LACONIA — With 14 of its 18 members present and voting — one by telephone — the Belknap County Convention last evening came within a whisker of adopting the 2014 budget as originally proposed by the Belknap County Commission in December, which the convention has spent the last six weeks preparing to cut by more than $850,000.
A full-house of Democrats was joined by two Republicans in almost pulling off a gigantic political upset. But a tie vote meant defeat and
lawmakers will now wait another week to try and pass a budget.
Despite the snowfall, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, rejected suggestions to postpone the scheduled meeting. But after waiting nearly 30 minutes for a quorum of 10 members to appear, she then proposed recessing and reconvening later in the week. Instead the members chose to proceed and before long their numbers had grown to 13 and Rep. Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead), who was tending to a failing roof, had joined by telephone.
The issue before the convention was the budget prepared by the Republican majority, which would reduce expenditures recommended by the commission by $858,350, virtually all of it represented by personnel costs. This year like last, the convention proposes to strip a 1.6-percent cost-of-living adjustment and 3-percent step raise for eligible employees, together with the corresponding funds for payroll taxes and retirement contributions, from the commission's budget. The majority would also eliminate funding for bonuses paid for unused sick time and length of service. Finally, funding for the employer's share of a 7.3-percent increase in health insurance premiums in 2013 and 13.4-percent increase in 2014 are also on the chopping block.
Opening the debate, Rep. Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton) called the convention's budget "the worst thing we've ever done" that showed nothing but "disrespect for county employees, who are real people doing real work."
Quickly Rep. Beth Arsenault (D-Laconia) moved to adopt the commission's budget and was seconded by Rep. Lisa DiMartino (D-Gilford). Ultimately the motion failed on tie vote, seven-to-seven, leaving the convention to tackle the budget again next week.
Rep. Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) insisted that he had "no intent to disrespect anyone," but added that the responsibility of the convention is "to walk the line between the taxpayers and the employees." The cost of health insurance, he said, is "unsustainable."
Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) explained that the effect of Arsenault's motion would be to adopt a budget that raised property taxes 8.2 percent. He said taken together the wage increase and health insurance amounted to a pay raise of 11 percent for county employees. "Blanket approval of the commissioners' budget," he charged, "is really taking it to the taxpayers. It's not feasible, not realistic."
The majority of the convention, said Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) "has been working to find a lot of money in one place — personnel — and is balancing the budget on the back of employees." He noted that the increased cost of county government has been hidden from property taxpayers by drawing from the undesignated fund balance to reduce the amount raised by taxes and warned "the fund balance is not going to last forever. We're punishing the employees," he continued, "to make it look like we're saving money. We need to step up and do what's necessary."
Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) charged that the commissioners have "not admitted there are any problems with their budget, shown an unwillingness to compromise and failed to negotiate with the unions as necessary."
Reminding Vadney that he is selectman in Meredith, Commissioner Steve Nedeau began reeling off the salaries of town officials, beginning with $103,000 paid to the town manager, who also receives a car and telephone allowance, and proceeding to the director of administrative services, public works, police chief and fire chief, all of whom he reported earn between $89,000 and $100,000.
Worsman said the remarks were not germane to the discussion, cutting off his soliloquy before Vadney could respond.
With that the motion to adopt the commissioner's budget was put to the vote. Arsenault, DiMartino, Huot and Gulick were joined by fellow Democrat Ian Raymond of Sanbornton and two Republicans — Don Flanders and Bob Luther of Laconia — in favor. Burchell, Comtois, Tilton, Vadney and Worsman, along with fellow Republicans Bob Greemore of Meredith and Michael Sylvia of Belmont — voted against.
Republican Representatives Jane Cormier and Stephen Holmes of Alton, Charles Fink of Belmont and Dennis Fields of Sanbornton were absent.
As it happened, supporters of the commission came within minutes of prevailing. As the meeting adjourned Sheriff Craig Wiggin received a telephone call from Fields, a persistent and outspoken critic of Worsman's leadership of the convention, who was surprised to learn the meeting was convened in spite of the weather. Had Fields called 30 minutes earlier, he like Comtois, could have participated by telephone and almost certainly would have cast his vote for the commission budget, which would have carried eight-to-seven.
The convention will meet on Monday, February 24, beginning at 5 p.m. when it is expected to vote once again on the 2014 county budget.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 February 2014 01:27
LACONIA — Belknap County commissioners met Tuesday morning to discuss how they will deal with an anticipated cut of over $850,000 in their proposed $26.57 million county budget for 2014 and were glum over the prospects of being able to maintain county services at their current level.
Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) said it is obvious that at least 10 members of the county convention aren't willing to discuss the impact of the cuts proposed by the convention and ''have made a decision and are going to implement it.''
County Administrator Debra Shackett said that she had spent all day Friday meeting with department heads to try and come up with ways to deal with the looming cuts and that she would be ready as early as today, providing the county convention had acted on the budget at its scheduled meeting last night, to propose a list of specific actions.
''I hope they vote to end the misery,'' said a resigned Shackett, who said that county employees ''have been watching, listening and reading'' and many are asking themselves ''how can I keep working here?'' when they hear about the convention's desire to cut salaries and increase the workers' share of health care costs, currently 5 to 6.5 percent, to 20 percent.
Health insurance costs under the LGC (Local Government Center) plans provided by the county went up 7.3 percent last year are slated to increase by 13.42 percent on July 1 of this year. There are two plans offered, one of which employees pay a share of, and another with lower premiums which are completely paid for by the county.
The two-person higher premium plan has an annual cost of $18,976.24 and is scheduled to increase to $21,525.12 on July 1, an increase of $2,546.88. The county would pay $20,488.86 and the employee $1,076.26, or five percent. If the employee share was increased to 20 percent, employees would pay and additional $3,228.78 a year which would increase their weekly costs to $82,80.
The family plan under the more expensive option increases from $25,620.60 to $29,058.84 with the county paying $27,606.90 and the employee $1,452.94. Were the employee share increased to 20 percent it would increase the annual cost to the employee to $5,811.76.
Premiums for the plans which are completely paid for by the county are scheduled to increase from $7,701.24 to $8,734.68 for single, $15,402.36 to $17,469.48 for two person and $20,793.24 to $23,583.72 for a family plan.
One of the goals of the convention since the budget process started has been to reduce the budget proposed by the commission to the point where commissioners will have to to make a choice between not funding health benefit increases, which remain in a legal "status quo" state for some 125 employees of the Corrections Department, Sheriff's Department and Nursing Home represented by the State Employees Association, or cutting the number of employees in order to reduce the total amount due.
When the convention met early in January it adopted a motion offered by Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) by an 11-7 vote to withhold any increase in the appropriation for salaries, wages and benefits until there is a "substantial increase" in the employees' contribution to health insurance premiums and a thorough review of compensation and benefits.
The budget as proposed called for a 1.6 percent cost of living pay increase and a 3 percent step increase for employees.
Some 28 county employees not affiliated with unions, concerned over the possible loss of raises and the efforts made by the convention in last year's budget cycle to cut salaries and benefits, earlier this year filed a petition to form a collective bargaining unit to be represented by the Teamsters.
Tuesday morning the commissioners met behind closed doors with Shackett to ''discuss the status of negotiations'' with the unions.
Last year commissioners were able to transfer funds within departmental budgets to fund the contracts they had negotiated but convention members are attempting to thwart that this year by adjusting each line item appropriation relating to salaries and benefits, even through commissioners continue to maintain that have the authority to transfer funds within departments without the approval of the convention or its Executive Committee.
But the convention seems intent on limiting the power of the commissioners in transferring funds by stripping the contingency line, which last year amounted to $200,000, from the budget and establishing a contingency fund which would require Executive Committee approval before any transfers could be made.
''The convention is trying to control county operations by taking over contingency money,'' said Commission Chairman John Thomas (R-Belmont) who said the lawmakers don't seem to have a problem with that and ''are happy to be in control. They have authority, but no responsibility.''
Philpot said that the budget cuts put the commissioners in a difficult situation and a number of factors, such as spike in the number of people incarcerated at the county jail, or an increase in the investigation of heroin-related deaths, could push individual department budgets over the line.
Commissioner Steve Nedeau (R-Meredith) lamented the convention's proposed budget cuts, saying that they come after six years of belt-tightening and real progress in improving the effectiveness and efficiency of county government.
''It's like what the Straight Arrows did to Laconia in the early 1990s. Laconia is just now getting back to where it was before they took over,'' said Nedeau.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 February 2014 01:50
LACONIA — About 100 people from various walks of life came together last Monday night at the Hope for the Homeless event that featured the award-winning short film "Inocente," — about the daughter of a homeless illegal immigrant mother and an abusive father who abandoned his family who finds strength and courage through her artistic ability.
Held in the cafeteria of the Middle School, people ate a soup and sandwich meal, watched the movie, and then broke up into groups to discuss three core questions: what did you feel when you say this and why; what surprised you; and what is possible in Laconia and the surrounding area.
In other words, "What would Inocente find if she were to come to Laconia."
