To The Daily Sun,
In recent budget work sessions, members of the Belknap County Convention requested that the commissioners revisit their proposed budget. We have done so and offer this update as to our view.
At the outset, we have good news to share with you. While clearly trending in the wrong direction, the fund balance is not yet in the dire shape that we previously reported.
As our year-end review is ending, we have concluded that, largely because of savings on the expenditure side, the county will have approximately $850,000 more in surplus than previously projected. The 2016 surplus of approximately $1,270,000 will result in a fund balance of approximately $3,376,824 going into 2017. This will be the lowest fund balance in recent history (at least until sometime prior to 2003) and will be down approximately 36 percent from the 2012 fund balance of $5,261,501.
The reason for the downward course of the fund is simple; when more is being taken from the fund to pay for reduced taxes than is being collected in surplus to replenish the fund, the continued life of the fund becomes limited. At the present rate of annual surplus accumulation and fund use, by the end of 2018, the fund balance will be below $1.5 million.
The acceptable balance for a county with our operating budget as recommended by the Government Finance Officers Association, a private, nongovernmental association that sets best practices for county and local governments, is between $3.5 million and $5 million. This would leave us with a shortfall of $2 million at the end of 2018.
In other words, the fund balance cannot continue to be used as it has been in our county over the last five years. It needs to be used as the Rainy Day Fund it was meant to be; to provide a cushion to prevent unexpected spikes in the county tax rate, to deal with unanticipated emergencies and to ensure a favorable interest rate on tax anticipation notes and long term debts, when such need to be incurred. As a result of the 2016 surplus, the county has bought some time to correct its problem of over-spending fund balance monies to create an unsustainably low county tax rate. When the fund is gone, which in itself is a form of both political and fiscal suicide, a way will have to be found to pay for essential county services. In the meantime, it might be wise to develop a plan where the county discontinues overuse of the fund balance in stages before the county is actually faced with a situation where it has to be done in one budget with a very high tax spike.
As our proposed budget is being considered, it is important to note that the Board of Commissioners reduced the requested budget amounts of the department heads by approximately $1.5 million. This reduction was not based on the requests being unreasonable, but rather was based on the reality of what we believe is the bare minimum essential to a properly operating county government.
In arriving at a budget that uses $2,183,657 from the fund balance to reduce taxes that are to be collected, our proposed budget still requires an increase of 6.3 percent in taxes to be collected from $12,963,440 to $13,837,174 (the same amount that was collected in county taxes in 2015).
Many factors outside our control contributed to the need to increase the amount of taxes to be collected. Property and liability insurance premiums increased by 12.3 percent; health insurance premiums are up 11.97 percent; the amount that the state collects in county tax money to pay the non-federal Medicaid share for eldercare of our county residents continues to rise at an unpredictable rate; New Hampshire Retirement System rates that we pay for our employees continue to soar. Even with our proposed increase in taxes, Belknap County will have by far and away the lowest per household county tax of any of the six counties in our state with a population of less than 100,000.
In our view, the judicious and prudent budget that we proposed is the budget that should be approved by the convention. We are somewhat uneasy about the amount of fund balance money being proposed to offset taxes to be collected. However, our view is that hard work on the fund balance can begin in 2018 with a very substantial reduction in fund balance money used unless a very large and unexpected surplus is realized in 2017. Still, it would not, in our view, be inappropriate for the convention to begin in 2017 to phase in a fund balance plan. For example, using $1.5 million in 2017, $1 million in 2018, with the plan going forward being to limit fund balance use to no more than the surplus amount realized in the prior year.
Belknap County Commissioners
David DeVoy, Chairman
Glen Waring, Vice Chairman
Hunter Taylor, Clerk