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Commissioners handling of jail financing prevented tax spike

  • Published in Letters

To The Daily Sun,

Brian Gallagher has targeted me and the Belknap County Board of Commissioners with a series of misleading and untruthful letters to the editor. In his most recent attack, Mr. Gallagher claims if the Board of Commissioners had bonded the $8 million jail immediately we could have afforded to hire our four corrections officers this year. This assertion is completely false. If we had followed his plan the county would have had to pay an additional $540,000 bond payment in 2017, a substantial additional expenditure that would have put us further in the hole so far as the amount that a majority of the delegation was willing to spend.

Had this expenditure been added to the budget, the delegation would undoubtedly have cut more jobs in what is already the lowest-staffed county in the state. The bonding plan we are following was thought out with the best interests of the taxpayers of our county in mind. We currently have an existing bond payment for $570,000 on an old bonded indebtedness that will retire in 2018. Under our jail bonding plan that was attacked by Mr. Gallagher, we are paying interest only on the jail project until the old bond is paid off. This year’s interest payment for the jail bond was $37,000. Our first actual bond payment for the jail will be in 2019. Under our plan the jail bond will not result in a county tax spike.

There were other reasons, in addition to avoiding the tax spike, for not bonding the current jail project at the outset at $8 million as Mr. Gallagher says we should have done. When the approval for bonding up to $8 million was approved, we did not have final construction plans and we were in the process of hiring a construction manager to help reduce the cost of the project. Our delay in finalizing the bonding proved wise. The total cost of the soon-to-be finished product, which includes renovation of the existing jail, will be approximately $7.4 million, well under the $8 million that was approved.

Bond counsel had advised us early on that it may be cheaper in the long run even with higher interest rates to bond an unknown lower number in the future than a higher amount with a lower interest rate. The Board of Commissioners thought that delay in finalizing the jail bond was the best course. In retrospect, I still believe it was the right course.

There is more to the story of the current budget mess than just the timing of bond finalization. Much of the story begins with the 2016 budget process, at a time when Mr. Gallagher was still a member of the delegation. He opposed replacing the failed nursing home roof with the surplus produced by the county commissioners in 2015. He wanted the surplus to be returned to the taxpayers to promote his failed run for state Senate. He succeeded with the delegation on this matter. The surplus created an average annual $12 savings for Belknap County taxpayers in their property tax bills. Mr. Gallagher loudly claimed credit for the tax cut in his campaign, without mention of the amount saved.

Today the nursing home roof still desperately needs to be replaced. I will be going before the delegation in the near future to ask them to use the remaining money from the jail project to replace the roof. So instead of creating a new long-term debt of $7.4 million, our county will be faced with $8 million in long-term debt. Approval of the use of the bond money for roof replacement is far from certain. A two-thirds majority is required. If the request does not pass, the nursing home will have a failed roof, a suspect fire suppression system, a broken hot water boiler, and a chiller to the air-conditioning system that failed this week and needs to be replaced soon.

Mr. Gallagher has continued to try and influence budget decisions regarding the 2017 budget. He was part of the delegation that approved the construction of the new Community Corrections Center after having been told that it would require additional staffing. Despite this prior knowledge, he supported the delegation's decision not to fund the necessary new positions. He also supported the decision to under-fund the Sheriff’s Department.

Simply put, the county has $1.8 million in contractual obligations for 2017 — all approved by the delegation. The county budget was increased by only $300,000 this year. I, and my fellow commissioners, are being told to make do with what we have been appropriated, including opening the new Community Corrections Center without the money to staff it. If the failed supplemental appropriation had been approved by the delegation to properly fund the jail and sheriff’s departments Belknap County would still would have been the lowest taxed and staffed county in the state.

David D. DeVoy, Chairman

Belknap County Commissioner