LACONIA — Representatives Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the Belknap County Convention, and Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) delivered a one-two punch at county personnel costs when the convention began considering the 2014 county budget last night.
Worsman opened the meeting by charging that the Belknap County commissioners, by shuffling appropriations authorized by the convention, "overspent salary and benefit lines to the detriment of maintenance and capital" then "falsely blamed" the convention for underfunding routine maintenance and capital projects.
After the convention stripped funding for sick day and longevity bonuses as well as increased health insurance premiums from the 2013 budget, the commissioners drew funds from some 90 lines to fund what they believe are contractual obligations under the collective bargaining agreements with the State Employees Association local, which represents employees of the Corrections Department, Sheriff's Department and Nursing Home.
Looking ahead, Worsman warned of a "financial meltdown ahead for Belknap County" unless steps are not taken to rein in personnel costs. She conceded that since 2008 the number of employees has been reduced by nearly a fifth, but highlighted the 62-percent increase in the employer share of health insurance premiums. "Remaining on this track," she said, "will be a trainwreck for Belknap County taxpayers." She said that health insurance costs are projected to climb by $500,000 in 2014, when they will represent 12-percent of the county budget.
Next Worsman turned to "the ballooning salary cost of the administration and finance departments," where she claimed the compensation for six employees has risen 91.7 percent since 2009. These departments, she said, "have not shared the financial challenges of other county workers. Indeed, they have thrived." Moreover, she noted that the actual salary expenditures in the administration and finance departments are expected to exceed what the convention budgeted by "a whopping $73,000."
Worsman said that the commissioners struck the $554,000 to fund the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association from the 2014 county budget in favor of billing the municipalities directly, but rather than heed the expressed wishes of the cities and towns to reduce the county by an equal amount replaced it with more spending. The commissioner's recommended budget, she said, was equal to that of 2010 when the county received $2.7 million in federal stimulus funds.
"On behalf of our constituents it would be irresponsible to affirm this budget," she declared.
"The money is in the people," added Vadney, riffing on Worsman's theme. "That's where the money is."
Vadney said that he compared the salary of department heads with those of their counterparts in the other nine counties and found "we are paying our managers fairly well." The nine positions, he continued, cost $774,000, which is $141,000 more than the average for the same positions in the other nine counties.
Vadney offered a motion to withhold any increase in the appropriation for salaries, wages and benefits until there is a substantial increase in the employees' contribution to health insurance premiums and a thorough review of compensation and benefits. He explained that the base line would be the appropriation for compensation and benefits in 2013 authorized by the convention, not the actual amounts expended by the commission.
"The commissioners have treated us as though we're not serious," he said. "On this we are serious."
Vadney's motion carried by 11 votes to 7, with Republican Representatives Bob Luther of Laconia and Dennis Fields of Sanbornton joining the five Democrats — Representatives David Huot and Beth Arsenault of Laconia, Ruth Gulick of New Hampton, Ian Raymond of Sanbornton and Lisa DiMartino of Gilford in opposition.
Representative Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) suggested the convention adopt a target of a 1.5 percent increase in the amount to be raised by property taxes in preparing the 2014 budget.
His proposal drew a sharp response from Sheriff Craig Wigging, in the audience, who reminded the members of the convention that he was elected by all the voters of the county. He cautioned the convention against "laying down the gauntlet" and "throwing out a bottom line." Instead of saying "here's your money, make it work," he urged the convention to meet with department heads and "educate yourselves."
"You're talking out of both sides of your mouth," Wiggin remarked. "You say you don't want to micro-manage, but clearly that's just what you want to do." He sat down amid a round of applause from the crowd of more than 50 attending the meeting.