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Raises or layoffs? Lawmakers trying to push county govt. into a corner

LACONIA — In preparing the 2014 county budget the Belknap County Convention appears to have embarked on a course that will present the county Board of Commissioners with the awkward choice of not funding a pay raise and contractual benefits for county employees or laying off enough employees to increase the pay and provide the benefits to those who remain.

The prospect has heightened anxiety among the some 125 employees of the Corrections Department, Sheriff's Department and Nursing Home represented by the State Employees Association. At the same time, the remaining 28 non-union county employees entitled to organize have petitioned to form a collective bargaining unit represented by the Teamsters.

When the convention met earlier this week it adopted a motion offered by Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) to withhold any increase in the appropriation for salaries, wages and benefits until there is a "substantial increase" in the employees' contribution to health insurance premiums and a thorough review of compensation and benefits.

Last year the convention pursued the same goal of reducing personnel costs by a different route. At the outset of the budget process, the convention, by a vote of 10 to 8, stripped the commission of all authority over appropriations by claiming the authority to add or remove, raise or lower particular line items for itself. On the strength of this resolution, the convention stripped funding for bonuses for unused sick time and longevity of service along with funds to pay the employer's share of a 7.3 percent increase in the cost in health insurance premiums from the budget.

The commissioners rejected the convention's reading of its budgetary authority. They insisted that the authority of the convention is confined to 21 appropriations divided among nine broad categories: general government, public safety, corrections, county nursing home, human services, cooperative extension, economic development, debt service and capital outlay.

The categories do not correspond to line items, but instead designate total appropriations for the various county departments and particular purposes. Within these categories, the commissioners claimed the authority to move funds between lines as operations required so long as the expenditures did not exceed the appropriation for the specific departments or purposes.

Furthermore, the commissioners believed that the county was bound by its past collective bargaining agreements to fund both the two bonuses and its share of health insurance premiums. In New Hampshire public employee contracts are governed by the so-called "doctrine of status quo," which stipulates that when collective bargaining agreements expire their terms and conditions, except for so-called cost items, remain in effect pending ratification of a new agreement. On the flip side, in New Hampshire, public employee unions do not enjoy the right the strike.

The county's union contracts expired at the end of 2012.

Step raises, or new rates of pay specified by a salary schedule for an additional year of service, qualify as cost items and are not awarded in lieu of a new contract. But, since the bonuses and health insurance are considered defined benefits, without an assigned dollar value, the commissioners believed they were obliged to fund them. They shuffled funds within the departmental budgets approved by the convention to restore the funding for the two bonuses and health insurance premiums.

The convention responded by contemplating litigation. Attorneys representing the convention and the commission have swapped legal arguments, no lawsuits have been filed. Meanwhile, Rep. Collette Worsman (R-Meredith) and Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) introduced legislation that would codify the budgetary authority claimed by the convention in statute. The bills have been referred to the House Municipal and County Government Committee, but as yet hearings have not been scheduled.

This year, with neither a legal nor legislative resolution of their differences over budgetary authority with the commission in sight, the convention, as expressed by the adoption of Vadney's motion, appears bent on cutting the bottom-line of the budget to deny funding for the wage increase and benefits package recommended by the commission.

The budget recommended by the commission includes a 1.6-percent cost-of-living adjustment and three-percent "step" increase for eligible employees. The commissioners again funded bonuses for unused sick days and length of service as well as the increase in the employer share of health insurance premiums.

The commissioners' budget projects an increase of $560,243 or 4 percent in the amount to be raised by property taxes. When the convention met this week, Tilton suggested setting a target to reduce the percentage increase in the tax commitment to 1.5 percent, which would require trimming about $352,000 from the commissioners' budget. That is about equal to the funding for pay raises, bonuses and health insurance premiums that the convention eliminated from the budget a year ago.

Without sufficient appropriations to fully fund bonuses and health insurance premiums for all employees, the commissioners could be compelled to shrink the workforce and apply the savings to the benefits to the remaining employees. Likewise, employees represented by the SEA, who are currently working without a contract, could be faced with choosing between contributing a greater share to the cost of their health insurance and accepting reductions in the workforce.

So far the commission has steadfastly resisted the prospect of lay-offs. Last month John Thomas of Belmont, told the Laconia City Council that he could not contemplate putting county employees out of work in such a fragile economy, where unemployment would impose severe hardship on them and their families.

Last Updated on Friday, 10 January 2014 01:06

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Laconia trial date set for Free State heroine

LACONIA — A trial date for self-proclaimed anarchist Amanda "BillyRock" Johnson has been set for February 4 in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division.

Johnson, 27, of 105 Windsong Ave. in Manchester is facing one count of resisting arrest, one count of disobeying an officer, and one count of having an open container of alcohol in her car. She was arrested after a traffic stop here just after midnight on December 14.

She was initially charged with the above three misdemeanors as well as possession of controlled drugs and driving while intoxicated. When contacted yesterday, Laconia City Prosecutor Jim Sawyer said he "didn't file those charges."

Because it is an ongoing case, Sawyer declined further comment.

She was released on personal recognizance bail the around noon on December 14 after initially refusing the services of a bail commissioner shortly after her arrest.

