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To avoid layoffs, county administrator sent insurance refund check back

LACONIA — A healthy refund from its health insurance carrier appears to have spared the Belknap County Commission from breaching its collective bargaining agreements with county employees — or laying off a significant number of them, but promises to spark another confrontation with the Belknap County Convention.

The refund from HealthTrust, the successor to the Local Government Center (LGC), represents a settlement following an investigation by the New Hampshire Bureau of Securities Regulation and an order by the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The bureau found that the LGC, which insured political subdivisions, had improperly withheld funds from municipalities, counties and school districts to maintain excessive reserves and transferred funds among risk pools with different memberships.

Although the LGC was ordered to distribute cash, municipalities, counties and school districts were given the option of taking the refunds due as a credit against their future premium payments.

Meanwhile, when the county convention adopted the 2014 county budget it declined to fund the annual increase in the employer's contribution to health insurance premiums.

The three commissioners, on the other hand, held that although the county's collective bargaining agreement with the State Employees Association (SEA), which represents county employees, had expired, the county was obliged to fund the increase. Commissioners transferred sufficient funds within the budget to do so.

The convention brought suit in Belknap County Superior Court challenging the authority of the commission to transfer funds without the approval of its executive committee. In August 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.

County Administrator Debra Shackett said yesterday that county officials realized if the the court ruled in favor of the convention they could be compelled to lay off a significant number of employees to ensure that expenditures for health insurance matched what the convention appropriated for 2014. At the same time, she realized that if the refund could be taken as a credit against health insurance premiums, the county could fund the increase in the employer's contribution without exceeding the amount the convention appropriated.

Shackett explained that the health insurance contract tracks a fiscal year from July 1 to June 30 and the county is billed monthly. She said that she has yet to calculate the total value of the credit over the course of the fiscal year, but is confident that, with the credit, expenditures for health insurance will be less than the $2,594,925 appropriated by the convention in the 2014 budget.

Shackett said that when the refund arrived in the form of a check she asked officials at HealthTrust if instead it could be taken as a credit against the county's invoice and, assured that it could, chose that option. The commissioners, she said, approved her decision.

However, when the executive committee met earlier this week Representative Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, insisted that what she called a "rebate" should be treated as an unanticipated revenue, which could not be expended without an appropriation authorized by the convention.

Yesterday Worsman reaffirmed her position. "It is clearly a revenue," she insisted. The refund, she explained, is "money that was paid by the taxpayers and the taxpayers should receive the benefit." Noting that the funds were paid prior to 2014, she said the refund should be rolled in the fund balance at the end of the current fiscal year.

Worsman said that if the credit is used to fund health insurance in 2014, including the increase in the employer's contribution, the budget adopted by the convention would not only be undone but "undone in a manner that is not transparent to the taxpayers. "it would be to the detriment of the taxpayers to hide the expense and not use the revenue to benefit the taxpayers. Whether or not its a credit it's still real, hard money that taxpayers paid," she continued. "How it is used should be a decision left to the convention."

"It doesn't solve the issue," Worsman said, explaining that the convention sought to reduce the cost of health insurance to avoid liability for a 40 percent tax, which, starting in 2018, will be imposed on so-called "Cadillac plans" under the Affordable Care Act.

Worsman said that she has requested information on the amount of the credit, the actual expenses on health insurance for each department and how much of the credit would be applied against the expenses of each department. She expected to raise the issue at the next meeting of the executive committee, which is expected to be held later this month.

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 October 2014 12:32

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Venomous postings on Yik Yak have schools reeling

LAKES REGION — A relatively new, smart phone "app" called Yik Yak has local school administrators scrambling to stop students from using it and rushing to repair the damage abusive language posted to a Twitter-like dialogue stream has already caused.

Yik Yak allows people who have downloaded it to their phone to anonymously post anything they want to an Internet site. Through GPS, the location-based application allows anyone else who is using it within a 10 mile or so radius to read the postings.

And many of the posts are vicious, filled with vulgarity and graphic sexual comments. Many were directed at specific students and faculty members.

"Rude and disgusting," were the adjectives chosen by Belmont High School Principal Dan Clary.

"Horrid" said Gilford High School Prinicipal Peter Sawyer, who said letters have gone out to parents and he will be addressing the entire student body about Yik Yak on Thursday.

Designed to be an application that allows college students to be aware of what's happening in their immediate area, some high school students, including those in the Lakes Region, have been using it instead as an bullying tool.

Inter-Lakes Regional High School Patti Kennelly said she, her administrators, staff and students spent last Thursday and Friday trying to get to the root cause of what she said was an alarming distraction.

"Kids were looking at their phones and discussing the postings," she said, noting many of the "Yaks" were "rude and inappropriate."

She said she sent an e-mail to every parent and asked him or her to check their child's phone, delete the application, and ask if their child had been hurt by any of the postings.

She said she also visited every first block of every class and spoke personally about the potential damage that could come from some of the hurtful things being posted.

"It was disturbing," she said. "I was deeply distressed to know that some of my students were hurting."

Laconia Prinicipal Jim McCollum made the same plea to parents and posted a letter about Yik Yak on the school's Internet home page.

"The obligation is to make sure (you know) if your kid has downloaded it, and why," he said. "What good or positive can come from this?"

He said his "heart breaks for some of the students who are targets."

