CONCORD — The future of the Laconia District Office of New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) will hinge on the outcome of the committee of conference where negotiators from the House and Senate will reconcile the differences between the versions of the 2016-17 state budget adopted by the two chambers.
The companion bill to the budget, House Bill 2, adopted by both the House and Senate, directs the commissioner of DHHS to consolidate district offices to reduce general fund appropriations to the department by $1 million in each year of the biennium.
Last week, HHS Commissioner Nick Toumpas confirmed that the Laconia office, along with its counterparts in Claremont, Conway and Rochester, have been identified for closure, trimming the number of district offices from 11 to seven. There would be no reduction in personnel, he said. Instead, costs would be spare primarily by reducing leasing expenses.
State Sen. Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said yesterday, "I'm willing to have a conversation about the Laconia office. I have no interest in making life more difficult for people who are already having a hard time." However, she asked if $1 million in general fund appropriations was not cut from the budget of DHHS, where is the cut going to come from? What else are you willing to give up?"
Forrester flatly ruled out any increase in revenue to keep the offices open.
"It's never going to happen," she said.
State Sen. Andrew Hosmer (D-Laconia), who serves on the Senate Finance Committee, said that the closure of district offices of DHHS was "one of the reasons I voted against HB 2," along with the failure to adequately fund substance abuse programs, dipping into the Renewable Energy Fund and refusing to extend the New Hampshire Health Protection Program.
Hosmer charged that the Republican majority in the Senate put itself in "an ideological box" by not only refusing to consider any measures to increase revenue but also by foregoing $23 million in revenue by reducing both the Business Profit and Business Enterprise taxes, a step he called "disingenuous."
Although Forrester and Hosmer insisted they were willing to discuss the future of the district offices, both indicated that partisan differences would hinder negotiations. Insisting that the budget process has been "open, transparent and inclusive," Forrester said that the atmosphere has become "very partisan."
Hosmer claimed that the Democratic minority in the Senate was "anxious and willing to work on the issues, but our input was not welcome, if it was contrary to the ideology of the Republican majorities in the Senate and House."
There are 62 employees working in the Laconia District office with 11,938 open cases. The office serves the city of Laconia and 25 towns (Alexandria, Alton, Ashland, Barnstead, Belmont, Bridgewater, Bristol, Campton, Center Harbor, Dorchester, Ellsworth, Gilford, Gilmanton, Hebron, Holderness, Meredith, New Hampton, Plymouth, Rumney, Sanbornton, Thornton, Tilton, Waterville Valley and Wentworth).
Laconia, Belmont and Gilford are in Senate District 7, represented by Hosmer, while 18 of the 22 towns in the catchment area of the Laconia District office are in Senate District 2, represented by Forrester.