Public input but no public hearing as county budget is finalized

By ROGER AMSDEN, for THE LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — There will be public input, but no additional public hearing on the Belknap County budget, which is now being finalized by the Belknap County Delegation.
County Delegation Chairman Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) said he will permit members of the public to speak during budget deliberations, which will be held starting at 6 tonight at the Belknap County Complex. The delegation is scheduled to meet on the budget again on Feb. 28 at 6 p.m.
Vadney said there is no state law which requires the county to hold a public hearing on the final budget and that it has already held a public hearing in December on the budget which was submitted b Belknap County Commissioners.
He made the statement at a meeting of the delegation's executive committee which was held Friday morning in order to approve for a second time a $10 million tax anticipation note for the county. The second meeting on the tax anticipation note was necessary in order to satisfy the requirement of seven days public notice for a meeting, which had not been met in January when the note was originally approved, as the delegation was under the impression that the relevant law applied to meetings of the delegation, but not the executive committee.
Members of the committee agreed with Vadney's assessment that a public hearing at this stage of the budget process is not needed, which stands in contrast to the approach used by former Delegation Chairman Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), who last year did not allow public input during the budget deliberations by delegation. But he did hold a public hearing on the final budget, which was attended by an overflow crowd, many of whom showed up to protest the proposed budget cuts to outside agencies, and saw several exchanges between members of the public and legislators.
County Commission Chairman Dave DeVoy (R-Sanbornton), who attended the executive committee meeting, said he is hoping that that a tour of the Community Corrections facility which is under construction and is scheduled at 5 p.m. today will convince members of the delegation that the proposed $28 million county budget should not be cut by over $1 million, as has been suggested by some members of the delegation.
He has maintained that the cuts suggested by some delegation members are impossible and could leave the county without enough money to staff the corrections facility.
He says that all members of the delegation who voted for the $8 million bond issue in 2015 were aware that there would be additional costs for staffing and that it is imperative that the budget not be cut.
Vadney, who said at the time that the bond issue was passed that the county should look at cuts in other departments to offset the increased personnel costs in the Corrections Department, has expressed support for an idea put forth by Rep. Ray Howard, delegation vice chairman, that the budget be set at $26.8 million, which he said represents an increase of about 4 percent over what actual spending was in 2016.
His proposal calls for cutting at least $220,000 in funding for outside agencies, but other cuts were not specified.
Commissioners have proposed a $28,034,331 budget this year, which will see the amount to be raised by property taxes revert to the $13,837,174 raised in 2015, which is about $875,000 more than was raised last year. In order keep the increase to that level, the commissioners agreed to use $2,183,657 from the undesignated fund balance.
The proposed amount to be raised by taxes is 6.31 percent higher than last year's $12,963,440, a 6.74 decrease from 2015. The bulk of that decrease came from using an additional $605,000 of fund balance to reduce taxes which the delegation adopted over objections by commissioners, raising the amount of the surplus used to reduce taxes to $2,380,000 last year.
The proposed budget numbers have since changed as the commission has added some $136,000 to budget lines which department heads have asked for in recent weeks, as well as the $17,000 estimated impact of a contract with Teamsters Local 633 which the delegation approved recently.
Members of the delegation have been critical of the budget prepared by commissioners, noting that commissioners only recently announced $850,000 in additional operational savings in 2016, after initially having only $250,000 in that line in the budget.
Commissioners have maintained that they have presented a frugal budget and that Belknap County taxpayers pay the lowest amount in property taxes to the county of any of the comparable sized counties in the state.

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Risks, rewards of dropping SB2 debated in Shaker Regional School District

By DAVID CARKHUFF/THE LACONIA DAILY SUN

BELMONT — Going back to the traditional style of School District Meeting and leaving SB2 behind could either restore a chance for community togetherness and discussion, or it could limit access to the voting public and restrict decisions to a handful of special interests.
Those were the contrasting points of view expressed at a public hearing in Shaker Regional School District Thursday, Feb. 16, at Belmont Middle School.
An article submitted by the Shaker Regional School Board asks voters to rescind SB2, or official ballot voting, which was approved a year ago. A three-fifths majority vote is required for passage. Voting day is Tuesday, March 14, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Belmont High School.
Gerry Ryder of Belmont compared the annual district meeting to a summertime celebration, Old Home Day.

