To The Daily Sun,
From the headline in the Sept. 3 Laconia Daily Sun, it appears that Belknap County could be facing significant county employee layoffs. Understanding how we reached this point is important, particularly since we are fast approaching election time.
For the past two years the open hostility between the County Commissioners and the County Convention (also referred to as the Delegation) has increasingly intensified. One major point of contention has been county employee contribution to health insurance premiums.
For the 2014 county budget, the County Convention appropriated $2,594,925 for county employee health insurance premiums, or a little over 10 percent of the total budgeted amount of $25,596,863. Currently Belknap County employees with individual coverage pay 6 percent of their premium amount; those with family coverage pay 5 percent. These figures are considerably out of line with what is happening elsewhere. The Bureau of Labor Stastistics of the U. S. Department of Labor in a release dated July 25, 2014, reported the average percentage paid in New England by state and county government employees for individual coverage to be 16 percent and 21 percent for family coverage.
Starting two years ago and continuing thereafter, the commissioners have repeatedly emphasized their claim that they are legally vested with the authority to move monies appropriated by the convention from one line in the budget to another so long as the two lines involved in the monetary rearrangement were for the same department. The clear message in the oft-asserted claim was to tell the convention you can do whatever you want in the way of appropriating but we, the commissioners, can pretty much do what we want with the total pot you give us. In other words, according to the commissioners' position, the authority of the convention is limited to appropriation of a total amount, and the details of how the money is spent is almost totally subject to commissioner discretion.
Based on this claimed discretion to move money from line to line, the commissioners announced that they had increased the health insurance line items for county employees from the convention's appropriated amount of $2,594,925 to $2,832,579 — an increase of $237,654.
Against this background, the convention went to court seeking injunctive relief to prevent the commissioners from moving appropriated monies from one line in the budget to another without the consent of the convention. Last week the court granted a preliminary injunction against such transfers pending the outcome of the case. Such preliminary relief is unusual except in cases where the ultimate outcome of the case is fairly certain, in other words where the party seeking the injunction is expected to ultimately prevail.
From the beginning, the basis for the commissioners' claim of authority to move appropriated monies from the line to which it was appropriated to another budget line of their choosing has been puzzling to say the least. To start with, New Hampshire Rev. Stat. 24:14 provides in relevant part: "Appropriations by the county convention shall be itemized in detail....The county convention may require that the county commissioners obtain written authority from the executive committee before transferring any appropriation or part thereof...."
Then, as if to underscore the allocation of responsibility between budgeting and spending, the Legislature said in NHRS 24:15: "No county commissioner, or elected or appointed county officer, shall pay, or agree to pay, or incur any liability for payment of, any sum of money for which the county convention has made no appropriation, or in excess of any appropriation so made...."
Finally, to make sure that the commissioners understand the limitation on their spending authority, NHRS 24:16 provides a harsh potential penalty for spending in excess of a convention appropriation: "Any violation of the provisions of the previous section ... shall subject the person or persons so violating to the provisions of RSA 661:9, providing for removal from office. A petition of five resident taxpayers of the county may be made to the superior court for such removal or for removal for official misconduct."
RSA 661:9 seems to place the removal decision within the discretion of the court. And it should be noted that I am not suggesting removal to necessarily be appropriate in this case. Certainly removal would seem excessive if the commissioners had requested and obtained an opinion letter from outside counsel which provided a plausible explanation for the authority claimed by the commissioners. On the other hand, to claim the authority without such an opinion letter could be viewed as a gross abuse of official authority. In neither case should the legal fees incurred for defending the untenable position of the commissioners be borne by the taxpayers of Belknap County. The commissioners personally or the attorney whose advise the commissioners relied upon should bear the costs of this folly.
Either way, we seem to be facing an immediate problem. While the extent of the layoffs that might be triggered is uncertain, the Laconia Daily Sun has estimated that it could be as many as 30 employees. Other estimates have suggested the number could be less than 10, depending on the positions terminated.
The current problem might have been avoided if the commissioners had worked harder at negotiating more employee participation in premium payments rather than flouting the clear wording and intent of the statute and expending time and money fighting the Convention. But our immediate crisis might be turned into something positive. It is clear from the U.S. Labor Department statistics referred to earlier that Belknap County's 94 percent and 95 percent contributions to employee health insurance premiums is not just generous, but grossly out of line with the norm. Local budgets simply cannot carry such outlays.
Maybe this is the time for the commissioners, the convention and representatives of the unions representing county employees to come together. Just a thought: in return for the $237,654 being allowed to remain on the various health insurance lines, the unions agree to 9 percent employee participation in 2015, 12 percent in 2016 and 15 percent in 2017.
Last Updated on Friday, 05 September 2014 10:49
To The Daily Sun,
The following open letter to Letter to the Editor writer and wind farm opponent Ray Cunningham of Bridgewater was submitted for publication:
The State of New Hampshire has a plan of having enough sustainable power by the year 2025. I have asked, then, the question of why 90 percent of our biomass plants energy is going out of state? I have asked then, why is all of the energy from our wind farms going out of state. It looks as if New Hampshire has all the power it needs. Hence the export.