Johnson, who also identifies herself as Amanda BillyRock, is referred to in Internet circles as an "epic figure" in the libertarian world. She said she came to New Hampshire from her home state of Utah to join the Free State movement after attending an event in Keene.

She had posted a video taken by a woman in the car with on Dec.14 on her Website that showed a Laconia Police officer approaching the side of her car. He asked her if she had been drinking and she refused to respond. When asked to got out of the car she declined to do so.

The video of her interaction with the Laconia Police has been removed from her Webpage.

Johnson has also made daily updates to her Facebook page with pleas to her supporters to send money/and or Bitcoin (an Internet currency) for her defense and to call Sawyer's office with requests that he drop the charges against her.

She has hired Concord attorney Seth Hipple. In an unrelated press release, a spokeswoman from the Content Factory announced that Hipple's law firm is the first in the state to accept Bitcoin as payment for legal services.

At least two videos created by Johnson have been posted to her site that refer to her arrest and subsequent night in the Belknap County House of Corrections.

During the time of her incarceration, Laconia Police and Corrections Officers at the Belknap County House of Corrections received numerous calls from her supporters who repeatedly asked what the charges were and why she had been "kidnapped".

Last Updated on Friday, 10 January 2014 01:16

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Meredith Selectboard approves 2014 budget that would raise town tax bill by 4.2%

dith MEREDITH — The Board of Selectmen, meeting at a workshop yesterday, agreed to present a 2014 town budget that would appropriate $13,819,974, an increase of $192,305 or 1.4-percent, to a public hearing on Monday, Feb. 3.

With estimated revenues of $5,850,000, which includes $1 million drawn from the undesignated fund balance, and adjusting for overlay and war credits, the projected amount to be raised by property taxes is $8,269,724, an increase of $334,527 or 4.2 percent. The projected town tax rate is $4.39 compared to the rate of $4.55 in 2013.

The budget includes a 1.25-percent salary adjustment for all 72 employees, together with step increases of 2.5 percent for 60 eligible employees.

Appropriations for capital projects, including transfers to expendable trust funds (ETFs), total $575,159. The budget transfers $200,000 to an ETF for purchasing a new fire engine that will replace two engines and $175,000 to ETF to replace vehicles at the Department of Public Works (DPW). The budget appropriates $100,000 for a feasibility study of the DPW facility in anticipation of constructing a new garage and $100,159 for renovation of the Meredith Public Library.

The selectmen withdrew $250,000 from the so-called "two-for-one fund," consisting of money set aside to improve unnumbered state roads, which the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT) was expected to match at $2 to $1. Officials of the DOT have given the selectmen to understand that there is little likelihood that the agency will have the matching funds. The $250,000 will be applied to road improvements, leaving a balance of $212,000 in the fund.

Last Updated on Thursday, 09 January 2014 02:18

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Commissioners say lawmakers asking county to ignore contractual obligations

LACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners Wednesday morning defended their actions in transferring funds from 90 lines in the 2013 budget to fund salary and benefit items for county employees.
''We met our contractual obligations. Now county convention members are saying we did something wrong because we lived up to the contract,'' said Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia).
Commissioners were responding to charges made at Tuesday night's meeting of the Belknap County Convention by Chairman Colette Worsman (R-Meredith) that the commissioners, by shuffling appropriations authorized by the convention, "overspent salary and benefit lines to the detriment of maintenance and capital" then "falsely blamed" the convention for underfunding routine maintenance and capital projects.
The convention last year stripped funding for sick day and longevity bonuses as well as increased health insurance premiums from the budget. The commissioners then shuffled funds from some 90 budget lines to fund what they say are the contractual obligations under the collective bargaining agreements with the State Employees Association local, which represents employees of the Corrections Department, Sheriff's Department and Nursing Home.
''Some members of the convention have a serious misconception about these contracts. I heard it from at least two reps that they think they can do what they want, that there's no contract in place. But we can't.'' said Philpot.
He later said that ''I know they understand that. They were screwing around with the contract.''
The commission now faces the challenge of possibly having to deal with another union as 28 county employees who are not members of a union have petitioned the Public Employees Labor Relations Board to form a collective bargaining unit represented by Teamsters Local 633 which is headquartered in Manchester.
Commission Chairman John Thomas said that he thought that the new union is being sought by employees due to ''the convention's refusal to fund contractual obligations and the threat of benefits being further reduced by the non-appropriation of funds.''
Philpot said ''we shouldn't speculate'' and urged making no comments on the petition. The county has 15 days in which to respond to the petition and commissioners met later in the morning in a non-public session to discuss whether they would oppose the petition.
Commissioners also discussed three bills proposed by Belknap County legislators regarding the county budget process. They criticized provisions in all three and said that the bills wouldn't be necessary if the convention would only engage in a dialogue with the commission and think beyond the current situation.
''We've been threatened with a lawsuit on this issue and have been corresponding with the convention's attorney and haven't heard back, They don't have an argument against what we say should be the way the budget is handled,'' said Philpot.
Nedeau said that the three bills were totally ''anti-county'' and didn't see any way they would make it through the Legislature.
With regard to the lawsuit authorized by the convention against the commission Nedeau said that he was waiting for something to materialize as no court action has been filed. ''People, if you've got something, bring it on.'' he said.

Last Updated on Thursday, 09 January 2014 02:17

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