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County budget debate appears muddled by difference between 'status quo' & 'evergreen'

LACONIA — Several members of the Belknap County Convention have challenged the insistence of the Belknap County Commission that despite the expiration of collective bargaining agreements, the county is bound to fund benefits employees enjoyed prior to the expiration of the contracts.

Last year, the convention stripped funding for bonuses for unused sick days and longevity of service as well as the employer's share of the increased cost of health insurance premiums from the county budget. The commission shuffled funds within the departmental budgets approved by the convention to restore the funding for both bonuses and health insurance premiums. Last week, the convention resolved to withhold any appropriation to increase compensation or benefits from the 2014 county budget until the employees' share of health insurance premiums is substantially raised and compensation and benefits are thoroughly reviewed.

The disagreement between between the convention and commission seems to come from confusion on the part of members of the convention about the difference between "the doctrine of status quo" and "automatic renewal," better known as "evergreen," clauses.

The statute governing relations between public employers and public employees (RSA 273-A) anticipated that the two parties might fail to reach agreement on a new contract before the existing agreement expires. It prohibits strikes by employees and lockouts by employers and provides for a mediation process to overcome the impasse. But, the statute fails to address the rights of employees and obligations of the employers in the interim.

Instead, through a series of decisions, the Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB) and New Hampshire Supreme Court have ruled that the employer is required to maintain the "status quo" until a new agreement is ratified and funded. Taken together these decisions have defined "status quo" as requiring employers to fund existing wages and benefits, but not so-called "step" and cost-of-living increases.

Collective bargaining agreements, negotiated by public employers like the county commission remain unenforceable until the legislative body — the county convention — ratifies the cost items or those benefits requiring an appropriation by the legislative body.

Some, but not many, collective bargaining agreements contain so-called evergreen clauses, which specifically continue the terms of the contract, including pay raises, indefinitely until a new contract is negotiated. These are cost items that must be ratified by the legislative body.

Without an evergreen clause, once a contract expires, relations between the employer and employees are governed by the doctrine of status quo, which prescribes that all the terms and conditions of employment remain in place while negotiations continue.

In 1993, the Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of status quo did not require the district to pay step increases, which absent an "evergreen" clause are considered cost items. The court stressed that maintaining the status quo is essential to ensuring "a balance of power" between employers and employees that ensures both have equal incentives to negotiate a new contract. Moreover, the justices noted that the PELRB had consistently defined status quo to refer to the compensation level of the past year.

Two years later the Supreme Court again addressed the doctrine of status quo in cases from Alton, Rochester and Conway. In Conway, four collective bargaining agreements included health insurance plans, which the employer agreed to fund. When the cost of the plans increased and the legislative body had not appropriated the necessary funds, the employers contended they had no authority to pay the higher premiums. The PELRB ruled that the doctrine of status quo required the employers to maintain the contracted benefits, regardless of cost.

The court upheld the decision of PELRB, finding that the employer's obligation to maintain the status quo rests on its duty to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment in good faith and explaining that "a unilateral change in conditions of employment is, in effect, a refusal to negotiate those terms. We hold," the justices continued, "that the health insurance benefits received by the bargaining unit members ... are conditions of employment" and the employer "must continue to provide these benefits during the status quo period regardless of the cost." In effect, the doctrine of status quo requires both parties to negotiate in good faith while ensuring that neither has an incentive not to do so.

In 2008, the Legislature codified and expanded the scope of status quo by providing that "the terms of the collective bargaining agreement shall continue in force and effect, including but not limited to the continuation of any pay plan included in the agreement, until a new agreement shall be executed." In other words, with the inclusion of the words "pay plan", evergreen clauses became part of all collective bargaining agreements, assuring public employees step increases instead of freezing their compensation until a subsequent contract was approved.

The effect of the law was to ensure the payment step increases, which employers charged tipped the balance of power between employers and employees by eliminating a significant incentive for unions to make concessions at the bargaining table. Both the New Hampshire Municipal Association and New Hampshire Association of Counties opposed the bill and joined other public employers in calling for its repeal.

