LACONIA — The Belknap County Convention held the first of four scheduled budget review sessions last night and members spent nearly as much time dealing with philosophy and wrangling over procedures as they did talking about any parts of the budget.
All of the county department heads were on hand for the three-hour meeting, which ended up covering only the outside agency and administrative, finance and IT department budgets, the only ones so far reviewed by the convention's subcommittees.
The evening opened with Convention Chairperson Colette Worsman (R-Meredith) correcting minutes from the last convention meeting and then sparring with Reps. Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton) and Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton) over the powerpoint presentation she had made at that meeting regarding administrative salaries and health insurance issues.
Gulick asked Worsman, ''Where do you get your authority to have your own personal opinion presented in that manner'' while Fields said he was ''curious to why you keep making your own budget up?'' rather than working on the budget as presented by the Belknap County Commissioners.
Worsman told Gulick that she used "the prerogative of the chairman'' when she decided to make the presentation and told Fields that he was free to use the commissioner's budget or hers, which she said was prepared in order to add pertinent information.
Jane Cormier (R-Alton) defended Worsman and said that she thought that she saw personal animus at work in the criticism of the chairperson.
Worsman then proceeded to ask each member of the convention ''what you'd like to bring home to the taxpayers as a tax rate?'' That prompted a lengthy debate over how to proceed on the budget.
Rep. Lisa DiMartino (D-Gilford) said she wouldn't set a number but preferred to look at the needs of the county first and then work from there to the tax rate. Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) said that he sees a projected 8 percent increase which he thinks is too high and that ''what we can afford is the bottom line'' and said that he thought a 1 1/2 percent increase in the total appropriation is the most the county can afford.
Fields questioned how the budget could be cut by a percentage amount without knowing what would be cut and DiMartino questioned Vadney's number on the projected increase and asked county commissioners, who said that the appropriation request was up 4 percent with expenditures up by seven-tenths of a percentage point and revenues down by 3.1 percent.
Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) said a $533,000 reduction in spending from last year should be factored in now that the county is no longer paying the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association assessment for Belknap County Towns. But county commissioners maintained that was simply a pass through of funds which are now being paid directly by the towns.
Rep. Ian Raymond said that he wouldn't want to take a vote on any part of the budget until he knew how much the convention would be paying for its lawsuit in its dispute with the commissioners over budget authority and urged the convention not to make cuts without regard to consequences.