LACONIA — Among the items which will come up for discussion at this evening's meeting of the Belknap County Board of Commissioners will be earlier requests for 2014 budget transfers which were presented to the Belknap County Executive Committee last week but deferred by the committee until commissioners had time to study them. The original requests were made by the board that left office on December 31.
Among the transfer requests which were presented last week was one $31,852.54 to pay the county's outstanding legal bills, all of which have been received between October 31 and the end of the year. There is not enough money left legal line-item accounts so transfers from accounts that are under budget are necessary.
The unpaid bills all relate to disputes between the former commissioners and the Belknap County Convention and its Personnel Committee. There are two bills for $6,856.98 and $1,080 from the Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella law firm, which represented the commission in it's challenge to the convention's successful attempt to win a temporary injunction prohibiting transfers between budget line items of greater than $300 without approval of the convention's Executive Committee.
There are also two bills from the Upton and Hatfield law firm, which represented the Personnel Committee in its handling of Mathew Logue 's appeal of his firing as Superintendent of the Belknap County Home by commissioners in September. Those bills are for $4,973.58 and $1,325,30.
There are two bills from the Drummond Woodsum law firm which represented the commission at a hearing on Logue's dismissal and on an appeal of the Executive Committee's reinstatement of Logue. Those bills are for $12,223,28 and $4,220.90.
There is also an unpaid bill from the Wescott Law firm for $1,172.50 relating to a personnel issue.
Legal bills which have been paid through the end of the year total $39,574.59 and many of those relate to the year-long struggle between the former commissioners and the convention over line item budget authority.
At last week's meeting of the Executive Committee County Commission Chairman Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) asked County Convention Chairman Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) what his policy was on whether budget transfers can be made once appropriations for the legal expenses line item have have been fully expended.
Tilton replied ''we'll have to sort these out'' and said that money that the Executive Committee agreed to transfer in November was intended to pay The Upton and Hatfield law firm for its $4,973.58 and $1,325,30 bills for its work on behalf of the Personnel Committee. But the funds were instead used by the commissioners to pay other legal bills.
Tilton in December asked by what authority the commissioners have been committing the county to legal expenses when the funds had not been appropriated and was told by former Commissioner Steve Nedeau, who resigned effective January 1, that the commissioners were relying on a state statute — later identified as 29-A:2.
The law describes the process which will be followed in the defense and indemnification of county officers and employees in the event of any claim or civil action against the county and provides that the county ''shall defray all costs of such representation or defense, to be paid from funds not otherwise appropriated.''
The law does not address a procedure which would be followed in the event of legal action taken by the convention against the commissioners, which was the case last year when the convention filed its suit against the commission over budget line item authority, which led to temporary injunction prohibiting commissioners from transferring more than $300 without approval of the convention's Executive Committee.
Tilton has said that he thinks the applicable statute is section 24:15 of state law on counties regarding exceeding appropriations which reads in part, "No county commissioner, or elected or appointed county officer, shall pay, or agree to pay, or incur any liability for the payment of, any sum of money for which the county convention has made no appropriation, or in excess of any appropriation so made except for the payment of judgments rendered against the county.''
A key question faced by the current commissioners will be whether or not they agree with the position taken by the former commissioners in citing 29A:2 in giving them authority to expend funds without county convention approval or with Tilton and other members of the convention, like Rep. Mike Sylvia (R-Belmont), who has called for an investigation of county government based on alleged violations of 24:15. Commissioners have yet to name a law firm as their legal counsel.
One of the transfer requests which was tabled last week was for $5,200 to pay legal fees incurred by former Belknap County Register of Deeds Barbara Luther in 2011 when she was sued by the commission in an effort to make her comply with recommendations made by an auditing firm hired by the county. In 2013 the county convention appropriated $5,200 to pay Luther's fees but the former commissioners refused to release a check to her.
Other transfer requests include one for $260 to pay for to legal expenses incurred by Burchell, another for a total of $71.84 to pay former representatives Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), and Robert Greemore (R-Meredith) to attend a Personnel Committee meeting.
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