LACONIA — The year ended as it began, with the Belknap County Convention and the Belknap County Commission at daggers drawn on New Year's Eve over the county operating budget, when the Executive Committee of the convention met to consider the commission's requests to transfer funds to cover payroll at the county nursing home.
Altogether the commission presented six requests totaling nearly $100,000, of which $73,165 was required to meet the payroll for the nursing home that falls due at the end of this week. The remainder of the funds were requested to defray fuel and utility bills.
The committee approved the transfers to meet payroll, ensuring the uninterrupted operation of the nursing home, but denied one request to pay a fuel bill and tabled requests to pay water and sewer bills.
Representative Herb Vadney (R-Meredith), convened the meeting in response to what the commission described as an emergency, explaining that without funds to meet the payroll, the staff of the nursing home would have to sent home. The situation arose from the temporary injection issued in August by Justice James D. O'Neill of the Belknap County Superior Court prohibiting the commission from spending more than the convention appropriated for the year from any line item or transferring more than $300 from one line to another without the approval of the executive committee.
Vadney opened the meeting by remarking that "most of us have had a hard time believing that this last minute crisis couldn't have been been foreseen." He said that others "did better than this 30 years ago before computers with pencils" and lamented "the level of brinksmanship on both sides during the last several weeks."
He was echoed by Representative Brian Gallagher (R-Sanbornton), who suggested the county administrator and finance director could have more accurately projected expenditures.
Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) noted that in January the convention rewrote the budget recommended by the commission with little or no advice from either the department heads or the commissioners. In particular, the convention failed to fund the increased cost of health insurance for county employees as required by the collective bargaining agreements with the unions representing them.
To meet the county's contractual obligations in that area, the commission transferred funds, prompting the convention to file the suit resulting in the injunction. Philpot said that since August funding the operations of the county and complying with he court's order has posed a day-to-day challenge for the county administration.
After the meeting Philpot said that in criticizing the commission and administration for failing to accurately project expenditures, the committee was overlooking the fact that the convention, not the commission, made the projections and prepared the budget. He anticipated that actual expenditures would more closely approximate the appropriations originally recommended by the commission than those made by the convention.
Representative Michael Sylvia (R-Belmont), who alone dissented from the vote to fund the payroll at the nursing home, pointed out that most of money was drawn from a $50,000 appropriation by the convention to hire two correctional officers. Noting that the commission refused to hire the officers, Vadney remarked that the appropriation was "turned into a slush fund". Philpot reminded Vadney that although the convention appropriated funds for the officers' wages, it withheld funding for their health insurance, without which they could not be employed.
"You knew that," Philpot said.
The committee declined to approve transfers to pay fuel and utility bills, which are payable in January, because they did not represent an emergency. Finance Director Glen Waring confessed he was "confused" after being taken to task for failing to project impending expenditures in a timely manner then being denied the means to meet expenses projected well in advance.
"This goes back to the two-year argument we've been having, " Vadney replied. He said that new county commissioners will take office next week and "this will give them something to do."