TILTON — John Thomas, chairman of the Belknap County Commission, pitched the commissioner's 2014 county budget proposal to the Board of Selectmen yesterday, kicking off a campaign that will take the commissioners to all 11 municipalities in the county in the coming weeks.
Recalling the struggle between the commission and Belknap County Convention over the 2013 budget, Thomas told the selectmen that he anticipated "the process will be very tough" again this year.
Thomas said that in a series work sessions the commissioners trimmed appropriations to $26.6 million, an increase of 0.7 percent, while limiting the increase in the amount to be raised by taxes to 4 percent. "We eliminated all capital projects but one," he said, "but we could not pare it down more than that." He stressed that "taking good, hard-working people and putting them on the street is the last thing we want to do in this economic climate."
Personnel costs, Thomas said, have risen in all county departments. He explained that the budget includes a 1.6 percent cost-of-living adjustment and a 3 percent step raise for eligible employees. At the same time, the cost of health insurance premiums will rise 13 percent while the employee contribution will remain at 5 percent or 6 percent.
County administrator Debra Shackett said that negotiations with the union representing county employees, who are currently working without a contract, are underway.
Noting that the Department of Corrections is "understaffed as it is," Thomas said that the commissioners scrapped plans to add three correctional officers. One part-time position in the restorative justice program was converted to full-time, he said in anticipation of limiting the growth or reducing the size of the inmate population to address rising costs, particularly the expenses incurred in transporting prisoners to other county jails.
At the nursing home, Shackett said that the commissioners decided against filling four positions, two — a nurse and a cook — that have been vacant for some time and two in the activities program opened by recent resignations. She emphasized that the reduction in staff would not impact the quality of care, explaining that the facility has gone without two of the positions for most of the year with no adverse effects. two of the positions have been . "We've done without two of the positions for most of the year.
Pat Consentino, who chairs the Selectboard, reminded Thomas that the appropriation for the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association (LRMFAA), which was $553,463 in 2013, has been stripped from the 2014 county budget. Consequently, she said that the actual increase in both the operating budget and tax commitment is greater than represented.
Moreover, Scott Davis, a Tilton resident, pointed out that since the LRMFAA will bill the 11 municipalities in the county directly, using a formula that includes both their property value and total population, Tilton's share will increase by more than $4,000.
Selectman Katherine Dawson asked about the progress of planning a new jail. Thomas said that the commissioners, together with a jail planning committee, were continuing the planning process, but indicated that no major proposal was in the offing. Instead, the commission is preparing a request to $3.5 million to address immediate needs, including $1.6 million for a temporary housing unit of 48 beds and $1 million to replace the HVAC system, which was eliminated from the budget. Another $500,000 would be applied to a schematic design of a new facility.
Last night the commission met with the New Hampton Selectboard and next week will visit Belmont, Gilmanton and Gilford.