In the traditional format of Town Meeting or School District Meeting, voting takes place at the meeting, while under the official ballot law voting takes place about a month after a deliberative session on Election Day for local candidates. The shorthand "SB2" comes from the Senate bill that later became the official ballot law.
"I like the old format of School District Meetings," Ryder said. "Maybe I need to get a life, but it's kind of like Old Home Day. I know that some people don't like all the hours that we spend there and all the votes that we take, but there's so much that goes on between those votes."
Describing the sacrifices made by members of the military to secure the freedom to vote, resident Woody Fogg said, "Senate Bill 2 comes close to home for me. I speak strongly in favor of the article to rescind Senate Bill 2 and return to the public school board meeting and doing our business at that meeting."
Citing a duty to vote responsibly and make an informed vote, Fogg said he has changed his mind based on discussion at the meeting. When residents show up to vote on a separate day from the deliberative session, they may miss out on important information, he said.
Other speakers complained that the traditional meeting results in a lack of privacy, exposing the voting public to an intimidating environment.
School Board Chairman Sean Embree said the traditional style of meeting could provide private balloting, although the public doesn't always support this avenue.
"There's a give and take as far as, we want people to have privacy, but we also hear that the meetings take too long," he said.
Selectman Jon Pike, who led the charge a year ago to shift to SB2 (the town has followed SB2 for several years), said annual School District Meetings held on Friday nights created an inconvenience and a tendency to vote late in the night after many in the public had left.
"Twelve hours to vote," Pike said, could remedy this problem, arguing that SB2 preserves access to the polls.
Pike said, "People are going to have, not four hours from 7 o'clock on Friday night until whenever, they're going to have all day to vote."
Embree said the board "definitely considered" changing the annual meeting schedule to a day other than Friday. Many parents and other residents balked at a Saturday meeting, based on all of the weekend activities pulling at them, he said.
"Friday is far from perfect," he said. "There is some value in consistency."
School Board member Gretta Olson-Wilder said the School Board members talked about how voters were better informed "when everyone was in the same room, hearing the same comments, pro and con, on the articles."
Since the advent of SB2 over the past year, Olson-Wilder said the board looked at other towns and when they hold their meetings.
"You didn't do anything for us before," Pike said, arguing that the board should have been researching the matter prior to the shift to SB2 in 2016.
Collene Akerman said she was "depressed" after she left the district's deliberative session, noting that employee recognitions took a back seat to the SB2 format.
"I think it's a New England thing, and I'm most concerned about people who are not informed," Akerman said.
Rich Pickwick, a selectman's candidate, said he and his wife found conflicts under the traditional annual district meeting because of their work schedules.
"There are two votes that you cut out," he said.
Speakers warned that the traditional meeting could be stacked in favor of a special interest group.
Embree said this can happen under either format. "You can have 25 people show up for a deliberative session, and 13 people feel strongly enough to increase the budget by $500,000 and put that on the warrant. That can happen at that time. Or vice versa, cut $500,000."

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Motor vehicle registrations resume today in Laconia

LACONIA — Despite a prior announcement, the City Clerk's office will able to process motor vehicle registrations today, Tuesday, Feb. 21.

Earlier the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicles advised it would be introducing a new computer beginning on Feb. 17, which would require suspending motor vehicle registrations throughout the state until Wednesday, Feb. 22.

However, City Clerk Mary Reynolds said that the Division of Motor Vehicles has announced that the interruption of services will not last as long as originally indicated and the processing of motor vehicle registrations in the city will resume today.

Residents of other municipalities may wish to call the town clerks in their communities to ensure that they are also resuming the registration process.

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