CONCORD — With the Belknap County Convention and Belknap County Commission in the midst of preparing the 2014 county budget, the H.H. House Municipal and County Government Committee held public hearings this week on legislation intended to resolve the dispute between the two that has riled county government for the past year.
Two members of the convention — Representatives Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, and Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), chairman of its Executive Committee, — introduced bills to clarify the authority of the convention and the commission over the budget. John Thomas, the chairman of the commission spoke against both bills.
The Republican majority of the convention insists that the convention can rewrite the budget recommended by the commission by adding or deleting, raising or lowering appropriations for particular line items. Moreover, they claim that any reallocation of funds within the budget must be approved by the Executive Committee of the convention.
On the other hand, the commissioners claim that the convention can only itemize appropriations among departments and purposes and that the commission can shuffle funds between lines within these categories without the approval of the convention.
Both bills would apply solely to Belknap County and codify the budgetary authority claimed by the majority of the convention. Of the two, House Bill 1373, sponsored by Worsman is the most aggressive and expansive.
Worsman's bill would affirm the authority of the convention to itemize appropriations "in detail, including specific lines within each department," and require the commissioners to seek the approval of the executive committee to transfer funds in any amount either between specific lines within a single department or from one department to another. Her bill would further provide that the convention may take the commissioners to court to enforce the law and if they are found in violation, remove them from office.
Speaking in support of her bill, Worsman recalled that in 2013, after the convention stripped appropriations to fund some employee benefits, the commissioners drew funds from 91 other lines to fund 27 accounts the convention left empty. Among these lines, she said, was an appropriation the convention authorized to pay legal fees incurred by the Register of Deeds in litigation brought by the commission. Worsman also claimed that the commission used the contingency account as "a slush fund."
Like HB-1373, House Bill 1120, sponsored by Tilton, would provide the convention with line-item authority over the budget and require the approval of the executive committee for any and all transfers of funds from one line to another.
Speaking against the bills, Thomas said that the convention was seeking to arrogate management of the day-to-day operations of the county, which is the responsibility of the commission, to itself. The authority of the convention, he explained, is confined to appropriations while the commission is responsible for expenditures in the course of administering and managing the services the county provides. For the Executive Committee to approve all transfers of funds within departments when "priorities change or emergencies come up," he said would be "cumbersome" and "affect the ability to provide efficient services." The commissioners, he stressed "must have flexibility to manage the budget and mange it quickly."
George Maglaras, who has served on the Strafford County Commission since 1983 and as its chairman since 1987, told the committee that both bills were "unnecessary." The current statutes allow county conventions and commissions to establish a format and process for managing the budget. He cautioned against granting the convention line-item authority, which he said would lead department heads and county commissioners to inflate their budgets in order to avoid the cumbersome process of requesting transfers.
Maglaras described the situation in Belknap County as "a political problem, " adding that "there are all kinds of ways of skinning the cat." Calling the proposed legislation "ill-advised," he warned "don't tie your hands."
Representative Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton), an outspoken and persistent critic of Worsman's leadership of the convention, said that "I've been here for 11 terms and I've never seen anything like this," adding "it's just a mess up there." Several times he charged the leadership of the convention with "micro-managing" and declared "we should do our job and let the commissioners do theirs. They do a wonderful job."
The few questions posed by members of the committee bore on how the proposals would impact the operations of the county. Representative Tim Copeland (R-Stratham), who serves on the executive committee of the Rockingham County Convention, said that his committee meets only a few times a year and suggested the process Worsman and Tilton proposed appeared "very cumbersome."
Representative Marjorie Porter (D-Hillsborough), who chairs the Municipal and County Government Committee, asked Worsman how the convention and its executive committee could respond to "emergency situations" given the logistics of scheduling and posting meetings. "I can't answer that question," Worsman replied."
Portter said that she expected the committee to vote on the bills next week when they would be reported to the full House for a vote, most likely the following week.