11-5 Convention majority approves more conservative budget

LACONIA — After weeks of often acrimonious deliberation, the Belknap County Convention last night adopted the 2014 county budget, which appropriates $25,596,863, more than $200,000 less than last year, and raises $13,663,314 in property taxes, a decrease of 1.6 percent.

The convention reduced the budget recommended by the Belknap County Commission by more than $974,000, or 3.6 percent.

The budget carried by a margin of 11 to 5. Four of the five Democratic members of the convention — Reps. Beth Arsenault and David Huot of Laconia, Ian Raymond of Sanbornton and Lisa DiMartino of Gilford — dissented along with Republican Dennis Fields of Sanbornton.

The Republican majority consisted of Reps. Colette Worsman, Bob Greemore and Herb Vadney of Meredith, Jane Cormier and Stephen Holmes of Alton, Michael Sylvia and Charles Fink of Belmont, Frank Tilton and Bob Luther of Laconia, Richard Burchell of Gilmanton and Guy Comtois of Barnstead.

Democrat Ruth Gulick of New Hampton, who has challenged the validity of an earlier vote on the budget in court (see related story on page 9), abstained and Republican Don Flanders of Laconia was absent.

"I'm satisfied now," said Tilton. He said that the convention applied $1,775,000 of the county's undesignated fund balance to offset property taxes, less than the $2 million recommended by Belknap County Commission, and $65,000 less than the projected surplus in 2013. "We're adding $65,000 to our fund balance," he said.

Tilton said that the budget funds the salaries and health benefits of two additional corrections officers, addressing among the county's most critical needs.

Finally, Tilton explained that when the 2013 and 2014 budgets are adjusted for eliminating the appropriation for the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association from the county budget and billing municipalities directly, the increase in the amount to be raised by taxes is 2.3 percent. The increase matches the projected increase in the tax commitment permitted by Laconia's property tax cap.

Worsman, who chairs the convention, congratulated her colleagues for what she called "a tremendous job," conceding that "a 2.3 percent increase in taxes is not what any of us wanted to do."

Tilton proposed a motion reaffirming the convention's authority over line items in throughout the budget, which has set the convention and commission at loggerheads for the past two budget cycles. It carried by 10 to 6, with Republicans Luther and Fields joining four Democrats — Huot, Gulick, Raymond and DiMartino in dissent.

Speaking for the commission Steve Nedeau, the only commissioner at the meeting, read a prepared statement. He began by refuting a number of accusations that Worsman leveled against County Administrator Debra Shackett in an an e-mail to the commissioners.

Turning to the budget he reminded the convention that the commission is contractually bound to pay $3.1 million in health insurance premiums in 2014 and said that "to knowingly and intentionally underfund nearly $540,000 of that obligation, with no plan how to implement such a radical cut, and then claim no responsibility for your actions is certainly not acting in the public's best interest."

"We have continued . . . to cater to your attempts to micro-manage, to respond to your conjecture and accusations of both staff and elected officials," Nedeau continued. "We sit here meeting after meeting while you misinform the public (and each other), ignore anyone who doesn't support your view, and then take action, based on false information."

Nedeau said that "the arbitrary and reckless cuts to the county budget will unfortunately result in employee layoffs," explaining that reducing health insurance costs by over $500,000 is "not an option."

Raymond proposed including Nedeau's statement in the minutes of the meeting, but his motion failed on a tie vote of 8 to 8

"How can it not be included in the record?" asked Luther.

When the meeting was opened to the public, Dave Devoy congratulated Worsman on her leadership and assured her "the silent majority is with you." 

Hunter Taylor of Alton also endorsed the work of the convention, but chided both Republicans and Democrats, telling them "it's time you behaved like adults."