Now let's look at another goody: HB 1549. Relative to assessment of renewable generation facility property, subject to voluntary payment in lieu of taxes. This pilot agreement has the effect of penalizing rather than rewarding communities for these wind towers.The county will still tax wind farms as industrial, but the town will not. So unless the town had negotiated big, they will end up paying county more than what they bring in as town tax on the project. Be careful of what you ask for people you just might get it.
It would seem to indicate that the value of wind projects would be equalized with all other taxed property. It also states that an appraisal cannot be based upon a physical inspection, that would restrict an appraiser to a paper value. I don't know if you've seen any depreciation charts on wind projects but they seem to go for accelerated depreciation to maximize tax breaks.
The Public Utilities Commission with the Site Evaluation Committee are coming up with these plans on where to drop in these turbines, and with the help of municipal and county government, handing out tax breaks. Is it any wonder our ridge-lines are under attack.
The bill was sponsored by a very "blue" lawyer, and the sponsors were most all Dems as well. The bill was passed by voice vote. It passed in committee 16-0, signed by the governor on July 29.
Although much of the discussion was really about wind turbines, HB-1549 did not go to Science, Technology, and Energy. Instead (and rightfully so) it went to Municipal and County Government which is where most issues about taxing go.
Go to the house website (http://gencourt.state.nh.us/house/caljourns/calendars/2014/HC_19.pdf) and follow directions to the journal of 3/14/14 and look at page 1069 and also Page 1112 for the amendment.
If it sounds like the bill was slanted toward supporting wind power it is because it was. Wind power would be dead if it weren't for the various subsidies and other goodies. That is one of the reasons I strongly oppose wind turbines. If the House, Senate and Corner Office were "Red" than maybe we could come up with the better idea of our towns and surrounding communities having the initial and final say in this matter.
It's my opinion that the reason we do not get a response to many questions, is how the State Constitution was written, and how so many of these legislators use it to the advantage of special interest.
I hope that's honest enough.
Eric T. Rottenecker
Republican House Candidate, Dist. 9
Last Updated on Thursday, 04 September 2014 10:10
To The Daily Sun,
Two years ago, the Belknap County Commissioners tried to foist on Belknap County residents a new 5-star jail. This jail not only had a $42 million price tag, but it would increase, not reduce, operating costs. The proposal would double the current jail costs and significantly increase county taxes for every Belknap County property owner.
Fortunately the Republican-led Belknap County Delegation refused to be railroaded into a quick decision and required further investigation into our county's jail situation. While the commissioners and Democrats reacted viciously to the Delegation's requirement for further investigation, investigating further was a wise decision.
Investigation revealed that there are ways to quickly reduce costs and jail crowding. Belknap County's electronic bracelet program allows early release and monitoring of inmates who are not a threat to society or themselves. This program reduces costs, helps relieve crowding at the jail, and provides a better way for qualified inmates to return to society.
The superintendent of jails indicated that, if there were another supervisor, about 15 additional inmates were candidates for the bracelet program. The Republican-led County Delegation funded, but the commissioners refused to hire, another bracelet program supervisor. Apparently the commissioners prefer to not address the jail problem if they don't get the solution they want.
Investigation of the prison situation has resulted in public discussion and alternative proposals. More recently the County Commissioners have suggested that an acceptable prison could probably be built for under $30 million.
In a Sept. 2 letter, Hunter Taylor of Alton, tells how Sullivan County achieved excellent results for about $7 million, after rejecting a proposed $45 million jail.
Although they were much maligned for refusing to rubber-stamp the commissioners' original proposal, the Republicans on the County Delegation appear to have saved taxpayers at least $12 million in building expenses and significant annual operational savings. If a solution like that in Sullivan County can be found for our jail problem, better results will be achieved while saving taxpayers lots of their hard-earned money.
For the best results for prison and other questions, we need wise and principled people as county commissioners and in the County Delegation (composed of Belknap County state representatives). We need to elect Dave Devoy and Dick Burchell to replace the current commissioners.
We need to re-elect the state representatives who refused to be railroaded by the commissioners and special interests, or elect people similarly committed to fully and openly investigating problems.
For state representatives from Meredith and Gilford, I support, and recommend that people vote on Sept. 9 for: Herb Vadney, George Hurt, Russ Dumais, and Glen Aldrich.
Last Updated on Thursday, 04 September 2014 10:00
To The Daily Sun,
I am asking for your support to remain a county commissioner for another two years. Although the last two years have been much more publicized than in the past, it has largely been over one consistent issue: A change in the form of county government that allows for a governing body to manage the business of the county while a legislative body determines how much it will cost with no responsibility for those decisions.
I have worked hard to maintain the system of check and balance as it has existed for the last 18 years that I have been involved in it. During the past four years, I have worked hard to ensure that all public meetings have been open and broadcast to the public with opportunity to speak at these meetings. You have a right to be part of this dialogue.
There is a radical group of legislators who gained a majority position in our Belknap County Convention and have used it to try to impose partisan politics at a local level in New Hampshire. Town and county government have not been subjected to this level of politics, and it is a shame to watch it happening.
