LACONIA — The Belknap County Executive Committee agreed to the transfer of $34,000 to meet the county's share of employee health insurance costs through mid-November when it met before a packed house of mostly county workers at the Belknap County Complex last night.
The action came after a recess in the meeting at which County Administrator Debra Shackett huddled with Finance Director Glenn Waring to produce a spreadsheet detailing the transfers, which will move $34,000 of a projected $50,795 surplus in the Belknap County Nursing Home's health insurance budget to five other departments to cover their health insurance costs, $20,000 for the Sheriff's Department, $5,000 for the County Attorney's office, $4,000 for the Finance Department, $3,000 for the Nursing Home Activities Department and $2,000 for Administration.
The committee had earlier approved the transfer of $10,292 from the Maintenance Department's health insurance line to cover the nursing home's administrative insurance costs, a move which Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), chairman of the Belknap County Executive Committee, said made sense because it involved the same budget category.
Shackett seemed surprised by the willingness of the committee to approve transfers between departments and Tilton said that of all the $93,667 in transfers which the Belknap County Commissioners had asked for this was the easiest to approve.
Tilton then tried to put off consideration of other transfer requests until the next scheduled meeting of the Executive Committee on November 17, but Shackett pointed out that health insurance funds for several departments would end as of this Friday, forcing employees to pick up the county's share of the bill, which in a written explanation provided to the committee she had said would force increases of over some $3,800 for employees while others would have no additional costs at all.
County Attorney Melissa C. Guldbrandsen, whose department would be one of those most affected by the inaction on the transfer request called on the committee and the commissioners to ''search for some common ground. I would hate to see it end without some resolution'' and questioned why they couldn't use the $159,000 credit the county was receiving on its health insurance premiums to pay the bill.
County Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) said that would require the County Convention to approve a supplemental appropriation, an action which couldn't take place for nearly two weeks.
Tilton at one point suggested that the health insurance costs could be covered by existing appropriations but Shackett said that even if all of the $2.6 million approved for health care costs by the county, which were pegged to last year's appropriation level, were expended the county would still be $20,000 short of the actual anticipated costs for the current year.
Both Tilton and Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), chairperson of the county delegation, said that the intent of the convention, as expressed by a motion made by Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) in February was to limit health insurance costs to put pressure on the county employee unions to agree to new contracts which would see them take on more of the health insurance contracts.
Tilton, who was unaware that workers in the county are now represented by four unions instead of three, wondered why no contract negotiations have taken place since earlier this year. The convention in June rejected a contract with one of the unions which have granted a 1.5 percent pay raise while shifting some of the health care costs to employees.
Shackett explained that the new union was certified earlier this year by the state Public Employees Labor Relations board and although hey do not have a contract as yet that once they are certified the county is obligated to continue to provide benefits until a contract is approved.
Philpot also questioned whether Tilton was suggesting that commissioners negotiate with workers through threats of unilaterally reducing their health insurance, saying ''we can't do this unilaterally.''
Guldbrandsen said that she is aware that unions representing county workers are prepared to go to court with unfair labor practice complaints if health insurance benefits are reduced, a situation she said which would further harm relations with county workers.
Shackett said last night's decision does not end the current situation and that commissioners will return next month with more budget transfer requests for the committee.
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