To The Daily Sun,
In a letter published in the Oct. 21 Laconia Daily Sun the county commissioners claim to have been victimized by "many so-called experts, armchair observers and political commentators" who "are coming out of the woodwork to pile on and create more confusion, and foster ill will for their own purposes." According to their open letter, the criticism directed to them were the product of "half-truths" and "fabrications."
I am the only critic named. I had made two criticisms. The first was that the commissioners conjured up the illusion of a budget crisis for political reasons. My letter to the editor of Oct. 30 laid out the factual basis for my allegation and invited the readers to decide for themselves the real source of fabrications and half-truths in the so-called budget crisis.
The second criticism I recently made of the commissioners had to do with their misdeeds in the handling of a refund to the county of approximately $159,000 from the Health Trust for health insurance premium overpayments by the county in 2013.
1. It has been the position of the current commissioners that they can move appropriated money from one budget line item to another line item without convention approval so long as the move is within the same county department.
2. Pursuant to the claimed authority described in 1. above, the commissioners altered the various budget line items for employer contribution to employee health insurance in the 2014 county budget from the convention appropriated total of $2,594,925 to $2,832,579 — an increase of $237,654.
3. The convention filed suit in Belknap County Superior Court, urging that the authority claimed by the commissioners is inconsistent with the clear wording of the applicable New Hampshire Statutes; on Aug. 28 the court issued a preliminary injunction requiring the commissioners to obtain written authorization from the executive committee prior to transferring any amount in excess of $300 from one budget line item to another.
4. As a result of issuance of the preliminary injunction, the budget line items for employer contribution to employee health insurance premiums were back to the originally appropriated total of $2,594,925; in other words, the $237,654 had to be returned to the original appropriation lines.
5. In an interview with The Laconia Daily Sun featured in a front page article on Oct. 2, County Administrator Debra Shackett acknowledged that the county had received a substantial settlement check from the Health Trust relating to health insurance overcharges in 2013. She further explained that this settlement had been viewed from the outset as the solution to employee health insurance funding in the case of an adverse decision by the court regarding the commissioners' legal authority to move money from the appropriated line item to another line item.
6) Ms. Shackett went on to explain that after the refund check was received, she inquired of the Health Trust as to whether the amount of the check could be taken as a credit against 2014 employee health insurance premiums rather than as cash. She was told that it could be taken as a credit.
7. Subsequently, she communicated to the Health Trust, with commissioner approval, that Belknap County was taking the credit option. The decision to choose the credit option in lieu of a cash refund was made without any advertised notice and without a public meeting.
8. In their letter of Oct. 21, the commissioners admit the decision described in 7. above, as they say in their letter: "When the health insurance company returned premiums a choice was offered every municipality: A check or a 'contribution holiday.' Belknap County eventually chose the contribution holiday, which was reflected as a discount on the invoice. This came at just the right time to allow the county to fund its contractual health care obligations through the end of the year without violating the court order...."
9. In my Oct. 13 letter to the editor, which is criticized in the commissioners' Oct. 21 letter, I accused them of committing three wrongful acts regarding the refund check: a. they used a check issued to the county which represented unanticipated 2014 income to purchase "credit" which has been turned into additional employee health insurance; b. the credit amount which has been added to the convention's budget lines for employee health insurance has produced an increase of those lines over the amounts appropriated by the convention without the statutorily required approval of the convention's Executive Committee; c. the failure of the commissioners to advise the court of their plan concerning the settlement check and to request judicial approval of its appropriateness in light of the pending litigation concerning the county budget process was a contemptuous and arrogant display of disrespect for the court and its role in resolving disputed issues concerning the county budget process.
10. At their Oct. 15 meeting, the commissioners voted 3-0 to reject the recommendation of the county administrator to apply a credit of approximately $159,000 from Health Trust against the 2014 employer health insurance contributions.
11. The county's auditors had advised the administrator that proper accounting procedure required the credit be booked as revenue.
