Raises or layoffs? Lawmakers trying to push county govt. into a corner

LACONIA — In preparing the 2014 county budget the Belknap County Convention appears to have embarked on a course that will present the county Board of Commissioners with the awkward choice of not funding a pay raise and contractual benefits for county employees or laying off enough employees to increase the pay and provide the benefits to those who remain.

The prospect has heightened anxiety among the some 125 employees of the Corrections Department, Sheriff's Department and Nursing Home represented by the State Employees Association. At the same time, the remaining 28 non-union county employees entitled to organize have petitioned to form a collective bargaining unit represented by the Teamsters.

When the convention met earlier this week it adopted a motion offered by Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) 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.

Last year the convention pursued the same goal of reducing personnel costs by a different route. At the outset of the budget process, the convention, by a vote of 10 to 8, stripped the commission of all authority over appropriations by claiming the authority to add or remove, raise or lower particular line items for itself. On the strength of this resolution, the convention stripped funding for bonuses for unused sick time and longevity of service along with funds to pay the employer's share of a 7.3 percent increase in the cost in health insurance premiums from the budget.

The commissioners rejected the convention's reading of its budgetary authority. They insisted that the authority of the convention is confined to 21 appropriations divided among nine broad categories: general government, public safety, corrections, county nursing home, human services, cooperative extension, economic development, debt service and capital outlay.

The categories do not correspond to line items, but instead designate total appropriations for the various county departments and particular purposes. Within these categories, the commissioners claimed the authority to move funds between lines as operations required so long as the expenditures did not exceed the appropriation for the specific departments or purposes.

Furthermore, the commissioners believed that the county was bound by its past collective bargaining agreements to fund both the two bonuses and its share of health insurance premiums. In New Hampshire public employee contracts are governed by the so-called "doctrine of status quo," which stipulates that when collective bargaining agreements expire their terms and conditions, except for so-called cost items, remain in effect pending ratification of a new agreement. On the flip side, in New Hampshire, public employee unions do not enjoy the right the strike.

The county's union contracts expired at the end of 2012.

Step raises, or new rates of pay specified by a salary schedule for an additional year of service, qualify as cost items and are not awarded in lieu of a new contract. But, since the bonuses and health insurance are considered defined benefits, without an assigned dollar value, the commissioners believed they were obliged to fund them. They shuffled funds within the departmental budgets approved by the convention to restore the funding for the two bonuses and health insurance premiums.

The convention responded by contemplating litigation. Attorneys representing the convention and the commission have swapped legal arguments, no lawsuits have been filed. Meanwhile, Rep. Collette Worsman (R-Meredith) and Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) introduced legislation that would codify the budgetary authority claimed by the convention in statute. The bills have been referred to the House Municipal and County Government Committee, but as yet hearings have not been scheduled.

This year, with neither a legal nor legislative resolution of their differences over budgetary authority with the commission in sight, the convention, as expressed by the adoption of Vadney's motion, appears bent on cutting the bottom-line of the budget to deny funding for the wage increase and benefits package recommended by the commission.

The budget recommended by the commission includes a 1.6-percent cost-of-living adjustment and three-percent "step" increase for eligible employees. The commissioners again funded bonuses for unused sick days and length of service as well as the increase in the employer share of health insurance premiums.

The commissioners' budget projects an increase of $560,243 or 4 percent in the amount to be raised by property taxes. When the convention met this week, Tilton suggested setting a target to reduce the percentage increase in the tax commitment to 1.5 percent, which would require trimming about $352,000 from the commissioners' budget. That is about equal to the funding for pay raises, bonuses and health insurance premiums that the convention eliminated from the budget a year ago.

Without sufficient appropriations to fully fund bonuses and health insurance premiums for all employees, the commissioners could be compelled to shrink the workforce and apply the savings to the benefits to the remaining employees. Likewise, employees represented by the SEA, who are currently working without a contract, could be faced with choosing between contributing a greater share to the cost of their health insurance and accepting reductions in the workforce.

So far the commission has steadfastly resisted the prospect of lay-offs. Last month John Thomas of Belmont, told the Laconia City Council that he could not contemplate putting county employees out of work in such a fragile economy, where unemployment would impose severe hardship on them and their families.