According to those who spoke, Inocente would find the Belknap County Coalition for the Homeless — accessible by dialing 2-1-1.
She and he mother and two younger brothers would find help from New Beginnings which operates an open shelter for abused spouses and their children. For those in need of privacy or who are being threatened, New Beginning arranges for private shelters as well.
There is the Salvation Army's Carey House shelter that holds four apartments for families, some help from the guidance department in the Laconia School District that employs a homeless coordinator whose only job is to help identify and help those who are tacitly homeless and privately get the the services they need.
For many who watched the movie, they were surprised that Inocente didn't tell her fellow students that she was homeless.
For the professionals, they weren't surprised by that, saying that homelessness could be stigmatizing and sometimes students who are in their teens just aren't sensitive enough to others to understand what's different.
At the high school level, a student group called Freedom Found is trying to address some of the bullying and ostracism that can come with being poor.
The group meets together regularly and is accepting of everyone who wants to join.
Working with a guidance counselor, the group works against bullying and many of its members were at Monday's meeting working with the adults in their individual sessions.
At least one homeless person joined the group. "J" said his homelessness is caused by alcoholism.
Clean and sober for about 30 days now, "J" spends Monday mornings with the River Art Crew and many of his painting were on display at the event.
"I've been homeless on and off for 20 years," he said. When asked how he got by, he said "he would go where the booze was" he sold his food stamps, and pan-handled.
He said he slept under bridges, in tents, car lots, and hallways or on people's couches.
About the one thing many agreed was needed in Laconia was an emergency cold-weather shelter and more family shelters like the four apartments offered by the Carey House.
Mike Bernier of the Community Action Center said in his first years as a homeless advocate he found most of the chronically homeless were single people, many of whom had mental illnesses and drug and/or alcohol problems.
Recently, he said he seeing more families. He said landlords themselves are dealing with foreclosures, there is little affordable housing in Laconia, and there are very few jobs that pay a living wage.
"It's a perfect storm," he said.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 February 2014 01:44
MEREDITH — The Greater Meredith Program (GMP) celebrated 10 years of accomplishments at its annual meeting Monday night at the Inn at Church Landing and launched yet another initiative, a sculpture walk which aims see the work of about 25 artists showcased over a 15-month period along the town's Main Street and in its lakeside parks.
Bev Lapham, chairman of the Meredith Sculpture Walk, said the project will see an outdoor juried exhibit opening beginning June 1 of this year which will feature the work of New Hampshire sculptors who are being invited to submit works of art which will be on display year round.
Bases will be provided and the art work will have plaques identifying the artists along with contact information. The program will provide a $150 stipend to help pay for installation and the art work will remain on display for 15 months.
The non-profit community economic development organization has undertaken dozens of projects since it first started 10 years ago, according to architect Chris Williams. Those have included a facade improvement program for Main Street, a Courtyard project on Main Street, a landscaped garden at the Meredith Community Center , a tree planting program and a Wicwas Grange rehabilitation project which was honored by the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce with a Golden Trowel Award.
Other projects include a career partnership program which Executive Director Rhonda Hanaway said has provided over 200 job shadowing opportunities and 100 internships for students at Inter-Lakes High School over its first four years and is designed to help students make connections in their own community to make them aware of career opportunities which exist right in their own backyard.
Gage Wheeler, an Inter-Lakes High School senior, said that he had taken advantage of an internship opportunity at Moulton Farm last summer and introduced the audience to the Lakes Region-opoly Game, a board game modeled on Monopoly, which is being used in a fundraiser for the program.
Chis Kelly, outgoing GMP chairman, was presented with the President's Award in recognition of his service and said leading the organization had been an incredible experience.
''Helping our little town be the best we can has been a lot of fun. No matter where I go, people see what we've done and say 'Wow", you're doing that in Meredith? It's human resources, the great volunteers we have here who get these things done and make us such a strong community,'' said Kelly.
New GMP Board President Rob Stephens said the GMP remains dedicated to enhancing economic vitality, historical and cultural heritage, and town-wide beautification and will continue to play a strong role in the community.
CAPTION: greatermeredith cut
Award winners at the Greater Meredith Program's annual meeting included Nancy Lavigne, honors recognition; Pam Coburn, Volunteer of the Year; Vickie Carty, Volunteer of the Year; Liz Lapham, executive director; Rob Stephens, GMP Board president; Richard Pendergrast, board member of the year; Chris Kelly, President's Award; Rhonda Hanaway, honors recognition. The program celebrated 10 years of progress at its meeting held at Church Landing at Meredith. (Roger Amsden/for The Laconia Daily Sun)
Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 February 2014 01:35
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