12. Commissioner Philpot stated that the credit could not be applied to the employer health insurance obligation without approval of the court or the Executive Committee of the convention.
I find it disturbing that the commissioners would secretly plan a means of circumventing a possible adverse court decision in a pending lawsuit. It is also very troubling that they would then approve implementation of the plan without a public meeting and then not make public what they had done for over a month. Still I am particularly puzzled that the commissioners would have any complaint about my comments in the Oct. 13 letter.
While the commissioners did not act properly on the settlement money until after my public criticism of their initial actions, the action they eventually took at their Oct. 15 meeting seems to agree with my prior criticisms and appears to attempt to undo their earlier misdeeds. They recognized that the settlement money was 2014 revenue. They further acknowledged that the settlement money could not be turned into a credit and applied to employer contributions to employee health insurance coverage without either court approval or approval of the Executive Committee. Thus by what they did and said at their Oct. 15 meeting, they admitted the wrongfulness of their prior actions.
Assuming that the commissioners can have the credit turned back into a check which can be deposited into the county's general fund, they can undo the economic effects of their earlier wrongs.
If prior to my letter, they already intended to do the right thing, the only effect of my public criticism was to call attention to an earlier wrong that they already intended to correct. If I jumped the gun with my criticism, I regret it, but given the content and tone of Ms. Shackett's comments in early October about the refund check and the resulting credit and the fact that the commissioners had not publicly corrected Ms. Shackett's public statement, I had no way of anticipating the dramatic change of direction on their part reflected in the commissioners' Oct. 15 vote.
At the risk of being subject to an additional claim of "piling on," I will add one more criticism to my growing list of criticisms of our county commissioners. During the time between passage of the budget by the convention and now, everyone with a stake, from county employees to county taxpayers, would have been far better served if the commissioners had used the time constructively to address the growing employee health insurance problem. Rather than playing games with budget numbers, this was a time when a serious effort should have been made to come up with a long term solution to the insurance issue.
Our county cannot keep on paying 95 percent of employee insurance premiums at a cost of about $25,000 per employee. More in the way of employee contribution is a must. Otherwise, full-time jobs will have to be lost. The employees and their unions must realize this. A fair solution can and should be sought. The employee contribution could be made to rise gradually. As more is required in employee participation, the employee participation percentage could be based on salary level, with those making less paying smaller percentage increases in their contribution to health insurance premiums.
But this kind of effort is what we should be able to expect from our county commissioners — not feigned crises, secret schemes to circumvent adverse court decisions and other budget games.
When the voters of the 1st District cast their votes for County Commissioner on Nov. 4, it is vitally important that the candidate elected be a person who will refuse to act in the manner in which the current commissioners have chosen to act. The 2nd District has already rejected one of the incumbent commissioners in the primary election. But the 3rd District commissioner has two years left on his term and there is no indication that he sees the error of his ways. In fact every indication is to the contrary.
Consequently, the 1st District election is critical. If a candidate is elected who is aligned with the current commissioners, it is likely to be more of the same. If we hope for any real change in the dysfunction of our county government, it must come from this election and the 1st District vote. We need a convention and commissioners who will work together to give us an open and honest governmental team that will provide us with the best in facilities, services and programs that we as a county actually need and can afford.
For example, we don't need a commissioner who is ready to spend $25 million for a jail without first studying how much, if any, of the current county jail is usable.
Remember, Sullivan County scrapped an expensive county jail plan, spent $7 million upgrading their old jail and adding an inexpensive addition. With the implementation of the right programs and the modest changes to the old facility, they reduced their recidivism rate from over 80 percent to 17 percent. A luxury facility is not essential to correctional success. We can with the right leadership achieve the same success as Sullivan County did. Moreover, if necessary, we can build a new jail that meets all current federal and state standards for $15 million or less and do what we need to do from there. The key is the right county leadership. Please keep this in mind when you vote on Nov. 4.
We need leadership that will be fair to all — all residents of our county, including county employees, nursing home residents, jail inmates and the rest of us. Let's get our county back on the right track.