LACONIA — The Belknap County Convention's decision to impose a 5 percent across-the-board cut in funding for six so-called "outside agencies" came under fire at Monday night's meeting of the convention, at which it finalized the county budget.
The agencies were slated to receive a total of $441,409, about 1.5 percent of the $27 million county budget. The cut, which was passed on March 9 by a 12-5 vote, amounted to a little over $22,000.
The six agencies are the UNH Cooperative Extension Service, which was slated to receive $163,000, the Belknap County Conservation District, $97,304, the Belknap Economic Development Council, $75,000, Genesis Behavioral Health (the regional mental health agency), $34,2000, the Community Action Program, $60,905 and Greater Lakes Region Child Advocacy Center, $11,000.
The cut was proposed last week by Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith), who said that the convention, through gradual reductions of outside agency funding, should ''set them on a path of independence by setting a goal where we get out of the business of subsidizing them.''
At this Monday's meeting former Meredith selectman Miller Lovett recalled that Eliza Leadbeater, former executive director of the BEDC, had once called the outside agencies ''the crown jewels of Belknap County'' and said that an attempt to gradually decrease their funding and ultimately end it was ill-advised.
Lovett said that cutting county funding would result in an increase in local property taxes and said that the gradual reduction of state and county support for Genesis, which he said is being squeezed little by little, is part of ''the scandal we're on the verge of'' when it comes to mental health funding.
Former representative David Huot of Laconia expanded on that theme, providing some historical context to what Lovett had said was an emerging scandal. He explained that in the wake of the closing of Laconia State School in the 1980s New Hampshire developed a community mental health system which was ''second to none'' — with Genesis being one of the regional mental health centers.
He said that since that time state mental health programs have been starved for funding, resulting in the state being sued and agreeing to a settlement which provides for $27 million in additional state funding.
''If the state doesn't live up to the bargain, the people who brought the suit can go back to court in case in which there's no way we can win. And that will costs us a lot more than $27 million.''
He said that he viewed outside agency funding as an investment in the county and said all of the agencies provide services to the county's communities and are better funded at the county level than at the community level.
Paula Trombi of Meredith said she didn't agree with Vadney at all, which prompted him to respond that ''the people spoke loud and clear in the election and they want to cut spending.''
Rick DeMark of Meredith said that the work done by the conservation district and the extension service helps support agricultural activity in the county which he says provides a strong boost to the local economy, a view supported by John Hodsdon of Meredith, who has been involved with the Conservation District.
Jan Hooper of Center Harbor, former head of the Belknap County Conservation District, said it wasn't sensible to consider phasing out the agencies. ''Think about the ramifications. At some point your family may be affected.''
Center Harbor Selectman Richard Hanson said that he thinks the convention is mistaken in cutting agencies which he says provide needed services. ''I respect the desire to save money, but I don't think these cuts do that,''he said, maintaining that costs would be passed along to the towns.
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