by holding a caucus of the Republican members of the convention to begin the process and warned against taking the same course again.

"Enough, Dennis," Worsman said. "Enough!"

"I'm not going to toe the line," Fields shot back. "I will not be a puppet."

Tilton argued that salaries, wages and benefits, which are common to all departments, could be addressed most effectively by the entire convention rather than in sub-committees. He said that sub-committees could return with inconsistent recommendations that the convention would have to reconcile.

Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia), also suggested convening the sub-committees, explaining that it was an opportunity to plumb the differences between what the department heads requested and what the commissioners recommended. "We are responsible for doing what is necessary," he said, "and sometimes that's hard to swallow." He reminded his colleagues that in preparing a budget they must "look beyond November" by addressing the needs of the county and not deferring necessary expenditures, especially capital projects.

However a motion to begin the process with sub-committees failed by vote of eight-six, with four members absent. Representative Don Flanders (R-Laconia) then moved to meet in January as Worsman proposed and, after a general discussion of the budget, divide into sub-committees to meet with the department heads. The motion carried unanimously by a voice vote.