In 2011 the law was repealed. However, the doctrine of status quo, together with the legal underpinnings it rests on remained intact. While spokesmen for the public employee unions were disappointed by the repeal, their reaction was mild compared to how they would have reacted to an attempt to do away with the doctrine of status quo, which would effectively reduce public employees to employees at will.

Last Updated on Thursday, 16 January 2014 02:08

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4-0 Executive Council vote confirms Lorentz as state economic development director

CONCORD — The Executive Council yesterday unanimously confirmed Governor Maggie Hassan's nomination of Carmen Lorentz, the executive director of the Belknap Economic Development Council (BEDC), as the director of the Division of Economic Development at the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED).

"We're very excited to add Carmen to the team," said Jeff Rose, the commissioner of DRED. "She understands 'the New Hampshire Advantage" and possesses the creative skills to attract new businesses to the state and assist our businesses to grow and prosper."

Noting that while at BEDC, Lorentz developed several initiatives aimed at fostering the skilled workforce advanced manufactured require, he said that workforce development has been a consistent theme among manufacturers throughout the state. He anticipated that the division will be expanding partnerships with the University System of New Hampshire, the Community College System and vocational and technical centers, like those Lorentz fostered in Belknap County, across the state.

Last year Governor Hassan restored funding in her budget for the position of director of the Division of Economic Development, which has been filled internally by interim directors for the past five years. Lorentz, a resident of Gilmanton, has been appointed to a four-term.

"I'm very pleased to have been confirmed by a unanimous vote," said Lorentz, who added that "I very much look forward to working with Commissioner Rose and the staff of the division in contributing to the growth and prosperity of the state."

A native of Gilmanton, Lorentz graduated from Gilford High School in 1995 then earned her bachelor's degree in international affairs from George Washington University, graduating summa cum laude, and master's degree in public policy from the University of Maryland. Between 1999 and 2005 she advocated on human rights issues in Latin America for Amnesty International and managed grant programs for non-profit organizations in Latin America for the Open Society Institute.

After a spell as an analyst with the New York State Division of the Budget in Albany, Lorentz joined Camoin Associates, Inc., a consulting firm headquartered in Saratoga Springs, New York which provides community and economic development services to small and mid-sized municipalities throughout the Northeast.

Lorentz joined the BEDC in March 2011. During her two-and-a-half years at the helm the organization developed a strategic plan and assembled a team of staff, partners and contractors to pursue it. She created a internship program, matching teens with opportunities, in partnership with a local information technology company and initiated Lakes Region Manufacturing Week, which drew some 550 visitors to firms in the area. At her initiative the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center reestablished its presence in the Lakes Region and the BEDC was awarded more than $1-million in grants for a variety of projects.

BEDC has begun a search for a new executive director.

Last Updated on Thursday, 16 January 2014 01:54

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Bucking statewide trend, 'bubble' of Belmont births could cause school crowding

BELMONT — A recently released demographic study commissioned by the Shaker Regional School District shows a spike in the 2007 birthrate may create a temporary increase in the number of students who will attend Belmont Elementary School.

Like a wave moving across a body of water, the impact could first be felt at the elementary level and then into the middle school, reaching its peak in 2017 and ebbing as it moves through the middle school and high school in 2021 and 2022.

The "bubble," said Superintendent Maria Dreyer at Tuesday's School Board meeting, could mean the number of students attending Belmont Elementary School in 2017 could be as high as 522. Capacity at Belmont Elementary School is 450, she added.

"We know we had a surge in the birthrate but what we don't know is if they're still in Belmont," Dreyer said. "We'll have to make some definite plans."

Every two years the district contracts for a demographic study. It draws on data from the 2010 census plus enrollment numbers through 2012 from the Shaker district and the N.H. Department of Education. Data such as historical, current, and projected birthrates as well as state and local population growth rate were also factors. Housing data is also a factor.

The study is done by Peter Hofman and Catharine Newick of Canterbury.

Included in Dreyer's suggestions for space was the possible shifting of the fifth grade classes from the Belmont Elementary School to the middle school and possible shift the eight grade from the middle school to the high school as the potential wave moves through.

