Belknap commissioners bracing for having to manage with 850,000 fewer dollars

LACONIA — Belknap County commissioners met Tuesday morning to discuss how they will deal with an anticipated cut of over $850,000 in their proposed $26.57 million county budget for 2014 and were glum over the prospects of being able to maintain county services at their current level.
Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) said it is obvious that at least 10 members of the county convention aren't willing to discuss the impact of the cuts proposed by the convention and ''have made a decision and are going to implement it.''
County Administrator Debra Shackett said that she had spent all day Friday meeting with department heads to try and come up with ways to deal with the looming cuts and that she would be ready as early as today, providing the county convention had acted on the budget at its scheduled meeting last night, to propose a list of specific actions.
''I hope they vote to end the misery,'' said a resigned Shackett, who said that county employees ''have been watching, listening and reading'' and many are asking themselves ''how can I keep working here?'' when they hear about the convention's desire to cut salaries and increase the workers' share of health care costs, currently 5 to 6.5 percent, to 20 percent.
Health insurance costs under the LGC (Local Government Center) plans provided by the county went up 7.3 percent last year are slated to increase by 13.42 percent on July 1 of this year. There are two plans offered, one of which employees pay a share of, and another with lower premiums which are completely paid for by the county.
The two-person higher premium plan has an annual cost of $18,976.24 and is scheduled to increase to $21,525.12 on July 1, an increase of $2,546.88. The county would pay $20,488.86 and the employee $1,076.26, or five percent. If the employee share was increased to 20 percent, employees would pay and additional $3,228.78 a year which would increase their weekly costs to $82,80.
The family plan under the more expensive option increases from $25,620.60 to $29,058.84 with the county paying $27,606.90 and the employee $1,452.94. Were the employee share increased to 20 percent it would increase the annual cost to the employee to $5,811.76.
Premiums for the plans which are completely paid for by the county are scheduled to increase from $7,701.24 to $8,734.68 for single, $15,402.36 to $17,469.48 for two person and $20,793.24 to $23,583.72 for a family plan.

 One of the goals of the convention since the budget process started has been to reduce the budget proposed by the commission to the point where commissioners will have to to make a choice between not funding health benefit increases, which remain in a legal "status quo" state for some 125 employees of the Corrections Department, Sheriff's Department and Nursing Home represented by the State Employees Association, or cutting the number of employees in order to reduce the total amount due.

When the convention met early in January it adopted a motion offered by Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) by an 11-7 vote 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.
The budget as proposed called for a 1.6 percent cost of living pay increase and a 3 percent step increase for employees.
Some 28 county employees not affiliated with unions, concerned over the possible loss of raises and the efforts made by the convention in last year's budget cycle to cut salaries and benefits, earlier this year filed a petition to form a collective bargaining unit to be represented by the Teamsters.
Tuesday morning the commissioners met behind closed doors with Shackett to ''discuss the status of negotiations'' with the unions.
Last year commissioners were able to transfer funds within departmental budgets to fund the contracts they had negotiated but convention members are attempting to thwart that this year by adjusting each line item appropriation relating to salaries and benefits, even through commissioners continue to maintain that have the authority to transfer funds within departments without the approval of the convention or its Executive Committee.
But the convention seems intent on limiting the power of the commissioners in transferring funds by stripping the contingency line, which last year amounted to $200,000, from the budget and establishing a contingency fund which would require Executive Committee approval before any transfers could be made.

 ''The convention is trying to control county operations by taking over contingency money,'' said Commission Chairman John Thomas (R-Belmont) who said the lawmakers don't seem to have a problem with that and ''are happy to be in control. They have authority, but no responsibility.''
Philpot said that the budget cuts put the commissioners in a difficult situation and a number of factors, such as spike in the number of people incarcerated at the county jail, or an increase in the investigation of heroin-related deaths, could push individual department budgets over the line.
Commissioner Steve Nedeau (R-Meredith) lamented the convention's proposed budget cuts, saying that they come after six years of belt-tightening and real progress in improving the effectiveness and efficiency of county government.
''It's like what the Straight Arrows did to Laconia in the early 1990s. Laconia is just now getting back to where it was before they took over,'' said Nedeau.