These candidates win office by assuring reduced taxes, but do not care about the implications and government services that will be impacted. They have no intention of being around to be held accountable for their actions.
It is important to pay close attention to the information relayed to you by Representative Burchell. His actions do not always match his words. It is not realistic to present solutions to problems when you have not bothered to learn anything about the organization.
County government is uniquely positioned to serve the people in ways that a bigger and smaller system may not be able to as effectively or efficiently. I am interested in working through any barriers that exist to find new ways to provide services to the people who need them to make Belknap County a safe and desirable place to live and work.
Look at your county tax bill. It is no accident that the operating budget is lower than 2008 budget.
Rep. Burchell stated, "That is because of the stimulus dollars." Wrong again. The stimulus money cannot be used for operational budget items. I have worked hard in the last four years along with the other commissioners and administration to operate the county business as close to a corporate model as possible and will continue to do so.
I would like to address some of the points Representative Burchell's campaign group have been promoting. (He is one of the radical legislators who continues to make efforts to change county government by eliminating the board that is elected by you to manage the county in the same way selectmen manage a town).
a) The county does not need to pay another professional negotiator, as proposed by Rep. Burchell, to negotiate our collective bargaining agreements. County administrative staff members have specialized training to do this on behalf of the commissioners. The commissioners authorize and are responsible for all negotiations.
The commissioners are elected by the people to work on their behalf. The convention (state representatives) is responsible for appropriating funding for the implementation of the agreements. It is interesting to note that a fourth bargaining unit has been formed by employees in direct response to Rep. Burchell's threats to reduce wages and benefits to county employees.
b) Rep. Burchell and his group on the convention have been rude, discourteous, humiliating, and very offensive to the county employees. He has consistently spoken highly of the employees, but then voted and acted in ways that demonstrate contempt. Two years ago they made it very clear that the employees pay and benefits were a main target. In fact, they refused to provide funding for employee contractual obligations thereby putting the county in legal jeopardy.
c) Employee compensation levels, including administration positions, are evaluated annually. Funding has not allowed for increases since January 2012. Comparisons of pay and benefits with other positions with similar levels of responsibility, educational requirements, and job experience in similar localities are frequently analyzed and balanced with the needs of the county. The process is far superior to the process attempted by Rep. Burchell's group, where they arbitrarily decide to reduce one individual's salary and refused to state any reason for doing so. This was without any performance evaluation or knowledge of the duties and responsibility of that particular position. If this is how he intends to manage, employee morale will certainly diminish.
d) The county has never operated more efficiently. The consistent reductions in appropriations have encouraged more efficiency. This has not always resulted in more effectiveness, but Rep. Burchell has never inquired about effectiveness of county services, only the cost.
e) I have continuously upheld the statutes governing county operations. Rep. Burchell's group attempted to change the law by introducing legislation that would have taken the commissioners' authority and transfer it to the convention. Those pieces of legislation were soundly defeated by their committee of "peers" who listened to the testimony and imagined it being applied to their own counties. None of them thought it was a good idea.
f) Finally, the jail planning process. This is still in process and with continued evaluation and analysis we will arrive at the best possible solution for Belknap County and all of its taxpayers and the criminal justice system that must operate within it. I have always supported an open and inclusive process every step of way and continue to do so.
Please vote in the all-important primary election on Sept. 9. I ask for the opportunity to again serve you as your County Commissioner.
Belknap County Commissioner
Last Updated on Thursday, 04 September 2014 09:53
To The Daily Sun,
Talk about revisionist history, Marty Valengavich in his letter on Thursday engaged in just that. His old tried and true left wing, blame-Bush narrative, which has been debunked by so many writers including myself several times makes not the least difference to true believers like Marty.
Just the other day or two ago another writer here gave a web address that lets anyone who cares to see and listen to all the prominent Democrats during the Clintion administration, including he himself, telling the American people that Saddam Hussein indeed had WMD. Of course that doesn't matter to Marty, it's just not in the left's talking points. So once again I invite Marty and everyone else who loves to distort history and facts to spend a few moments and look it up.
Just think Marty, you have the chance to prove me wrong on this, but I'm not worried because even if you watched and listened to these visions from the past it wouldn't make the least difference to you, not one of the approved talking points.
Now, as for me blaming all you pesky liberals, I believe the point was you share the responsibility for Iraq. So why not man up and stop acting like a bunch of adolescents trying to pass the blame onto someone else?
Congrats on the "A" for your poster — nice counter point. But let's take note again of that pesky thing called history. Throughout human history, I am unaware of any pacifist nation, people, tribe or what have you, that made out very well. Can you give me a relevant example of such? There have always been aggressors willing to take advantage of the weak and indecisive. Pacifists invite aggressors like chickens invite chicken hawks and being strong and willing to confront evil does not make a person or nation an aggressor. This nation throughout the twentieth century has stood up for freedom and human rights and yes we have used military force when deemed necessary. If we had not you and I would likely be living under the heal of some tyrant and human rights would be nonexistent.
So why not be straight with readers and stop the political inspired spin.
Last Updated on Thursday, 04 September 2014 09:40