Left, 11 members of the Belknap County Delegation shrank from from the gauntlet of demonstrators at the County Complex on Tuesday, ensuring that their dissident colleagues lacked the quorum to reconsider the county budget. Right, Ian Raymond, a Democrat from Sanbornton and former state representative, was among those at the Belknap County Complex on Tuesday supporting the effort of dissident members of the county delegation to reconsider the 2017 county budget. (Michael Kitch/Laconia Daily Sun)
Belknap County budget fails to fund Corrections, Sheriff’s departments, other agencies adequately, say six state representatives, concerned citizens
By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — "Thank you for coming and showing courage," Dave DeVoy, chairman of the Belknap County Commission told the six members of the county delegation who came to the county complex Tuesday evening in hope of mustering a quorum and reconsidering the budget before the deadline for submitting it to the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration by the deadline of midnight on March 31.
The six — representatives Tim Lang (R-Sanbornton), Peter Spanos (R-Laconia), Don Flanders (R-Laconia), Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton), Valerie Fraser (R-New Hampton) and Dave Huot (D-Laconia) — all voted against the budget when it was adopted by a vote of nine-to six-earlier this month. Their number fell three members shy of the quorum of nine. Although there are 18 state representatives elected in the city of Laconia and 10 towns of the county, Frank Tilton, a Republican from Laconia, fell ill before the election only to be elected but unable to be sworn in and take his seat. That left the delegation with 17 members — 16 Republicans and one Democrat — and required a quorum of nine, or a majority of the 17, to conduct business.
Last Friday evening Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith), chairman of the delegation, canceled the meeting scheduled for Tuesday in an effort to forestall the effort of dissident members to restore funding stripped from the budgets of the Sheriff's Department, Corrections Department and contingency account as well as address revenues included in the budget but unlikely to be forthcoming. Fields said he was "pressured" to avoid the meeting and was echoed by Lang, who said that other "representatives were pressured no to be here."
As members arrived, they passed along a corridor lined by a dozen citizens bearing signs — "Hold the Meeting," "Do Your Job-Fix This Mess" and "Please Do Not Pass A Bare Budget," a play on Rep. Marc Abear's name (R-Meredith), who, with Vadney, was a principal architect of the budget. The meeting room was full of representatives and supporters of the so-called "outside agencies" left empty handed by the budget and county officials given short shrift.
Without a quorum, Lang opened the floor to a "public forum," reminding the public that "the people you need to speak to are not here." Along with Vadney, the absentees, all Republicans, were Abear, Glen Aldrich and Norm Silber of Gilford, Jon Plumer and Michael Sylvia of Belmont, Michael Maloney of Gilmanton, Ray Howard and Peter Varney of Alton, Robert Fisher of Laconia and Barbara Comtois of Barnstead.
"What we have here is a mess on our hands," said Commissioner Hunter Taylor of Barnstead. He noted that although Keith Gray, superintendent of the Department of Corrections, has prepared to open the new Community Corrections Center, "they have pulled the rug out from under him." With insufficient funding for the Sheriff's Department and Corrections Department, he foresaw that, come December, "We'll reach judgment day. One day that month, we'll be in a crisis."
DeVoy explained that the delegation cut funding for the four officers required to operate the Community Corrections Center and said, since the commission has the authority, they will be hired and paid and, turning to the members of the delegation, remarked that "come December when there's no money to feed the inmates and no money to watch the inmates, we'll drop it in your lap."
After explaining the flaws in the budget, Commissioner Glen Waring said flatly "This is a reckless budget."
Sean Sullivan of the Gunstock Commission expressed concern that the budget further depletes the fund balance, noting that it has shrunk from $8 million to closer to $3 million, placing the county's bond rating and ability to borrow at risk. In fact, when the year began, the fund balance was $3.4 million, of which $1.6 million is included in the budget to offset property taxes, leaving a balance of $1.8 million.
"It's not there," Taylor said of the fund balance, which he warned is diminishing far faster than it can be replenished. "There is a tax spike coming," he added, explaining that next year there will insufficient funds to offset an increase in property taxes.
Dick Castrucci of Laconia asked how much the difference between the budget recommended by the commission and the budget adopted by the delegation spared taxpayers. Taylor, who has made the calculation for every municipality in the county, replied that the owner of a $250,000 home will save $24 a year. "You're talking what would have been coffee money 20 years ago," he remarked.
There was much hand-wringing from the public over the budget cuts and especially their impact on the so-called "outside" agencies, the nonprofit corporations that provide social economic, mental health, substance abuse and environmental services throughout the county. However, Diane Lacey of Belmont, the former president of the State Employees Association, was among several who said "We're preaching to the choir." She urged people to take their message to a wider audience and direct their energies to electing responsible representatives to serve on the delegation.
"They ought to get voted out of office if they can't attend a damn meeting," snapped a man from Gilford.
Ruth Larson, left, a Barnstead Democrat, threw her support to her Republican husband Hunter Taylor and his colleagues on the Belknap County Commission — David DeVoy of Sanbornton and Glen Waring of Gilmanton — in seeking to repair the county budget, which Taylor called "a mess." (Michael Kitch/Laconia Daily Sun)