Comparing apples to oranges? County officials say lawmaker don't understand changes made in wake of 2008 embezzlement scandal

LACONIA — While there is no question that personnel costs represent the lion's share of the county budget, disagreement about the level and growth of compensation and benefits overshadows the frayed relationship between the Belknap County Convention and Belknap County Commission.

When the convention met this week Representatives Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), the chair, and Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) cited figures they claimed reflected unduly excessive compensation and generous benefits. Worsman said that the salaries of the six employees in the administration and finance departments have risen 91.7-percent since 2009 and projected a $500,000 increase in the employer contribution to health insurance premiums. Vadney suggested that the salaries of the nine department heads compared very favorably with their counterparts in the other nine counties and, in aggregate, exceeded the statewide average for the positions by $141,000.

County officials yesterday questioned these numbers, which they said overlooked significant changes in the structure of county government during the past five years.

In 2008, the county administrator, who also served as the finance director, pled guilty to embezzlement. That startling revelation prompted the commission, with guidance from the county's independent auditor and Primex, which provides risk management services to public entities, to restructure the county administration. County Administrator Deb Shackett said that at the time administrative functions were spread among the various departments, which operated independently and inconsistently, with much duplication of effort. In light of the financial improprieties, Shackett said that the primary concern was to strengthen internal controls, noting that the county employs 250 people and has an annual cash flow of $60 million. The auditor and Primex recommended centralizing administrative functions in a management structure akin to that of a private corporation and hiring both a human resources and (separate) finance director.

Shackett said that the cost of the administrative and financial functions in 2009 cannot be compared with those of 2013 because of the changed management structure. Formally there were four administrative and financial positions in 2009, but similar, often overlapping, functions were also performed by staff within the different departments. With the centralization of the functions and addition of two employees, the administrative and financial team has grown from four to six, so that any increase in cost reflects an increase in personnel, not the growth of individual salaries, as Worsman claimed.

Moreover, in the course of the restructuring, 41 full-time positions were eliminated to offset the hiring of the human resources and finance directors. Shackett said that the net reduction of 39 positions trimmed $2.3 million from the county budget in 2009.

Like Vadney, Shackett compared the salaries of the nine highest ranking county officials with their peers in other counties, acknowledging that not all counties have equivalent positions. Four county officials are elected — the treasurer, register of deeds, county attorney and county sheriff. Their salaries are set by the county convention. In Belknap County, the treasurer earns a stipend of $3,961 against the statewide average of $4,889. The register of deeds earns $68,415, more than any of her counterparts, compared to the average of $55,560. The county attorney earns $89,164, the second highest salary in the state, compared to the average of $80,455. The county sheriff earns $74,304, more than all his peers, compared to the average of $62,449.

The salaries of the department heads are set by the county commission. The superintendent of the Department of Corrections is paid $78,228, less than six of his ten counterparts and below the average of $86,995. The county administrator is paid $106,720, less than five others and the average of $111,689. The finance director earns $84,048, more than all but one of his peers and the average of $76,700. The human resource director is the highest paid in the state at $96,634, well above the average of $72,520. The nursing home administrator earns $90,000, less than six of his peers and below the average of $103,148.

Acknowledging that the cost of health insurance poses a challenge, Shackett pointed out that prior to 2009, employees contributed a flat dollar amount to the cost of their premiums, which virtually ensured that the county paid the entire cost of any annual increase. Since, the commission negotiated a percentage increase employees contribute between 5 percent and 6.5 percent and share the cost of an annual increase. Shackett said that in 2014 the cost of health insurance is projected to increase by $198,051 or 13.4-percent above what was spent in 2013.

Shackett said that the commission has renegotiated the health care plan several times and a health benefits review team, consisting of representatives of both management and labor, meets regularly in an effort to control the cost of health insurance. She also noted that the county benefits package, unlike those many municipalities, does does include life insurance, dental insurance or either short or long-term disability insurance.

According to data prepared by Finance Director Glen Waring, after adjusting for the a change in accounting for the nursing home in 2011 and the expenditure of federal stimulus funds,in 2011 and 2012, the total appropriation for operations has risen from $26,172,237 in 2008 to a projected $26,570,997 in 2014, an increase of 1.5 percent.