County Commissioners defy convention, transfer within departments

LACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners Thursday afternoon agreed to a number of line item transfers within departmental budgets in an an effort to deal with the impact of an $850,000 cut made by the Belknap County Convention to their proposed $26.57 million 2014 county budget.
The commissioners followed the same course as they did last year in dealing with a budget cut and again defied the convention's assertion of line item control over the entire budget, fortifying their case by releasing a letter from their attorney which supported their position.
''No statutory authority exists to suggest that an individual county delegation can make appropriations for the detailed sub accounts listed in the working budget,'' read the the letter from Attorney Sharon Cuddy Somers of the law firm of Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella, the county's legal counsel.
She also noted that case law clearly indicates the delegation does not possess the same ''legislative powers'' as they are used to exercising as state legislators and do not have the right to pass ''legislative judgment'' on the costs of programs submitted for funding, including such items as the wages of non-elected officials.
When the Convention passed its budget it also passed a motion by Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) which required that the commissioners obtain approval from the convention's Executive Committee for all line item budget transfers. But Somers said that the statute that Tilton cited, RSA 24:14, authorizes restrictions on appropriations, not line items, and that therefore authority to restrict transfers must tie in with appropriations as listed on the MS-42 form filed with the Division of Revenue Administration.
She said that the commissioners have the obligation to comply with the vote on transfers, but only insofar as its involves transfers between departments,
Somers also said the commission could make transfers within the funding of each department in order to carry out their mandated duties, including the contractual obligations of providing health insurance.
To date commissioners have cut four positions all at the nursing home, none were direct care positions and two were part-time.
County Administrator Shackett said that the process of making the transfers within departments involved all of the department heads and a careful weighing of the impact of each transfer.
She said a reduction in the projected health insurance increase for county employees to about half of the estimated 13.42 percent was one bit of good news but that it was due more to the overall performance of the Local Government Center insurance group than Belknap County's performance.
Departments taking major hits were the Corrections and Sheriff's Department.
The Sheriff's Department saw part-time wages for deputies cut from $70,000 to $40,000, while part-time court security was cut from $175,000 to $145,000. It's vehicle lease was cut from a requested $41,000 to $21,000 by the convention but the commissioners increased the vehicle maintenance from $9,000 to $25,701.
Sheriff Craig Wiggin said that it would have cost the county less if they had stuck with the original plan to lease four new cruisers. ''Just last week I had to put a new $3,300 transmission in one of the old cruisers,'' said Wiggin, who said that he would do the best he could with the reduced allocation for court security.
The Corrections Department will not be hiring the two planned additional officers authorized by the County Convention, at least not early in the year and may be faced with requesting a supplemental appropriation later in the year if the inmate population spikes like it did last summer.