To The Daily Sun,
In a recent letter to The Laconia Daily Sun, Brian Gallagher accused Dave DeVoy and me of being "tax and spend" county commissioners. The allegation is preposterous; county commissioners have no taxing authority and can only spend money that is appropriated by the Belnap County Convention (the delegation) for the operation of the county. The commissioners recommend a budget; the convention makes the decision of what the budget will be. Our recommended budget for 2016 was a zero increase budget so far as taxes were concerned. We proposed that $1.775 million be transferred from the general fund (sometimes referred to as the rainy day fund, surplus fund or the emergency fund) to reduce the amount that would be needed from tax revenue. $1.775 million was the amount taken from the general fund in both 2014 and 2015 to reduce taxes needed to finance county operations. Mr. Gallagher, who by that time was planning for a possible run for the state senate if Senator Forrester were to decide to run for governor, then successfully argued to increase the general gund transfer for tax relief by $605,000 — up to $2,380,000.
Because of our opposition to this use of general fund monies, Mr. Gallagher brands us as the "tax and spend" commissioners. Let's look at the reasons we advanced for our opposition. First, historically Belknap County commissioners have tried to maintain a rainy day fund of approximately $4 million. We projected that our zero increase budget and use of the $1.775 million for tax relief would likely keep the general fund balance close to $4 million and Mr. Gallagher's use of the additional $605,000 would drop the balance well below the $4 million mark. It has turned out even worse than we had projected. Looking at the likely year-end numbers, the Gallagher budget (which was approved by the delegation) with its $2.38 million reduction of the General Fund will leave Belknap County with a fund balance of only $3,034,319 at the end of this year. Had our recommended budget passed, the fund balance would have been $3,639,319.
There was more to our objection to the Gallagher budget plan than just the threat to the rainy day fund. When the 2016 budget was being put together, all involved were aware that the roof on the county complex is failing and requires replacement. The anticipated cost of the replacement is approximately $600,000. To save an estimated 5 percent on the cost, Commissioner DeVoy and I recommended that the roof replacement be done by the contractor who does the roof for the Community Corrections Center, at the same time that work is being done. Initially, it was hoped that the construction costs for the Community Corrections Center could be kept low enough to allow the roof replacement to be paid for out of the $8 million bond money. But, as the discussion progressed, Commissioner DeVoy and I urged that the $605,000 be retained to pay for the roof and if the corrections center could be brought in for less than $8 million, just bond the lesser amount. This, of course, would reduce the county's long term debt going forward.
Today Belknap County is faced with three expensive capital project needs, including the roof replacement. The 50-year-old backup boiler has failed. If either of the two remaining boilers develops a problem, we will be without the capability to fully heat the complex, including the nursing home and the jail. Installation of a boiler on an emergency basis is estimated to add approximately 50 percent to the cost, meaning approximately $225,000 instead of $150,000. Glass in the court house windows has become loose and need replacement, approximately a $60,000 project. We have been advised that this situation does not involve a safety risk, but does carry with it the risk of water penetration of the building which could result in serious collateral damage. None of these items are covered in the commissioner's proposed budget for 2017 that is being presented to the delegation on December 12, 2016. The plan (or hope) is that the Community Corrections Center will be completed at a low enough cost to allow bond money to be approved by the delegation to be used to pay for the roof replacement and that the other two projects do not require attention for another year. In other words, we all cross our fingers.
To keep matters in perspective, when we hear Belknap County politicians talk about the need to lower county taxes, we should keep in mind that of the six New Hampshire counties with populations of less that 100,000 (all lacking the large commercial and industrial tax base of the more heavily populated counties), Belknap County has by far the lowest county taxes and the highest median income. Under the budget that Commissioner DeVoy and I, the "tax and spend commissioners," proposed last year, the average per household county tax burden in Belknap County would have been $553.27. By way of comparison, Carroll County was $828.22, Cheshire County was $779.49, Grafton County was $636.89, Sullivan County was $733.05, and Coos County, the poorest of the six, was $1,092.43.
Grafton County had the lowest per household rate next to Belknap County. Had we collected taxes at the Grafton per household per household rate in 2016, Belknap County would have collected $15,928,618, as contrasted with the $13,837,174 that would have been collected under our proposed 2016 budget. If we take the Coos County per household rate and apply it to Belknap, our county would have collected $27,321,674.
"Tax and spend" commissioners? I don't think so. Look at the facts and the record and decide for yourself who is your fiscally responsible representative.
Parenthetically, the hostile accusations made by Mr. Gallagher may well relate more to the fact that both Commissioner DeVoy and I supported his opponent in the Republican primary race for state senate than any action either Dave DeVoy or I have taken as county commissioners. During our tenure, we have tried to be good stewards of your money and we will continue to do so. In doing this, we recognize that fiscal responsibility is more than just saying no. Both what is right and long term effects must be weighed in responsible fiscal decision making.
Belknap County Board of Commissioners—District 3
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