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Petitioned warrant articles would do away with Alton planner & assessor

ALTON — The Planning Board has placed seven amendments to the zoning ordinance on the 2014 warrant while petitioned articles would eliminate the position of town planner and secede the town from membership in the Lakes Region Planning Commission (LRPC). A third article would do away with the position of town assessor.

Loring Carr, who chairs the Board of Selectmen, said that he was not aware of who initiated the petitioned articles, but said that there were some 40 signatories to all three.

Both the Selectboard, by votes of three-to-one, and the Budget Committee, by votes of five-to-zero with two abstentions, recommended against the articles to eliminate the positions of planner and assessor. Moreover, at the deliberative session amendments explaining the fiscal impact were attached to both articles.

Carr said that when the position of planner was vacant the town contracted for services in the interim, noting that the amendment drew on this experience to estimate that it would cost $120,120 plus mileage to hire a consultant, compared to the $64,040 plus benefits paid to the planner.

Carr suspected that the article, together with the other not to fund membership in the LLRPC, stemmed from the controversy sparked by the decision of the Planning Board to recommend amending the zoning ordinance to provide for the development of so-called workforce housing. The proposed amendment, which would bring the town into compliance with state law as well as match the housing goals of its Master Plan, is the first of the seven proposed by the Planning Board.

Two forums on the issue, sponsored by the Alton Business Association, were overshadowed by charges that LRPC, in league with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), was seeking to impose an agenda of "smart growth" and "sustainable development" under the aegis of the "Granite State Future" project. Representative Jane Cormier (R-Alton), who this year introduced legislation to do away with all nine regional planning associations, was a featured speaker at the second forum and a signatory to the petitioned article.

The article to eliminate the assessor was also amended to explain the fiscal impact of replacing the position with a contractor. Carr said that information from Meredith, Moultonborough, Gilford and Wolfeboro indicated that the cost of contracting for assessing services would be $95,000 per year plus $125,000 every five years for a revaluation compared to the $68,599 plus benefits paid to the assessor.

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 February 2014 01:04

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Gilmanton School Board & teachers come to terms

GILMANTON — The School Board and the Gilmanton Education Association have tentatively agreed to a three-year collective bargaining agreement that includes a raise in salary and allows credit for experience ("step" increases) as well as an increase in the employee contribution to health insurance premiums.

The contract provides for a salary increase of approximately six percent over the three years, which includes in addition to salary longevity health insurance and fixed costs. The increases are 1.07-percent, or a total of $26,777, in the first year, 2.2-percent, or $55,562, in the second year, and 2.82-percent, or $72,825, in the third year.

With concern over the litigation surrounding the Local Government Center, the district has chosen to place its health insurance program with the only other available carrier, School Care. Consequently, the number of plans on offer was halved from four to two and the $1 mail order prescription rider was eliminated

Currently the premium contribution for employees enrolled in the two-person and family plans are 21 percent and 31 percent respectively while the school district pays the entire premium for those with single-person plans. Under the proposed contract employees would share premium costs for all plans, including the single-person plan.

These changes would reduce the district's share of health insurance costs by more than $23,800 in the first year and is expected to lead to further savings in subsequent years.

The agreement will appear as a warrant article when the town votes on Tuesday, March 11 at the Gilmanton Academy.

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 February 2014 02:34

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Democrats almost pull off miracle county budget move

LACONIA — With 14 of its 18 members present and voting — one by telephone — the Belknap County Convention last evening came within a whisker of adopting the 2014 budget as originally proposed by the Belknap County Commission in December, which the convention has spent the last six weeks preparing to cut by more than $850,000.

A full-house of Democrats was joined by two Republicans in almost pulling off a gigantic political upset. But a tie vote meant defeat and

lawmakers will now wait another week to try and pass a budget.

Despite the snowfall, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, rejected suggestions to postpone the scheduled meeting. But after waiting nearly 30 minutes for a quorum of 10 members to appear, she then proposed recessing and reconvening later in the week. Instead the members chose to proceed and before long their numbers had grown to 13 and Rep. Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead), who was tending to a failing roof, had joined by telephone.

