LACONIA — The Belknap County Convention Monday night fired a warning shot across the bow of outside agencies which have traditionally received funding from the county by voting 12-5 for an across the board five percent funding cut.
The six agencies were slated to receive a total of $441,409, about 1.5 percent of the $27 million county budget, and the cut amounted to a little over $22,000.
The six agencies are the UNH Cooperative Extension Service, 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 action came after the convention heard a presentation by the Belknap Economic Development Council, which was invited to appear after a move last week to reduce its budget line to $25,000 had been tabled by a 7-6 vote.
Laconia City Councilman Henry Lipman, chairman of BEDC, told the convention that the council ''is one of the most productive investments we make as a county'' and maintained that it was doing essential work to grow the area economy by serving as catalyst for a large number of efforts.
''If we don't invest in ourselves, no one else will.''
BEDC Vice Chairman Randy Eifert of Meredith said that the council had been active for 23 years and is currently spearheading workforce development projects that are widely emulated around the state. BEDC Executive Director Justin Slatterly said that project involves local schools and 110 area businesses.
The council's treasurer, Sean Sullivan, said that earnings on the council's loan portfolio had dropped from $140,000 a year to $59,000 a year following the 2008 recession and that over the last four years the council has provided $1.3 million in new loans to 15 businesses.
Questioned by Convention Vice Chairman Herb Vadney on bad loans. Sullivan said that only three of the 76 loans made by the council had gone bad, including one several years ago in Barnstead in which the BEDC made a $400,000 loan as the third participant in a $3.2 million effort to create a wood pellet manufacturing plant.
Roy Howard of Alton questioned a recent loan to a Tilton veterinarian and asked ''why should taxpayers be subsidizing that one and not other veterinarians?'' BEDC officials said loans to small businesses from government organizations like the Small Business Administration are commonplace and that the BEDC funding is almost always just a small part of a project and the goal is to make it easier for people to start a business in Belknap County in order to grow the tax base.
Howard said that BEDC is ''a burden on the taxpayers'' and questioned why he businesses that were being assisted weren't able to get the private funding they needed.
Lipman pointed out that every other county in the state invests in itself and that it is important for Belknap County to try retain young people through economic development.
Rep. Peter Spanos of Laconia asked what would happen if the funding was cut and Sullivan said that BEDC would have to dip into it's reserves and that the executive director's main focus would turn from current programs to raising funds.
Rep. George Hurt of Gilford questioned some of BEDC's funding for consultants and was told that since Slatterly is the only employee there are other services which are needed, including book keeping and coordination of school and work activities.
Following the BEDC presentation, Vadney suggested 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.''
His proposal for a token one percent cut received support from others, including Rep. Russ Dumais of Gilford, and he withdrew it and it made a new one calling for a 5 percent cut.
Convention Chairman Frank Tilton of Laconia urged holding off action and appointing a study committee, maintaining that the move was coming late in the budget process. But Hurt moved the question, which ended the discussion, and the vote was 12-5 for the five percent cut.
A subsequent motion by Rep. Michael Sylvia of Belmont to cut an additional $20,000 from the $75,000 Belknap Economic Development Council, lost on a 13-4 vote.
Public comment following the convention finalizing the budget was by and large critical of the across the board cut, which was strongly supported by Barbara Howard of Alton.
Paula Trombi of Meredith said she saw no compassion for people affected by the cuts and said that she felt like she was an auction where the goal was ''how low can you go?.'' Trombi ran as a Democratic candidate for a House seat from Meredith and Gilford last fall.
Another unsuccessful Democratic candidate, Dave Pollack of Laconia who ran for county commissioner, said that he was appalled by the across the board cut. ''Not a single one of you know what you're doing,'' said Pollack.
Also speaking against the cuts were John Moulton of Meredith, owner of Moulton's Farm, and Rick DeMark, a director of the Belknap County Conservaton District.
Alan Beetle, owner of Patrick's Pub in Gilford and a member of the BEDC board, said that he viewed the county funding as ''an investment, not a subsidy'' which benefited all the people who live in the county.