Grafton County Treasurer Vanessa Sievers yesterday apologized to lawmakers who had called for her resignation, saying she is taking steps to match her schedule as a Dartmouth College student with her duties as a part-time elected official.
“I’m sorry that I was not able to attend, and I think one of the largest problems with attendance has been that I’m on a different schedule than everyone else, being a college student,” Sievers, a 21-year-old senior at Dartmouth, told members of the Grafton County Executive Committee.
Sievers, who is originally from Montana, said family members have agreed to visit her during school breaks, instead of her returning home four times a year, which she said “will help out a lot.
“If there are issues, I’m very open to communicating with all of you,” said Sievers, who gave lawmakers her cell phone number, which has a Montana area code. “I would hope that first and foremost you would come to me if there are any issues, and I’m very willing to take everything under consideration.”
The Grafton County lawmakers on the Executive Committee, a subset of the larger delegation, last month voted 6-1 in a nonbinding call for Sievers to resign after she had skipped their last three monthly meetings, where they routinely expect a brief treasurer’s report about how county funds are being invested.
Sievers, a Democrat who defeated a veteran Republican incumbent in 2008, had faced criticism last year from some county officials for not attending meetings and relying too much on e-mail.
At the meeting yesterday morning, Sievers discussed transferring a capital reserve account containing about $230,000 to a different bank in the county after it matures, seeking a higher interest rate, and also addressed a larger issue — how to invest some $17.5-million in bond proceeds the county is about to receive for a new jail project.
Sievers said the money is likely to be invested in larger banks that do business in Grafton County, such as Bank of America or Citizens Bank, rather than institutions headquartered here, because of collateral requirements that often require them to invest the money above the amount insured by the FDIC in Treasury notes and other collateral.
County Executive Director Julie Clough backed up Sievers on that point, saying some local banks had “too much liquidity” right now, making handling large sums of money on a short-term basis more trouble than it is worth for them.
“That money all has to be collateralized, and that costs the smaller banks money in order to be able to do that,” Clough said.
After Sievers concluded her five-minute presentation, state Rep. Catherine Mulholland, a Grafton Democrat and chairwoman of the delegation who had voted for her resignation, thanked Sievers and added, “You know, we really like seeing you. It makes a difference to see you.”
Outside the meeting, Sievers said she was hopeful her appearance had smoothed over some issues.
“For some of those meetings, I thought we were on the same page, but I think this open discussion really will help with further communication,” she said.
Though Sievers plans to participate in Dartmouth graduation ceremonies next month and attend the Tuck Business Bridge Program in Hanover, she also said she will be on campus in the fall finishing up courses for her degree, so will be on the job until January, when her term in the $6,480-a-year part-time post expires.
(If you are within four credits of getting your bachelor’s degree you can participate in graduation at Dartmouth, though you don’t get your actual diploma until you’re done.)
At the end of their meeting, about 40 minutes after Sievers had departed, members of the Executive Committee briefly returned to the issue of her performance.
State Rep. Philip Preston, an Ashland Democrat who called for her resignation, suggested that lawmakers might want to “bring closure to that issue by basically removing it.”
But others signaled that they wanted to see more from Sievers in deed, as well as word, before rescinding the call for her to resign.
“I would consider that premature, because in the past, she said the same thing and she didn’t follow through on it,” said state Rep. BrienCQcq Ward, R-Littleton. “We’ve gone down this path two or three times before.”
Lawmakers then moved to table discussion, with only Preston voting to continue.
Afterward, Mulholland said she hopes Sievers continues to meet their expectations, as she did yesterday. Mulholland said four or five phone messages she had left for Sievers were not returned.
“Generally, going forward, if she communicates I’m perfectly happy, but I haven’t been very happy because she’s never returned my phone calls. But I’m hoping that we got a message through, and we need to give her at least a couple of months to see if she’s paid attention,” Mulholland said.
Grafton County lawmakers also focused attention on the performance of two other elected county officials in a delegation meeting that followed the Executive Committee meeting.
By statute, lawmakers have to set the salaries of elected county officials for the 2011-12 biennium now, and county commissioners had recommended that elected officials receive no salary increase because of the economy.
But county employees are slated to get a 2-percent cost-of-living increase, and state Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, said he felt both Sheriff Doug Dutile and County Attorney Lara Saffo were underpaid, especially compared to their peers in other New Hampshire counties.
Ladd proposed boosting the sheriff’s pay from $56,485 to $60,693 and the county attorney’s salary from $71,308 to $78,443 to correspond to statewide averages.
“If we continue to pay good people minimal salary, we’re going to lose the qualified people we need,” said Ladd, who called Dutile a full-time “working sheriff” and noted that Saffo had earned more as a deputy in the County Attorney’s office.
The proposal would also give a slight inflation adjustment to Register of Deeds Bill Sharp, from $56,485 to $57,300.
Sharp asked to be recognized and asserted that he deserved a pay raise, saying he’d found savings in the budget that exceeded his salary.
“I’ve earned this county more than my salary every year,” said Sharp.
Mulholland, who was chairing the delegation meeting, could be heard audibly muttering under her breath as Sharp spoke, and eventually cut him off, saying, “I think you’ve made the point.”
Some lawmakers said the county couldn’t afford raises. Ward, for example, noted that seniors of fixed incomes and Social Security were seeing little if any increase, and said, “I just don’t think in this type of economic environment we should be increasing these type of salaries.”
Lawmakers ultimately voted 11-3 in favor of the three increases, and also voted not to end relatively small “longevity” payments that Dutile and Saffo also receive on the basis of their seniority as county employees.
The treasurer’s salary will remain frozen — it is exceeded only by like positions in Rockingham and Strafford Counties — and lawmakers also kept frozen pay levels for the three county commissioners at $11,122 for the chairman and $10,782 for the two other members.
Commissioner Martha Richards, D-Holderness, said the trio believed their salary should remain level-funded.
“We appreciate the sentiment, but it is not the time to give us a raise,” Richards said.
Some of the commissioners could face challengers in November because of the jail bond. Construction of the facility will start this summer, and while officials hope to see a competitive bid and low interest rate because of the sluggish economy, costs to build and operate the facility are expected to increase county taxes by about 31-percent within four years, according to figures released yesterday.
The 26-member county delegation met for only about 20 minutes while it could muster a quorum of 14, before one representative had to depart for a funeral.
None of the four lawmakers from Lyme and Hanover — where town officials have pressed the lawmakers on county spending — were present, though two of them are senior members of the House Finance Committee, which is working on the state budget in Concord.