Good governance in Belknap County was dealt a serious blow on March 13. The County Convention adopted a budget which jeopardizes the opening of the new, eight million dollar county correctional facility, threatens to prevent the sheriff from performing his constitutional duties, and defunds the Belknap County Conservation District as well as the county's participation in the community mental health center, the Greater Laconia Child Advocacy Center and the Belknap Economic Development Council. It also reduces the Community Action Program appropriation by $13,000. Those are the highlights.
Moreover the entire budgeting process engaged in by the convention, overlooks additional costs downshifted by the state government, increased costs approved by that same convention for union contracts negotiated by the county, and the same insurance cost experienced by all of us.
To be sure, some of the members of the convention hold the good faith belief that, given the authority to manage the amount of money you give them, good managers will do the best they can. That tends to work in some business enterprises because if the managers can't complete the work plan, they can go back to the executives, who can either authorize more money or eliminate the work for which there wasn't enough.
In county government that doesn't work. Take the Sheriff's Department for example. The convention reduced the proposed budget by a little over $100,000 ,saying they were eliminating one full time deputy sheriff. Now the sheriff and the county commissioners are not obligated to lay anyone off. The law is clear on that. However, that amount of money isn't laying around in the budget. Furthermore, if the lack of that money keeps the sheriff from performing his constitutional duties, guess what's going to happen? Another lawsuit.
Then, of course there's the Community Corrections facility. This is an unmitigated disaster. The county convention was told, by the people hired to plan the project, that it would cost $8 million to build and then $650,000 a year to operate. The county convention approved, and authorized a bond issue for $8 million. Remember, that was the alternative to the $43 million or so projected for the original plan. Now the facility is mostly built but we have a new county convention, which we know, can't be bound by what the last one did. The amount approved for running the Dept. of Corrections is not sufficient, in the opinion of the county commissioners and the jail superintendent, to provide adequate safety for prisoners and correctional officers so as to permit the facility to open; even though the amount requested was substantially less than the consultants said it was going to cost.
Some members of the convention say that's scare tactics. The facts tend not to support that. Fact: part of the project which is left to be done includes tearing down a portion of the existing facility, which includes the control center. So, if we can't operate the facility, because the budget only provides half of what we need, what do we do? We can't tear it down, because we already borrowed eight million dollars to build it, and it's not finished. So it looks like we'd have to pay for it but not use it. How that benefits the "taxpayers" is left to the imagination.
There's one Belknap County Convention meeting left before the budget has to be passed and submitted to the N.H. Dept. of Revenue Administration. The meeting is on Tuesday, March 28, and the county commissioners have written to the convention asking some reconsideration. A lot hangs in the balance.
(Democrat David O. Huot represents Laconia in the N.H. House of Representatives.)