LACONIA — The Belknap County Commission voted unanimously yesterday to inform county employees that they must pay the balance of the employer's share of the annual increase in their health insurance premium until the close of the fiscal year on December 31. At the same time, the commissioners agreed to ask the executive committee of the Belknap County Convention to approve the transfer of $93,667 to spare the cost to the employees and honor the terms of the collective bargaining agreement with the union representing them.
The Belknap County Convention withheld funding for the increased employer's contribution from the budget. When the commission transferred funds within the budget to restore the funding, the convention went to Belknap County Superior Court where Justice James D, O'Neill, III issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the commission from either spending in excess of any line-item appropriation of the budget adopted by the convention or transferring more than $300 from one line item to another without the approval of the executive committee.
Yesterday the commissioners rejected the suggestion of County Administrator Debra Shackett to apply a credit of some $159,000 from HealthTrust against the premiums, which by discounting the cost of premiums would have enabled the county to pay the employer's contribution. Shackett told the commissioners the county's auditors informed her that they could not agree that applying the credit against premiums rather than booking it as revenue would be proper accounting procedure. However, the auditors agreed that if the credit were applied the amount of the credit would not have a material impact on either the county's financial statement or audit report.
Commissioner Ed Philpot of Laconia said that the credit could not be applied against the premiums without the approval of the court. Without a modification of the court order, the approval of the convention to transfer funds or lay off employees, there was no alternative but to inform the employees that they must pay the remaining balance of the premium. Philpot noted that O'Neill has already declined to reconsider his order "We cannot lay people off and the convention will not agree to transfers," he said.
When Commissioner John Thomas, the chairman, reminded his colleagues that they would breach the collective bargaining agreement, Philpot countered "we're not under a court order to honor the contract. We're under a court order not to transfer funds." He said that it was time for the consequences of the convention's attempt to run the day-to-day operations of the county to "come home to roost."
Shackett said that the impact on individual employees has yet to be calculated, but emphasized that if employees must bear the cost, every effort will be made to distribute it equitably among them. Ironically, she said that while some line-items for health insurance are short of funds others are in surplus and the county could end the year spending less for premium contributions than the convention budgeted.
Shackett, who prepared a request to transfer sufficient funds to pay the premiums, recommended approaching the executive committee, which is scheduled to meet on October 27. She explained that because of significant turnover there are sufficient funds in the budget to pay the employer's contribution, but the funds are not in the appropriate lines.
"The executive committee is hell bent to destroy the benefits of our employees," said Thomas, who noted that Reps. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) and Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) both draw pensions and benefits funded by taxpayers.
Philpot ventured that based on what the convention budgeted and how it has advocated for its budget, the executive committee would not approve the transfers. "We're at the end of what we can do," he said.
Nevertheless, the commission unanimously approved the transfers Shackett recommended and agreed to present them to the executive committee.