Belknap Convention votes to follow subcommittee budget process in most areas

LACONIA — After dividing over how to conduct the preparation of the 2014 county budget, the Belknap County Convention reached a compromise by which personnel costs, capital projects, fund balance and debt service will be addressed by the entire convention, acting as a committee of the whole, while a half-dozen subcommittees will review departmental budgets.

Controversy over the process arose in December, when the Belknap County Commission presented its recommended budget to the convention. Questioned by several members about how the convention would proceed, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the body, demurred, remarking "I haven't made that decision yet." Several members stressed the importance of convening traditional sub-committees to meet with department heads in order to assess the needs of the county before jumping to conclusions about appropriate levels of spending.

When the convention met this week the issue arose again. Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) was concerned that the commissioners failed to include the department requests in their budget, explaining that the convention could not make sound decisions without comparing the departments' requests with the commissions' recommendations.

Rep. Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton), who has challenged Worsman's leadership throughout her tenure, told her that "you have not helped us as a delegation" and "you do things on your own without the members of the delegation knowing." When Worsman and Rep. Bob Greemore (R-Meredith) tried to call Fields to order, he stood up from his chair, raised his arms in the air and invited Sheriff Craig Wiggin to arrest him. Fields joined the chorus urging Worsman to refer the budget to the sub-committees

Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) agreed with Huot that the sub-committees should meet with department heads and make recommendations on their budgets to the convention. However, he insisted that issues common to all departments, compensation and benefits, should be addressed by the convention "as a whole."

Meanwhile, Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) urged the convention to address personnel costs, introducing a motion to withhold any appropriation to increase compensation or expand benefits until the employees' contribution to their health insurance premiums is substantially increased. His motion was adopted by a vote of 11 to 7.

When the meeting was opened to the public, Wiggin rose to urge the convention against "throwing out a bottom line" without first meeting with department heads and "going through the process. "You clearly don't like what these three have done," he said, referring to the commissioner's recommended budget, then told them "look at their budget" and "educate yourselves. Your constituents," he continued, "want you to do your job."

With that the convention, by a margin of 11 to 7, voted to convene sub-committees while providing that compensation and benefits and other issues will be addressed by the entire convention.

All five Democrats — Representatives Huot and Beth Arsenault of Laconia, Ian Raymond of Sanbornton, Ruth Gulick of New Hampton and Lisa DiMartino of Gilford were joined by Republicans Vadney, Tilton, Bob Luther and Don Flanders of Laconia, Fields of Sanbornton, Stephen Holmes of Alton in the majority.

Worsman asked the sub-committees to complete their work in January and present their recommendations to the convention in February.