Comparing apples to oranges? County officials say lawmaker don't understand changes made in wake of 2008 embezzlement scandal
LACONIA — While there is no question that personnel costs represent the lion's share of the county budget, disagreement about the level and growth of compensation and benefits overshadows the frayed relationship between the Belknap County Convention and Belknap County Commission.
When the convention met this week Representatives Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), the chair, and Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) cited figures they claimed reflected unduly excessive compensation and generous benefits. Worsman said that the salaries of the six employees in the administration and finance departments have risen 91.7-percent since 2009 and projected a $500,000 increase in the employer contribution to health insurance premiums. Vadney suggested that the salaries of the nine department heads compared very favorably with their counterparts in the other nine counties and, in aggregate, exceeded the statewide average for the positions by $141,000.
County officials yesterday questioned these numbers, which they said overlooked significant changes in the structure of county government during the past five years.
In 2008, the county administrator, who also served as the finance director, pled guilty to embezzlement. That startling revelation prompted the commission, with guidance from the county's independent auditor and Primex, which provides risk management services to public entities, to restructure the county administration. County Administrator Deb Shackett said that at the time administrative functions were spread among the various departments, which operated independently and inconsistently, with much duplication of effort. In light of the financial improprieties, Shackett said that the primary concern was to strengthen internal controls, noting that the county employs 250 people and has an annual cash flow of $60 million. The auditor and Primex recommended centralizing administrative functions in a management structure akin to that of a private corporation and hiring both a human resources and (separate) finance director.
Shackett said that the cost of the administrative and financial functions in 2009 cannot be compared with those of 2013 because of the changed management structure. Formally there were four administrative and financial positions in 2009, but similar, often overlapping, functions were also performed by staff within the different departments. With the centralization of the functions and addition of two employees, the administrative and financial team has grown from four to six, so that any increase in cost reflects an increase in personnel, not the growth of individual salaries, as Worsman claimed.
Moreover, in the course of the restructuring, 41 full-time positions were eliminated to offset the hiring of the human resources and finance directors. Shackett said that the net reduction of 39 positions trimmed $2.3 million from the county budget in 2009.
Like Vadney, Shackett compared the salaries of the nine highest ranking county officials with their peers in other counties, acknowledging that not all counties have equivalent positions. Four county officials are elected — the treasurer, register of deeds, county attorney and county sheriff. Their salaries are set by the county convention. In Belknap County, the treasurer earns a stipend of $3,961 against the statewide average of $4,889. The register of deeds earns $68,415, more than any of her counterparts, compared to the average of $55,560. The county attorney earns $89,164, the second highest salary in the state, compared to the average of $80,455. The county sheriff earns $74,304, more than all his peers, compared to the average of $62,449.
The salaries of the department heads are set by the county commission. The superintendent of the Department of Corrections is paid $78,228, less than six of his ten counterparts and below the average of $86,995. The county administrator is paid $106,720, less than five others and the average of $111,689. The finance director earns $84,048, more than all but one of his peers and the average of $76,700. The human resource director is the highest paid in the state at $96,634, well above the average of $72,520. The nursing home administrator earns $90,000, less than six of his peers and below the average of $103,148.
Acknowledging that the cost of health insurance poses a challenge, Shackett pointed out that prior to 2009, employees contributed a flat dollar amount to the cost of their premiums, which virtually ensured that the county paid the entire cost of any annual increase. Since, the commission negotiated a percentage increase employees contribute between 5 percent and 6.5 percent and share the cost of an annual increase. Shackett said that in 2014 the cost of health insurance is projected to increase by $198,051 or 13.4-percent above what was spent in 2013.
Shackett said that the commission has renegotiated the health care plan several times and a health benefits review team, consisting of representatives of both management and labor, meets regularly in an effort to control the cost of health insurance. She also noted that the county benefits package, unlike those many municipalities, does does include life insurance, dental insurance or either short or long-term disability insurance.
According to data prepared by Finance Director Glen Waring, after adjusting for the a change in accounting for the nursing home in 2011 and the expenditure of federal stimulus funds,in 2011 and 2012, the total appropriation for operations has risen from $26,172,237 in 2008 to a projected $26,570,997 in 2014, an increase of 1.5 percent.
Last Updated on Saturday, 11 January 2014 01:42
Dealers say there's no shortage of home heating oil; Fred Fuller company blames order backlog on phone system that crashed
LACONIA — Fuel oil dealers around the state are stepping into the breach to fill the heating oil tanks of customers of Fred Fuller Oil & Propane, one of the state's largest heating oil delivery companies, which has been plagued by delivery problems for more than a week.
The company which had hoped to have operations back to normal by today suffered another setback when its trouble-ridden telephone system crashed again yesterday morning.
Fred Fuller has blamed the problems in keeping up with deliveries to its customers on the frigid weather, coupled with a crash last week of its company-wide phone system which has been preventing customers from notifying the company that their fuel tanks were getting low.
