LACONIA — With 14 of its 18 members present and voting — one by telephone — the Belknap County Convention last evening came within a whisker of adopting the 2014 budget as originally proposed by the Belknap County Commission in December, which the convention has spent the last six weeks preparing to cut by more than $850,000.
A full-house of Democrats was joined by two Republicans in almost pulling off a gigantic political upset. But a tie vote meant defeat and
lawmakers will now wait another week to try and pass a budget.
Despite the snowfall, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, rejected suggestions to postpone the scheduled meeting. But after waiting nearly 30 minutes for a quorum of 10 members to appear, she then proposed recessing and reconvening later in the week. Instead the members chose to proceed and before long their numbers had grown to 13 and Rep. Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead), who was tending to a failing roof, had joined by telephone.
The issue before the convention was the budget prepared by the Republican majority, which would reduce expenditures recommended by the commission by $858,350, virtually all of it represented by personnel costs. This year like last, the convention proposes to strip a 1.6-percent cost-of-living adjustment and 3-percent step raise for eligible employees, together with the corresponding funds for payroll taxes and retirement contributions, from the commission's budget. The majority would also eliminate funding for bonuses paid for unused sick time and length of service. Finally, funding for the employer's share of a 7.3-percent increase in health insurance premiums in 2013 and 13.4-percent increase in 2014 are also on the chopping block.
Opening the debate, Rep. Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton) called the convention's budget "the worst thing we've ever done" that showed nothing but "disrespect for county employees, who are real people doing real work."
Quickly Rep. Beth Arsenault (D-Laconia) moved to adopt the commission's budget and was seconded by Rep. Lisa DiMartino (D-Gilford). Ultimately the motion failed on tie vote, seven-to-seven, leaving the convention to tackle the budget again next week.
Rep. Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) insisted that he had "no intent to disrespect anyone," but added that the responsibility of the convention is "to walk the line between the taxpayers and the employees." The cost of health insurance, he said, is "unsustainable."
Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) explained that the effect of Arsenault's motion would be to adopt a budget that raised property taxes 8.2 percent. He said taken together the wage increase and health insurance amounted to a pay raise of 11 percent for county employees. "Blanket approval of the commissioners' budget," he charged, "is really taking it to the taxpayers. It's not feasible, not realistic."
The majority of the convention, said Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) "has been working to find a lot of money in one place — personnel — and is balancing the budget on the back of employees." He noted that the increased cost of county government has been hidden from property taxpayers by drawing from the undesignated fund balance to reduce the amount raised by taxes and warned "the fund balance is not going to last forever. We're punishing the employees," he continued, "to make it look like we're saving money. We need to step up and do what's necessary."
Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) charged that the commissioners have "not admitted there are any problems with their budget, shown an unwillingness to compromise and failed to negotiate with the unions as necessary."
Reminding Vadney that he is selectman in Meredith, Commissioner Steve Nedeau began reeling off the salaries of town officials, beginning with $103,000 paid to the town manager, who also receives a car and telephone allowance, and proceeding to the director of administrative services, public works, police chief and fire chief, all of whom he reported earn between $89,000 and $100,000.
Worsman said the remarks were not germane to the discussion, cutting off his soliloquy before Vadney could respond.
With that the motion to adopt the commissioner's budget was put to the vote. Arsenault, DiMartino, Huot and Gulick were joined by fellow Democrat Ian Raymond of Sanbornton and two Republicans — Don Flanders and Bob Luther of Laconia — in favor. Burchell, Comtois, Tilton, Vadney and Worsman, along with fellow Republicans Bob Greemore of Meredith and Michael Sylvia of Belmont — voted against.
Republican Representatives Jane Cormier and Stephen Holmes of Alton, Charles Fink of Belmont and Dennis Fields of Sanbornton were absent.
As it happened, supporters of the commission came within minutes of prevailing. As the meeting adjourned Sheriff Craig Wiggin received a telephone call from Fields, a persistent and outspoken critic of Worsman's leadership of the convention, who was surprised to learn the meeting was convened in spite of the weather. Had Fields called 30 minutes earlier, he like Comtois, could have participated by telephone and almost certainly would have cast his vote for the commission budget, which would have carried eight-to-seven.
The convention will meet on Monday, February 24, beginning at 5 p.m. when it is expected to vote once again on the 2014 county budget.