3 bills drafted to address county budget spat

CONCORD — Three members of the Belknap County Convention — Representatives Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), and David Huot (D-Laconia) — have introduced legislation to address the county budget process, which has put the convention and commission at daggers drawn for the past year.

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 the categories prescribed the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration (DRA). 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, earlier this year, after the convention stripped appropriations to fund employee benefits, the commissioners shuffled money within departments budgets to fund them. Altogether the commission drew from 91 lines to fund 27 accounts the convention left empty.

The convention retained an attorney in anticipation of bringing suit against the commission, but has yet to initiate litigation. Although the convention must approve appropriations, the commission alone is authorized to approve expenditures. Moreover, the commission has claimed the exclusive authority to retain and compensate legal counsel to represent the county and its officials, including the convention, and consequently has refused to authorize payment of legal fees incurred by the convention.

Of the three bills, House Bill 1373, sponsored by Worsman, who chairs the convention, is the most aggressive and expansive. The bill would apply solely to Belknap County. It would affirm the authority of the convention to itemize appropriations "in detail, including specific lines within each department," and require the commissioners to seek the approval of the executive committee to transfer funds in any amount either between specific lines within a single department or from one department to another.

To overcome the dispute arising from the retention and payment of legal counsel, Worsman includes an enforcement provision in her bill. The bill provides that if any of its provisions "is reasonably believed to have been violated and it becomes necessary for the county convention to seek court enforcement, the commissioners shall timely pay the convention's incurred legal fees. Furthermore, if the court finds the commissioners in violation, her bill stipulates that "they shall be forthwith removed from office for official misconduct."

The bill is co-sponsored by Representatives Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead), Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton), Bob Greemore (R-Meredith), Michael Sylvia (R-Belmont) and Charles Fink (R-Belmont).

House Bill 1120, sponsored by Tilton and co-sponsored by Representative Herb Vadney (R-Meredith), simply mirrors the first section of Worsman's bill pertaining to the authority of the convention to itemize all appropriations and, through its executive committee, to approve all transfers within or between departments. Unlike Worsman, Tilton provides no mechanism for enforcement nor does he address the authority of the convention to retain legal counsel or the obligation of the commission to pay fees it may incur.

Huot, a Democrat, the prime sponsor of House Bill 1370 takes a different approach that's more in keeping with the position of the commission. His bill requires the convention to itemize appropriations according to the "uniform chart of functions and account numbers" prescribed by DRA and report them on the form specified by the agency, together with the "master budget showing the itemized appropriations approved by the county convention." Huot provides that the convention may require authority from the executive committee to transfer all or part of any appropriation, except for transfers within an account.

Huot's bill also requires that the executive committee of the convention include at least one member of the minority party represented in the convention, unless, of course, all the members of the convention belong to the same party.

Representatives Lisa DiMartino (D-Gilfoird) and Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton) are co-sponsors of Huot's bill.

All three bills have been referred to the House Municipal and County Government Committee chaired by Representative Marjorie Porter (D-Hillsborough). None of the 18 representatives from Belknap County, who compose the convention, serve on the committee.