The issue before the convention was the budget prepared by the Republican majority, which would reduce expenditures recommended by the commission by $858,350, virtually all of it represented by personnel costs. This year like last, the convention proposes to strip a 1.6-percent cost-of-living adjustment and 3-percent step raise for eligible employees, together with the corresponding funds for payroll taxes and retirement contributions, from the commission's budget. The majority would also eliminate funding for bonuses paid for unused sick time and length of service. Finally, funding for the employer's share of a 7.3-percent increase in health insurance premiums in 2013 and 13.4-percent increase in 2014 are also on the chopping block.

Opening the debate, Rep. Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton) called the convention's budget "the worst thing we've ever done" that showed nothing but "disrespect for county employees, who are real people doing real work."

Quickly Rep. Beth Arsenault (D-Laconia) moved to adopt the commission's budget and was seconded by Rep. Lisa DiMartino (D-Gilford). Ultimately the motion failed on tie vote, seven-to-seven, leaving the convention to tackle the budget again next week.

Rep. Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) insisted that he had "no intent to disrespect anyone," but added that the responsibility of the convention is "to walk the line between the taxpayers and the employees." The cost of health insurance, he said, is "unsustainable."

Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) explained that the effect of Arsenault's motion would be to adopt a budget that raised property taxes 8.2 percent. He said taken together the wage increase and health insurance amounted to a pay raise of 11 percent for county employees. "Blanket approval of the commissioners' budget," he charged, "is really taking it to the taxpayers. It's not feasible, not realistic."

The majority of the convention, said Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) "has been working to find a lot of money in one place — personnel — and is balancing the budget on the back of employees." He noted that the increased cost of county government has been hidden from property taxpayers by drawing from the undesignated fund balance to reduce the amount raised by taxes and warned "the fund balance is not going to last forever. We're punishing the employees," he continued, "to make it look like we're saving money. We need to step up and do what's necessary."

Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) charged that the commissioners have "not admitted there are any problems with their budget, shown an unwillingness to compromise and failed to negotiate with the unions as necessary."

Reminding Vadney that he is selectman in Meredith, Commissioner Steve Nedeau began reeling off the salaries of town officials, beginning with $103,000 paid to the town manager, who also receives a car and telephone allowance, and proceeding to the director of administrative services, public works, police chief and fire chief, all of whom he reported earn between $89,000 and $100,000.

Worsman said the remarks were not germane to the discussion, cutting off his soliloquy before Vadney could respond.

With that the motion to adopt the commissioner's budget was put to the vote. Arsenault, DiMartino, Huot and Gulick were joined by fellow Democrat Ian Raymond of Sanbornton and two Republicans — Don Flanders and Bob Luther of Laconia — in favor. Burchell, Comtois, Tilton, Vadney and Worsman, along with fellow Republicans Bob Greemore of Meredith and Michael Sylvia of Belmont — voted against.

Republican Representatives Jane Cormier and Stephen Holmes of Alton, Charles Fink of Belmont and Dennis Fields of Sanbornton were absent.

As it happened, supporters of the commission came within minutes of prevailing. As the meeting adjourned Sheriff Craig Wiggin received a telephone call from Fields, a persistent and outspoken critic of Worsman's leadership of the convention, who was surprised to learn the meeting was convened in spite of the weather. Had Fields called 30 minutes earlier, he like Comtois, could have participated by telephone and almost certainly would have cast his vote for the commission budget, which would have carried eight-to-seven.

