How much jail can Belknap County afford?

LACONIA — The new county jail contemplated by the Belknap County Commission would be the first major capital project undertaken by the county in a generation and while there is little question a new facility is needed, the cost of the project is a source of concern.

The Jail Planning Committee, convened by the commission, is contemplating a facility of some 94,000-square feet with 180 beds, which it seeks to build for not more than $30-million and preferably less. The committee notes that in 2005 Merrimack County constructed a 112,000-square foot jail with 237 beds for $24.3-million and in 2012 Grafton County completed a facility with 150 beds at cost of $30.5-million.

With one city and ten towns, about 60,000 residents and a total assessed valuation of approximately $10-billion, Belknap County is significantly smaller with less fiscal capacity than either Merrimack County or Grafton County. The population of Merrimack County exceeds 146,000 spread among two cities and 25 towns while Grafton County counts more than 89,000 residents in one city and 38 towns. The total assessed valuation of Merrimack County and Grafton County exceeds $15-billion and $13-billion respectively. Moreover, commercial and industrial property — land and buildings — represents 20-percent of the total assessed valuation in Merrimack County and 17-percent of the total assessed valuation in Grafton County compared to 12-percent in Belknap County, where households bear a relatively greater share of the property tax burden.

Consequently, the cost of county government, particularly a major capital project, in Belknap County is born by a smaller population and tax base and distributed among fewer municipalities than in larger counties like Merrimack and Grafton.

The average annual principal and interest payments for a facility costing $30-million to construct, financed by borrowing the cost at 4.25-percent for 20 years, would be about $2.2-million. In Belknap County, the cost of debt service would be born by the eleven municipalities in proportion to their share of the total assessed valuation of the county.

Together the five lakefront municipalities — Laconia, Alton, Center Harbor, Gilford and Meredith — represent 70-percent of the total assessed valuation of the county and would share about $1.5-million of the annual average debt service of $2.2-million. Laconia and Meredith, with assessed valuations of more than $1.8-billion, would contribute more than $400,000 while the shares of Alton and Gilford would top $300,000.

With its tax cap Laconia's situation is unique. Any increase in the city's county apportionment counts against the tax cap and must be offset by commensurate reductions in municipal expenditures in order to budget within the bounds of the cap.

By contrast, if the same amount of debt service were carried in Grafton County, Lebanon and Hanover, with the largest property tax bases comparable to those of Laconia and Meredith, which bear 36-percent of cost in Belknap County, would bear 28-percent of the cost, or about $300,000 apiece. The balance would be distributed among 36 towns, whose share of the county budget ranges from 0.1-percent in Ellsworth to 5.7-percent in Littleton. Similarly, in Merrimack County the cost of county government is born by tax base a third greater than in Belknap County as well as more than twice the number of municipalities and residents.

These numbers underpin the perception in some quarters that comparisons with jails built recently in other counties are misleading and that the taxpayers of Belknap County cannot afford a comparable facility.