Commissioners place priority on funding health insurance obligations

LACONIA — Belknap County commissioners met briefly Wednesday evening to discuss ways of dealing with a $974,000 cut in their proposed $26,570,000 budget for 2014 and have placed as a priority on paying the health insurance costs which are a continuing part of the employee benefits for county workers who are now in their third year without a contract.
Tuesday night the Belknap County Convention approved a $25,596, 863 budget, some $200,000 less than last year, and cut the amount allocated for health insurance from $3.1 million to $2.6 million.
Commissioners said they will meet with County Administrator Debra Shackett and other members of the administration, along with department heads, in the near future to discuss ways to deal with the cuts, which will most likely include layoffs.
Commissioners Steve Nedeau (R-Meredith) and Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) said they will wait until Commission Chairman John Thomas (R-Belmont) returns from vacation before holding that meeting.

They also plan to schedule a meeting with an attorney on what they should do about a lawsuit filed against county convention Chairman Colette Worsman (R-Meredith) and County Convention Clerk Jane Cormier (R-Alton) by the five Democrats on the convention alleging a Right to Know law violation at the Feb. 18 meeting which seeks to overturn a 7-7 tie vote on a motion to pass the commission's budget.
Shackett said that the commission will seek a legal opinion, as they did last year, on their authority to move money from one account to another within departments, and plan on doing the same thing as they did last year by moving money around to meet the county's contractual obligations to employees.
The county convention, which maintains that it has authority over line items in the budget, passed a motion Tuesday night which would require county Executive Committee approval for all line item budget transfers.
Shackett expressed confidence that department heads will be able to come up with a plan which will keep county services from being greatly impacted but said that was dependent on some factors which were beyond their control, such as a spike in the number off inmates at the county jail.
She said that the funds which the county convention added to the budget for two new positions at the county jail won't be expended until the $80,000 in health insurance benefits which were cut from the department have been allocated to existing employees.
''If inmate population doesn't spike we may be able to move to add a community corrections officer by the end of the year.'' said Shackett.
Nedeau said that the commission has received a copy of the lawsuit filed against the convention's leaders by the Democratic minority and wondered what the county would do about defense costs.
''We already don't have enough money in our budget for legal costs yet there is an expectation that we will pay. Why is this something we should pay? It's not a suit against the county,'' said Nedeau.
Philpot said that the suit was something outside the norm and were the county to pay the bill it should probably be done through a supplemental appropriation.
He also praised Shackett and other members of the administration and department heads for their professionalism throughout the entire budget process.
''You and all the folks here were extremely professional in an extremely difficult situation. It's an honor to work with you and I couldn't be prouder of all of you for going above and beyond in a situation which can only be described as horrible.'' said Philpot.