LACONIA — When the Belknap County Convention meets on Monday, Dec. 8, the Belknap County Commission will recommend a $27.3-million budget for 2015, which represents a 6.8 percent increase in expenditures and a 10 percent increase in the amount to be raised by property taxes,
The proposed increase in expenditures is the first since 2009, when the budget rose by 3.7 percent, before decreasing every year since. Likewise, the amount to be raised by property taxes has also fallen every year since 2009, when it grew by 0.9 percent.
The budget proposes expenditures of $27,330,778, which less revenues from sources other than property taxes of $12,296,021, leaves $15,034,757 to be raised by property taxes -- or $1,371,443 more than the $13,663,314 raised this year.
Despite the increase, County Administrator Debra Shackett described the commission's proposal as "a very lean budget." She said that "the commissioners are maintaining the services that the county provides" and stressed that "there are no new projects in this budget."
Personnel costs account for the largest share of the increased expenditures. The budget includes a 3 percent step increase for eligible employees, that is, those not at the top of their pay scale, based on their job performance as well as a 1.4 percent cost-of-living allowance (COLA) for all employees. This would be the first pay raise since 2012. The cost of the health insurance plan in which most employees are enrolled is budgeted to rise by 6.4 percent, and the less popular plan by 4.9 percent.
The budget for the Corrections Department funds the benefits of two positions created in the 2014 budget that were not filled this year because funding for the benefits was withheld. It also includes funding for the compensation and benefits of one additional officer. There is also funding for the compensation and benefits of a human resource director, a position that has been vacant for about six months, in the administrative budget.
Only two capital projects are funded by the budget — replacement of windows at the Belknap County Courthouse and a time and attendance system. The commission stripped funding for schematic design of an expanded, renovated or rebuilt county jail along with improvement of the HVAC system at the existing facility. However, the commissioners provided funding for the purchase of four cruisers in the Sheriff Department's budget.
The commission recommends drawing $1,775,000 from the fund balance to offset property taxes in 2015, The fund balance is estimated to have a balance of about $2.6 million at the end of 2014. The budget projects that $500,000 in excess revenue and $300,000 in operational savings will accrue to the fund balance in 2015. Withdrawing $1,775,000 would leave an estimated balance of $1.7 million at the end of 2015..
In 2013, when Moody's Investor Service reaffirmed the county's Aa2 bond rating, it noted that "sizeable fund balance growth" could raise that rating while "draw down of reserves" could lower it. The rating affects the county's cost of borrowing.
Two of the three commissioners who prepared the budget — John Thomas, a Belmont Republican, and Ed Philpot, a Laconia Democrat — will be succeeded by Republicans Richard Burchell of Gilmanton and David DeVoy of Sanbornton in the new year. The newly elected Belknap County Convention, which must adopt a budget within 90 days of Jan. 1, consists of the 18 Republican state representatives elected in the county earlier this month, seven of whom will be serving their first term.
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