The company is scrambling to clean up the backlog of overdue deliveries and is making progress in that regard, according to Senior Assistant Attorney General James Boffetti, who heads the AG's Consumer Protection Bureau.
Fred Fuller customer Scott Laliberte of Sprucewood Drive in Gilford said that he had only an eighth of a tank of fuel as of yesterday. When he was unable to reach Fuller by phone he went to the company's office in Laconia where an employee told him he was on the schedule to get more heating oil a week from today. "I told them I couldn't hold out that long. So I went fuel oil shopping."
Laliberte said that Dutile & Sons Oil Co. of Laconia is scheduled to deliver 100 gallons to his house sometime today.
Laliberte said had pre-paid for his oil with Fuller and once that pre-buy amount is used up he will no longer do business with Fuller.
Other fuel oil dealers in the state have adequate supplies of fuel and are aslo helping Fred Fuller customers fill their tanks, according to Bob Sculley, the executive director of the Oil Heat Council of New Hampshire, a trade association.
Sculley said that one dealer who belongs to his organization has for the last two weeks been fielding about 200 calls a day from frustrated Fred Fuller customers.
"There is no home heating oil shortage. There's plenty of supply," said Sculley. "This is a difficulty related to only one dealer," he said of Fred Fuller which, Sculley added, is not an Oil Heat Council member.
Close to 60 percent of New Hampshire homes are heated with oil.
Boffetti said that Fuller is "buying and delivering a large amount of oil every day," and its drivers were making deliveries well into the evening in order to fill customer orders.
Here in the Lakes Region, Stafford Oil has been delivering fuel to about 100 Fred Fuller customers a day since last Friday, according to Curtis Stafford, the company's vice president. "We don't want them to suffer" due to lack of heat, he said.
Fred Fuller is considered to be the largest fuel-oil delivery company based in New Hampshire. Although the company does not divulge how many customers it has, the number is believed to be around 50,000. The company, based in Hudson, serves much of the southern half of the state, including the Lakes Region, as well as some Massachusetts communities close to the New Hampshire border.
Both Fairpoint Communications and NEC, the provider of Fred Fuller's telephone system, were working together to solve the telephone problems, Fred Fuller attorney Simon Leeming said yesterday. Leeming said that Fairpoint and NEC had made five or six "major corrections" since the phone system went down last week. He said the telephone system seriously exacerbated the company's ability to make timely deliveries because a high portion of its customers are not on an automatic delivery schedule, but rather call the company whenever their fuel tanks start getting low.
Boffetti said he was aware of the latest failure of Fred Fuller's phone system, but he said the AG's office was still holding the company to its promise to have the backlog of deliveries to its customers cleared up by today.
The breakdown in the telephone system prompted Gov. Maggie Hassan to set up a hotline Tuesday evening specifically for Fred Fuller customers in imminent danger of running out of oil.
Nearly 1,100 consumers flooded the hotline with calls as of 9:30 yesterday morning, according to the governor's spokesman. Marc Goldberg said nearly all those calling the hotline reported having had less than a quarter of a tank of heating oil, with the vast majority having only an eighth of a tank of heating oil or less remaining, and many were without heat altogether. He concurred with Sculley's statement that Fuller customers are the only ones facing the problem and that there is no shortage in the supply of heating oil.
The hotline number is 227-0002.
Boffetti said that while the rate at which people were calling the hotline was subsiding, the number of calls "is still unacceptable, particularly because of the number of people who are without fuel." He said that the hotline was making it possible for Fred Fuller customers to reach someone to report they were getting low on oil while technicians work to get firm's in-house phone system fixed. Boffetti said the telephone troubles appeared to be due to a "data corruption problem" in the company's own system and not because of any trouble with Fairpoint's system.
Leeming said Fred Fuller is working with Homeland Security to provide a back-up cellphone coverage plan for its office staff, which will be put into place should landlines crash again.
The state attorney general's office has ask for documents from Fuller Oil supporting its claims to have enough money to support all the pre-buy orders sold this winter, as well as those being sold for next winter. Boffetti said that while he has concerns that Fuller was collecting money for future sales when it couldn't meet current obligations, the biggest priority the AG's office has right now is to see that the company "is responding to an emergency situation of getting heat to the people who need it."
Leeming did not respond directly to the financial issues raised by Boffetti, but he did say that Fred Fuller representatives had met with Boffetti and Leeming assured that Fuller would address whatever concerns Boffetti has.
The weather so far this winter has been noticeably — though not drastically — colder than usual, according to statistics.
Stafford said that measured in degree days this winter has so far been 5 percent colder than the 30-year average, or 10 percent colder than last winter, which was milder than normal.
Sprague Energy and Irving Oil are the major suppliers for most of the state's fuel oil dealers, according to Sculley. Both have giant terminals in the Portsmouth area, where tanks that hold tens of millions of gallons of oil are supplied by ocean-going barges and tankers.
Last Updated on Friday, 10 January 2014 01:44
GILFORD — The Budget Committee voted last night to recommend an overall school budget of $24.6 million for coming fiscal year, as well as recommending passage of a new three-year contract with the teachers' union.
