To The Daily Sun,
Belknap County is faced with a budgetary crisis as a result of the county convention's slashing of the budget proposed by the Board of Commissioners and passed through deception and heavy-handed leadership.
On Feb. 21, after four previous budget hearings, the convention (also frequently referred to as the delegation) carefully examined the commissioners' budget proposals for the Sheriff's Department and the Department of Corrections. Each department's budget was reviewed on a line-by-line basis with the department heads and the commissioners. Following extensive discussions on each proposed departmental appropriation, votes were taken on each. The sheriff's proposed budget was approved with a cut of $34,645. The Department of Corrections' proposed budget was approved with a cut of $63,056.
In addition, at the same meeting, after discussion, the convention voted to create a general budgetary contingency fund in the amount of $150,000. These votes all appeared to be final votes, with no indication being made that anyone viewed the votes as provisional.
The only serious objection to the approved budget items voted on at the Feb. 21 meeting came from the commissioners regarding the appropriation for the Department of Corrections. The commissioners emphasized the point made earlier by the corrections superintendent that four new correctional officers were needed to properly staff the new Community Corrections Center scheduled to open in September of this year, a fact well known by the convention when, in November 2015, it unanimously approved the $8 million bond issue for construction of the corrections center.
Approximately two weeks later on March 10, Rep. Marc Abear presented a new budget proposal that apparently, according to remarks made by Chairman Vadney at an earlier meeting, was the product of work done by Reps. Vadney, Abear, Howard and Sylvia. Although some members of the convention were clearly familiar with the content of the new proposal, the commissioners, the public and apparently many members of the convention were learning of it for the first time.
Without providing any justification or explanation for any cuts, other than the desire to keep the amount raised in taxes to the 2016 level, the budget presented by Rep. Abear cut the Sheriff's Department by an additional $126,736 and Corrections by an additional $97,042.
The written backup that was handed out at the beginning of the meeting was a three-page document which briefly referenced the cuts made to reach the recommended appropriation. The document indicated that the cut in the Sheriff's Department was produced by reducing the overtime wage line and by terminating one deputy and one dispatcher.
Upon hearing the proposal, Sheriff Moyer asked to be heard. He was told he could speak briefly to the proposal. He said that the proposed cut would clearly prevent his department from fulfilling its statutory and constitutional responsibilities. Rep. Abear replied that the sheriff would just have to be more efficient.
The problem is even greater than the sheriff originally anticipated. The way in which Rep. Abear and company calculated their cut was even more harmful to the operation of the department than it first appeared. They reduced the appropriation amount by the annual salary and benefits total for the two employees to be terminated. The problem with this methodology is obvious. We are almost one-quarter through the year and the affected salary and benefit lines have been paid up to this point. Consequently, to get the amount of the cut that is called for in the budget presented by Rep. Abear more than two employees would have to be cut.
As for the Corrections Department cut, the three-page document indicated that came from the deletion of two correction officer positions and from reducing by $40,000 the dietary line for inmate meals. It should be noted that the meal line that was cut had previously been calculated on the basis of actual meal cost multiplied by the average daily inmate population.
The impression created by the presentation was that the Corrections staff cuts were the same two for which funding had been denied at the Feb. 21 meeting. Rep. Abear certainly did not suggest otherwise in his presentation.
Upon an opportunity to more carefully examine the numbers contained in the March 10 proposal, it becomes clear that the two corrections officer positions deleted in the March 10 budget are the two that survived the Feb. 21 vote. At no time did anyone reveal the time bomb hidden in the confusing presentation of March 10, that not two, but all four correction officer positions needed to minimally staff the new Community Corrections Center have been removed from the budget.
Additional proof of the irrational and arbitrary nature of the March 10 budget is provided by the cut in the contingency line. The $150,000 approved at the Feb. 21 meeting was cut to $75,000. This was done by the convention with knowledge that the county has already encountered two significant unanticipated expenses that total more than $75,000. One is a life-safety issue in the Nursing Home involving the fire suppression system, and the other is that the interest bids for the tax anticipation note (necessary to produce funds for county operations until county taxes are paid later in the year) came in higher than expected.
The March 10 budget, if left in place, would leave us with a Sheriff's Department unable to perform its legally required duties, a new Community Corrections Center that cannot be opened, inadequate funds to feed the anticipated jail inmate population, and a contingency fund that was inadequate before it was created.
Another meeting of the convention had been scheduled and was publicly noticed for 6 p.m., Tuesday, March 28. By statute the deadline for a final budget is March 31. By statute, the chairman of the convention must hold a meeting if requested to do so by the Board of Commissioners. The Board of Commissioners made a written request for a meeting via letter dated March 16 which made it clear that the purpose of the requested meeting was to try and straighten out the mess created by the March 10 budget. Despite this, Chairman Herb Vadney waited until 6:38 p.m., Friday, March 24, to email a notice of cancellation of the scheduled March 28 meeting to members of the delegation. Two members of the convention have objected via email to this unilateral cancellation. The commissioners have an opinion from counsel that if a quorum of the convention is present, a legal meeting can be held at the designated time and date. Several members of the convention have indicated that they intend to be present. The Board of Commissioners has scheduled a commissioners' meeting for the same time in case the convention meeting does not occur. The purpose of that meeting would be to discuss with all interested the problems created by the March 10 budget and what the county response should be.
Ideally, the March 28 meeting will be a meeting of the convention to address the mess made by the March 10 budget. Either way, it is important that the public attend and let all concerned know its views. After all, everyone working in the budget process is supposed to be working for the public. If it turns out that the meeting on Tuesday, the 28th, is a convention meeting, it is hoped that the public will be allowed more opportunity to be heard than has been the case in the budget process up to now.
Hunter Taylor, Chairman
Belknap County Commission
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