County government feud personalized in Burchell v. Thomas contest

BARNSTEAD — When the two GOP candidates for the Belknap County Commission in District 2— incumbent John Thomas of Belmont and challenger Richard Burchell — addressed the Barnstead-Alton-Gilmanton Republican Committee this week, Burchell asked "why didn't the Democrats put up a candidate?"

Answering his question, he said "they didn't need to, because they've got John Thomas."

The tenor of this primary campaign not only echoes the bitter disputes that have roiled county government for the past two years, but also reflects the rift between veteran lawmakers and insurgent newcomers within the GOP. Thomas, served seven terms in the New Hampshire of Representatives, where he was among the leaders of the Republican majority and a member of the Belknap County Convention. Burchell, who has retired from a successful business career, is completing his first term in the House and a member of the convention.

The tension between the two was evident from the toss of the coin to determine who would speak first. Thomas won the toss, but deferred to Burchell, who declined to choose, remarking "I'm not going to speak for you."

Thomas recalled that the commission restructured the county administration and reduced the county payroll as well as introduced the "county conversations" to open a dialogue with the municipalities. With federal funds distributed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act , he said that the county courthouse and nursing home were improved. Thomas said that despite falling revenues, increases in both county expenditures and property taxes have been limited.

"There are quite a few problems in the county," Burchell began. Referring to the dispute between the convention and the commission over their respective budget authority, he said "the commissioners are not following the law." Last month Burchell, as clerk of the county convention, filed suit asking the Belknap County Superior Court to affirm the authority of the convention over each of the individual line items within the budget and prohibit the commission from spending more from any line item than it appropriated. He charged that the commissioners have failed to protect the interests of taxpayers in negotiating contracts with the unions representing county employees and warned against the runaway cost of health insurance benefits. Likewise, he suggested the growth of county spending has been excessive and claimed that federal stimulus funds were used to hire additional personnel. After saying that the issue of the county jail "is beyond the scope of this meeting," he said that "we should scrap and start over" the process of planning a facility in "the $10 million or $11 million range."

When the floor was opened to questions Barbara Howard of Alton immediately returned to the question of the jail. Thomas said that "we're not just building a jail. We're building a criminal justice system, which includes a community corrections component with a mental health and drug court. He said that the planning is based on two studies, one by David Bennett Consulting and another by RicciGreene Associates.

"We have no intention of building a $42 million jail," Thomas insisted. "We can't afford that."

Instead, he anticipated a project costing between $30 million and $35 million." He said that the jail population has already reached Bennett's 10-year projection. "We can have a county facility or a federal facility paid for by residents of Belknap County," he warned, alluding to the risk of litigation arising from conditions at the existing facility.

"I disagree with everything John Thomas has said," Burchell countered.

While acknowledged he learned a great deal from Bennett's report, he rejected its economic and demographic projections, which led him to exaggerate the growth of the inmate population. Likewise, he said that RicciGreene significantly exaggerated the size and cost of the facility the county required. "We should scrap these studies and start over," Burchell concluded.

Elaine Swinford, a former representative and candidate for the House seat in Alton, Barnstead and Gilmanton, remarked "every year we don't do anything, the cost goes up because the cost goes up."

District 2 consists of the towns of Barnstead, Belmont, Gilmanton and Tilton. Primary election day is Tuesday, Sept. 9.