The committee gave its endorsement to a total school department appropriation of $24,610,710. The sum is $51,500 less than what the School Board was seeking. The $51,500 had been earmarked for new carpeting in the High School library and the school's computer lab, as well as a new stage curtain for the school auditorium.
The Budget Committee voted to recommend passage of the teachers' collective bargaining agreement by a split vote of 6-4 with two members abstaining.
Under proposed three-year agreement with the Gilford Education Association, those covered by the contract would see their pay increase an average of 3 percent a year. Those at the top end of the pay scale would receive pay increases averaging about 1.5 percent, Assistant Superintendent of Business Scott Isabelle told the committee.
The cost items of the contract would be $110,000 in the coming fiscal year, Isabelle explained. The cost impact would be $257,911 in the second year of the contract, and $260,333 in the third year.
Isabelle said that the first-year's cost impact would be offset by a $156,000 saving in the cost of health insurance. He said that those covered under the proposed contract would pay much more for the prescription medications, as well as higher co-pays for medical care. Isabelle said that under the new contract the district would pay for an HMO-type health insurance policy only. Other options would be available to teachers, he said, but the individual teacher would have to pay the entire cost of the difference.
Budget Committee Chairman Phyllis Corrigan said she had "no qualms" with the contract, but others criticized the pay increases.
Member David Horvath objected to giving teachers raises at a time when the economy is "anemic" and when most people are not getting any raises at all and are having to deal with increases in the cost of gasoline and other items, as well as higher taxes.
"At some place we're got to say slow down some," he said.
But School Board Chairman Sue Allen reminded the committee that teachers have had their pay frozen in recent years.
The committee voted not to recommend a warrant article that would have allowed the School District to retain a small portion of any year's budget which would be used to cover any unanticipated expenses or else be rolled over into the next year's budget if the amount did not need to be used.
Seven committee members voted not to recommend the measure while five voted in favor of endorsing it.
Superintendent Kent Hemingway said that the fund would help to dampen increases in the school tax rate that can now occur due to unexpected expenses.
But committee Vice Chairman Kevin Leandro said holding the money in reserve was akin to "holding taxpayer money hostage."
"If the money is not spent for what it was intended then it should be returned to the taxpayers," he said.
Last Updated on Friday, 10 January 2014 01:58
LACONIA — After dividing over how to conduct the preparation of the 2014 county budget, the Belknap County Convention reached a compromise by which personnel costs, capital projects, fund balance and debt service will be addressed by the entire convention, acting as a committee of the whole, while a half-dozen subcommittees will review departmental budgets.
Controversy over the process arose in December, when the Belknap County Commission presented its recommended budget to the convention. Questioned by several members about how the convention would proceed, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the body, demurred, remarking "I haven't made that decision yet." Several members stressed the importance of convening traditional sub-committees to meet with department heads in order to assess the needs of the county before jumping to conclusions about appropriate levels of spending.
When the convention met this week the issue arose again. Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) was concerned that the commissioners failed to include the department requests in their budget, explaining that the convention could not make sound decisions without comparing the departments' requests with the commissions' recommendations.
Rep. Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton), who has challenged Worsman's leadership throughout her tenure, told her that "you have not helped us as a delegation" and "you do things on your own without the members of the delegation knowing." When Worsman and Rep. Bob Greemore (R-Meredith) tried to call Fields to order, he stood up from his chair, raised his arms in the air and invited Sheriff Craig Wiggin to arrest him. Fields joined the chorus urging Worsman to refer the budget to the sub-committees
Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) agreed with Huot that the sub-committees should meet with department heads and make recommendations on their budgets to the convention. However, he insisted that issues common to all departments, compensation and benefits, should be addressed by the convention "as a whole."
Meanwhile, Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) urged the convention to address personnel costs, introducing a motion to withhold any appropriation to increase compensation or expand benefits until the employees' contribution to their health insurance premiums is substantially increased. His motion was adopted by a vote of 11 to 7.
When the meeting was opened to the public, Wiggin rose to urge the convention against "throwing out a bottom line" without first meeting with department heads and "going through the process. "You clearly don't like what these three have done," he said, referring to the commissioner's recommended budget, then told them "look at their budget" and "educate yourselves. Your constituents," he continued, "want you to do your job."
With that the convention, by a margin of 11 to 7, voted to convene sub-committees while providing that compensation and benefits and other issues will be addressed by the entire convention.
All five Democrats — Representatives Huot and Beth Arsenault of Laconia, Ian Raymond of Sanbornton, Ruth Gulick of New Hampton and Lisa DiMartino of Gilford were joined by Republicans Vadney, Tilton, Bob Luther and Don Flanders of Laconia, Fields of Sanbornton, Stephen Holmes of Alton in the majority.
Worsman asked the sub-committees to complete their work in January and present their recommendations to the convention in February.
Last Updated on Friday, 10 January 2014 01:24
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