The convention will meet on Monday, February 24, beginning at 5 p.m. when it is expected to vote once again on the 2014 county budget.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 February 2014 01:27

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Belknap commissioners bracing for having to manage with 850,000 fewer dollars

LACONIA — Belknap County commissioners met Tuesday morning to discuss how they will deal with an anticipated cut of over $850,000 in their proposed $26.57 million county budget for 2014 and were glum over the prospects of being able to maintain county services at their current level.
Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) said it is obvious that at least 10 members of the county convention aren't willing to discuss the impact of the cuts proposed by the convention and ''have made a decision and are going to implement it.''
County Administrator Debra Shackett said that she had spent all day Friday meeting with department heads to try and come up with ways to deal with the looming cuts and that she would be ready as early as today, providing the county convention had acted on the budget at its scheduled meeting last night, to propose a list of specific actions.
''I hope they vote to end the misery,'' said a resigned Shackett, who said that county employees ''have been watching, listening and reading'' and many are asking themselves ''how can I keep working here?'' when they hear about the convention's desire to cut salaries and increase the workers' share of health care costs, currently 5 to 6.5 percent, to 20 percent.
Health insurance costs under the LGC (Local Government Center) plans provided by the county went up 7.3 percent last year are slated to increase by 13.42 percent on July 1 of this year. There are two plans offered, one of which employees pay a share of, and another with lower premiums which are completely paid for by the county.
The two-person higher premium plan has an annual cost of $18,976.24 and is scheduled to increase to $21,525.12 on July 1, an increase of $2,546.88. The county would pay $20,488.86 and the employee $1,076.26, or five percent. If the employee share was increased to 20 percent, employees would pay and additional $3,228.78 a year which would increase their weekly costs to $82,80.
The family plan under the more expensive option increases from $25,620.60 to $29,058.84 with the county paying $27,606.90 and the employee $1,452.94. Were the employee share increased to 20 percent it would increase the annual cost to the employee to $5,811.76.
Premiums for the plans which are completely paid for by the county are scheduled to increase from $7,701.24 to $8,734.68 for single, $15,402.36 to $17,469.48 for two person and $20,793.24 to $23,583.72 for a family plan.

 One of the goals of the convention since the budget process started has been to reduce the budget proposed by the commission to the point where commissioners will have to to make a choice between not funding health benefit increases, which remain in a legal "status quo" state for some 125 employees of the Corrections Department, Sheriff's Department and Nursing Home represented by the State Employees Association, or cutting the number of employees in order to reduce the total amount due.

When the convention met early in January it adopted a motion offered by Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) by an 11-7 vote 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.
The budget as proposed called for a 1.6 percent cost of living pay increase and a 3 percent step increase for employees.
Some 28 county employees not affiliated with unions, concerned over the possible loss of raises and the efforts made by the convention in last year's budget cycle to cut salaries and benefits, earlier this year filed a petition to form a collective bargaining unit to be represented by the Teamsters.
Tuesday morning the commissioners met behind closed doors with Shackett to ''discuss the status of negotiations'' with the unions.
Last year commissioners were able to transfer funds within departmental budgets to fund the contracts they had negotiated but convention members are attempting to thwart that this year by adjusting each line item appropriation relating to salaries and benefits, even through commissioners continue to maintain that have the authority to transfer funds within departments without the approval of the convention or its Executive Committee.
But the convention seems intent on limiting the power of the commissioners in transferring funds by stripping the contingency line, which last year amounted to $200,000, from the budget and establishing a contingency fund which would require Executive Committee approval before any transfers could be made.

 ''The convention is trying to control county operations by taking over contingency money,'' said Commission Chairman John Thomas (R-Belmont) who said the lawmakers don't seem to have a problem with that and ''are happy to be in control. They have authority, but no responsibility.''
Philpot said that the budget cuts put the commissioners in a difficult situation and a number of factors, such as spike in the number of people incarcerated at the county jail, or an increase in the investigation of heroin-related deaths, could push individual department budgets over the line.
Commissioner Steve Nedeau (R-Meredith) lamented the convention's proposed budget cuts, saying that they come after six years of belt-tightening and real progress in improving the effectiveness and efficiency of county government.
''It's like what the Straight Arrows did to Laconia in the early 1990s. Laconia is just now getting back to where it was before they took over,'' said Nedeau.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 February 2014 01:50

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