LACONIA — The Belknap County Commission and Belknap County Convention returned to court yesterday when the commissioners asked Justice James D, O''Neill, III of Belknap County Superior Court to compel the executive committee of the convention to hold an emergency meeting on Thursday to approve transfers of funds they claim are required to sustain operation of the nursing home, county jail and sheriff's department.
With appropriations for wages of part-time employees and overtime expended, the commission seeks to transfer funds appropriated for full-time employees and other purposes to maintain staffing of the nursing home, county jail and sheriff's department . The impending fiscal crisis follows the decision last month of Justice James D. O'Neill, III of Belknap County Superior Court prohibiting the commissioners from transferring more than $300 from one line item to another without the approval of the executive committee.
Attorney Robert Desrosier, representing the commissioners, told the court that the convention has assumed authority over the county budget and the commissioners were simply asking that they exercise it. He asked the court to order the executive committee to meet on Thursday or temporarily stay its order, allowing the commissioners to transfer the necessary funds without the committee's approval.
Desrosier said that by 11 a.m. Friday there would not be sufficient funds in the appropriate line to pay part-time employees at the nursing home, which would require the staff to be cut by more than half. He explained that county officials had spoken with the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services about placing some of the 94 residents in other county nursing homes and were told that they would incur penalties and sanctions. In any event, he noted, there are no funds available to transport residents.
"There is plenty of money in the budget," he stressed, "but its in the wrong category."
Likewise, Desrosier said that without transferring funds for staffing at the jail, shifts would be reduced from five to three officers and medicines could not be provided to inmates. Superintendent Dan Ward said that the jail is already in lockdown and visits from the public and educational and drug abuse programs cancelled while inmates confined to their cells for much of the day.
Sheriff Craig Wiggin anticipated that unless funds became available he would have to suspend the dispatch service, leaving nine of the 11 police departments in the county without nighttime service.
The convention, represented by attorney David Horan, objected, claiming that it was not advised of the urgency of the situation in time to schedule a meeting. He noted that last month the executive committee scheduled a meeting on September 15, but when the meeting convened the commission presented no requests for transfers.
Desrosiers countered that on September 4, well before the meeting, he informed Horan that two of the three commissioners as well as the county administrator would be unable to attend a meeting on the 15th while emphasizing the need to meet as soon as possible. "If the convention wants the power to supervise the budget," he repeated, "it must step up and exercise its authority. The issue here is just good government."
Horan said that on Monday, Representative Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), chairman of the Executive Committee, scheduled a meeting for September 29 and expressed two concerns about meeting sooner. His primary concern was to ensure that the general public, which has an interest in the conduct of county government, would have sufficient notice of the meeting and ample opportunity to attend it. Second, he said that the committee must have sufficient information and time to digest it. Although the commissioners provided a list of transfers, which runs to three pages, he said in the past transfer requests were presented on forms, which explained the source and purpose of the funds and the remaining balances in the relevant accounts. "None of that information has been provided," he said. Describing the list as "woefully inadequate," he said that 'the executive committee will have to do lots of research. It's not fair expect this of volunteers paid $100 a year. "
"We're asking for a meeting," Desrosier said. "What we're talking about is government." He explained that the commissioners sought a "dialogue so that they can provide services."
O'Neill asked Desrosier "are you telling me that the nursing home, jail and sheriff's department can't operate unless $617,872.20 is transferred by Thursday?" Then asked how much would be required to sustain operations until the executive committee met on September 29. After a recess, Desrosier told the court that approximately $455,500, transferred from seven budget lines, would be sufficient.
O'Neill said he would render his decision sometime Wednesday morning.
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