Right now, Belmont Elementary School teaches kindergarten through 4th grade. Canterbury Elementary School houses kindergarten through 5th grade although Canterbury 5th graders are given the option to go to Belmont Middle School if they choose.

The biggest concern for board member Sean Embry was in the kindergarten and first grades where class size is very critical.

Dreyer said that if the students who are part of the 2007 and after spike enroll as projected, it could mean the temporary addition of three additional classes.

She also noted that the spike in Belmont's birthrates in 2007 and 2008 seems contrary to the 2010 census data that showed overall birthrates in New Hampshire are declining. In addition, the data seemingly contradicts current enrollment numbers which are shrinking.

"The district has seen enrollment decline since the 2002-2003 school year having dropped seven times in the past decade," said Hofman and Newick.

In addition, birthrates in Canterbury and Belmont since 2006 are going in opposite directions.

In Canterbury, births averaged 30 per year from 2002 to 2006 and dropped to 21 per year in 2007 through 2011. In Belmont, the birthrate averaged 63 per year in 2002 through 2006 but jumped to an average of 81 per year from 2007 to 2011.

The report says that statewide, the number of children under the age of 5 declined over the 10 year period between 2000 and 2010 with the exception of Belmont where the number increased by 13 percent.

School Board members had little to say after Dreyer presented them with the study, saying they would review the entire document before moving forward.

Chair Heidi Hutchinson said she would like to see the district continue having the demographic study done every two years.

Last Updated on Thursday, 16 January 2014 01:42

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7 Belknap County reps join small majority as bill to legalize recreational pot use passes N.H. House

CONCORD — When a bill to legalize the recreational use of marijuana carried the New Hampshire House of Representatives yesterday by the narrow margin of 170 to 162 on a bipartisan vote, the Belknap County delegation split evenly, with seven members in favor, seven against and four absent.

Among the seven voting in favor, there were six Republicans — Richard Burchell of Gilmanton, Guy Comtois of Barnstead, Charles Fink and Michael Sylvia of Belmont and Bob Greemore and Herb Vadney of Meredith — and only one Democrat — Ruth Gulick of New Hampton.

Five Republicans — Jane Cormier and Stephen Holmes of Alton, Don Flanders and Frank Tilton of Laconia and Dennis Fields of Sanbornton — and two Democrats — Lisa DiMartino of Gilford and Ian Raymond of Sanbornton — voted against the bill.

Representatives Beth Arsenault (D-Laconia), David Huot (D-Laconia), Bob Luther (R-Laconia) and Colette Worsman (R-Meredith) were absent and did not vote.

Modeled after legislation enacted in Colorado and Washington, the bill would allow individuals aged 21 and older to possess no more than one ounce of marijuana for recreational use as well as to cultivate as many six marijuana plants for personal use in a controlled environment. No fewer than 10 cultivation facilities would be licensed while the number of retail outlets would be no less than one for every ten liquor stores. Municipalities would be entitled to prohibit retail marijuana stores altogether or limit their number as well as to enact ordinances regulating their operation.
Marijuana production and sales would be taxed. A tax of $30 per ounce would be levied on marijuana sold or transferred by a cultivator to a manufacturer or retailer while retail sales would be taxed at 15 percent of the over-the-counter price. Supporters of the bill estimated that by taxing the cultivation and sales of marijuana the state could raise $30-million in revenue annually.
The Marijuana Policy Project applauded the House vote as being the first time a legislative chamber has voted to treat the drug like alcohol. "House members made history today and they are clearly on the right side of it," said Matt Simon, the group's New Hampshire-based New England political director.
Lawmakers have rejected decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana for recreational use in the past, most recently last session. But decriminalization supporters were encouraged when the state — with Governor Maggie Hassan's backing — made it legal for the seriously ill to possess and use the drug last year. Implementing the state's medical marijuana law is expected to take another year.
The bill will be referred to the House Ways and Means Committee then returned to the full House for a final vote. Should the bill carry both the House and Senate, Hassan has vowed to veto it. (The Associated Press contributed to this story).

Last Updated on Thursday, 16 January 2014 01:38

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