School Resource Officer Steve Orton said he has no way to know who sent them. He acknowledged there are civil penalties for slander as well as criminal penalties for threats but said he would have no way prosecute someone.

Lt. Keith True of the Meredith Police Department said the same thing, adding the Inter-Lakes School Resource Officer is working with administrators to end the use of Yik Yak but because the posts are anonymous, there's nothing the SRO can do except talk to students who have been targeted.

Both Kennelly and McCollum have contacted Yik Yak and have made arrangements to have a "Geo Fence" built around their schools, meaning the application is unavailable within school grounds.

"Its kind of a bubble," McCollum said.

McCollum, Clary and Kennelly said it has made them reflect on their cell phone policies. Most high schools allow cell phone use in the hallways and cafeterias but not in the classrooms. If Yik Yak use continues, all said the chance students have had to use their cell phones in school responsibly and as learning tools could be curtailed.

Contacted by The Daily Sun, Yik Tak officials, through a public relations agency in agency in San Diego, issued the following statement on Wednesday night:
"We recognize that with any social app or network, there is the likelihood for misuse from a small group of users, so we have put specific algorithms in place to prevent this from happening. Yik Yak was built for positive interactions and hyper-local communications, but to combat the likelihood for misuse, we have geo-fenced almost all primary and secondary schools and turned the app to 17+ in stores to ensure the user base is age appropriate. The app also monitors conversations and posts, and any negative or harmful behavior can result in the respective user being blocked, or altogether banned from future use. We continue to build out this technology to ensure positive interaction, but we are also finding that as more users sign up and start using the app, each community begins to self-police itself in a positive way."

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 October 2014 01:16

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Judge won't reconsider decision; county officials don't have many short-term options

LACONIA — For the time being, the Belknap County Commission has no choice but to comply with the order of the Belknap County Superior Court.

On August 28, Justice James D. O'Neill, III issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the commissioners from spending in excess of any line-item appropriation to the operating budget adopted by the Belknap County Convention or transferring more than $300 from one line item to another without the approval of the executive committee of the convention.

The litigation arose from differences between the convention and the commission over their respective budgetary authority. The Republican majority of the convention has insisted that the convention can rewrite the budget proposed by the commission by adding or deleting, raising or lowering appropriations for particular line items. And, in the course of managing the budget, the commission may only reallocate funds from one line to another with the approval of the executive committee.
With equal resolve, the commissioners claimed that the authority of the convention is limited to itemizing appropriations in 13 categories. Within these categories, the commission contends it can distribute funds among different lines without the approval of the convention as long as expenditures do not exceed the total appropriations of the particular categories.

In granting the convention's request for an injunction, O'Neill found that should the case proceed to trial, his reading of the statutes bearing on the preparation and management of New Hampshire county budgets indicated that the convention would likely prevail. The commission asked O'Neill to reconsider his decision, but he declined. Meanwhile, the court has yet to schedule a final hearing in the case.

Only once a final hearing is held and a final decision reached in Superior Court, the commission could appeal to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Alternatively, absent a final hearing and ruling by the Superior Court, the commission could ask O'Neill to send the case to the Supreme Court for a direct decision.

Beyond stressing that the commission fully intends to comply with the terms of preliminary injunction, Commissioner Ed Philpot, himself an attorney, yesterday declined to comment on what if any alternative courses of action the commissioners may be considering.

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 October 2014 11:58

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Group of BHS students counteract Yik Yak attacks with upbeat messages left on lockers

BELMONT — Students and administrators at the High School discovered a pleasant surprise yesterday morning when they found positive and uplifting messages left by a group of five female students taped to each of their lockers.

In addition, the five female students made uplifting posters with positive messages and placed them in various places throughout the school.

"People were so pleased," said Principal Dan Clary. "This was done in the spirit of being positive and it was a nice way to start our day."

Clary said the surprise act of random kindness was part of the fallout of the Yik Yak craze that raced through area high schools earlier this week. Yik Yak is anonymous Internet message-posting site that combines Global Positioning Sensors with the ability to feed into a continual stream; the posts have a range limited to a few miles but have been used as a bullying tool.

He said most Belmont students have already realized they were only hurting themselves by reading "Yaks" about other students and themselves and have deleted the app from their phones.

The written messages included "Turn that frown upside down," "Your hard work is inspiring" and "Your smile is so perfect!"

Associate Superintendent Rick Acquilano said "I believe in our youth and today I was reminded of their strength, compassion and kindness."

Both Clary and Aquilano said how proud they were of their students and their positive reaction to what was a very troubling day.

A media spokeswoman working for Yik Yak said yesterday that while the "app" was designed to let people know what's happening in their immediate vicinity, when the company learned it was being used as bullying tool in high schools they created a way for a school to block the signal and made the app available to those who are 17 and older. She said they also monitor the Yaks and inappropriate comments can result in a use being blocked.

As for anonymity, Gilford Police said yesterday they have been in contact with the legal team at Yik Yak and were informed that if police become involved in a criminal investigation and the proper legal documentation is obtained, Yik Yak will give to police the IP address and GPS coordinates of the user.

This means that while no user name or personal information is required to download the app, there is a way for both Yik Yak and the police to identify a user who has made any criminal use of the app.

 

CUTLINES: One of the uplifting messages left on every locker at the Belmont High School yesterday morning by five students who were pushing back against the negativity caused by the smart phone app Yik Yak. (Photo courtesy of Belmont High School)

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 October 2014 11:52

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