LACONIA — Two months ago, the Belknap County Legislative Delegation selected Rep. Mike Sylvia as its chairman, but since then his colleagues have often resisted his efforts at financial austerity.
In a delegation meeting Tuesday, Sylvia, R-Belmont, made a series of motions to cut the County Commission’s $30.4 million proposed budget for 2019.
The delegation, which has 16 Republicans and two Democrats, rejected many of his proposed reductions, often by lopsided margins.
Rep. Frank Tilton, R-Laconia, said it’s often counterproductive to second-guess routine County Commission recommendations.
“The commission puts in a lot of time preparing their budget,” he said. “Department heads start coming in in August. We have the responsibility to go over it and need to be able to live with the bottom line, but we shouldn’t be micromanaging it.”
Rep. Charlie St. Clair, D-Laconia, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s ridiculous to look at a reduction of $150 here, or $200 there,” he said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
For his part, Sylvia said he's merely trying to protect the taxpayers.
"The overall goal is to not take more money out of the pockets of the taxpayers than we need to run the county," he said in an interview. "Seems reasonable to me.
"I am Republican. On the fiscal side, I'm certainly conservative. On the social side I'm not conservative."
He noted that the County Commission and the delegation have different functions.
"The commissioners manage the day-to-day operations of the county, and it's the delegation's duty to appropriate the money," he said. "The commissioners' job is easier if they have big piles of money, and my job would be easier if I was willing to give them a lot of money. I take it seriously and am not willing to give over more than necessary."
Moody’s Investor Services dropped the county’s financial rating from Aa2 to A1 last year, citing continued depletion of reserves to fund the county’s operating budget, coupled with an inability to raise sufficient revenues.
This year, commissioners recommended a 2019 budget with the amount to be raised by taxes increasing by 2 percent. A delegation executive committee came up with a $29.1 million budget, with the amount to be raised by taxes declining 9.1 percent — but Sylvia favors further reductions.
For example, at the Tuesday night meeting, Sylvia said the County Commission was asking for too much money to cover legal expenses.
“The county commissioners have been abusing the legal line,” he said.
The delegation’s executive committee recommended that the line item be reduced to $20,000, a cut of $5,000. Sylvia wanted it cut by another $5,000, to $15,000.
“They’ve spent money in legal lines that has been inappropriate,” Sylvia said. “I’ve gone through all the bills. In previous years, prior to 2017, some of the bills were not properly documented as far as the hours used. The billings were rather vague.”
Rep. David Huot, D-Laconia, said he didn’t see the point of such a reduction.
“That amount of money is spent on a regular basis, and just because you don’t think that the amount of documentation on a bill is adequate, or that they probably shouldn’t have hired a lawyer for that, that’s not your call. It’s not our call,” Huot said.
He said any money not spent on a particular budget line would go into reserve and be available for future spending.
“It really doesn’t help anybody to make adjustments of this size,” Huot said. “If you are going to make a $5 million adjustment, that’s one thing, but if you’re going to adjust $500 here and $1,000 there, at the end of the day, you’ll not have much effect on the budget and you’ll waste a lot of time.”
Commission Chairman Dave DeVoy said the county spent $24,400 last year on legal fees.
“We need the $25,000,” he said. “It’s not unreasonable. We need to defend ourselves. It’s not frivolous.”
Sylvia’s motion failed by a 15-3 vote.
Sylvia then sought to reduce an expenditure for “dues and subscriptions.”
He took issue with a $6,000 expenditure for the New Hampshire Association of Counties.
“Dues and subscriptions is an item where we send money to a lobbying firm, the New Hampshire Association of Counties,” Sylvia said. “The county has 18 representatives in Concord, and we don’t need to have lobbyists looking to take money from the taxpayers.”
County Administrator Deb Shackett said all 10 New Hampshire counties belong to the organization, which certifies correctional officers.
“If we don’t certify our officers, then we don’t have officers,” she said.
Sylvia’s motion failed on a 16-2 vote.
At a delegation meeting last month, Sylvia also got pushback, including from some of his own Republican colleagues, over comments critical of county support for agencies that help people with substance abuse and mental health problems.
He also lost a pair of votes at that meeting, each by a 12-5 margin, In one of the votes, Republican Rep. Timothy Lang was allowed to enter a motion that county officials don't have to go before a delegation committee every time they want to move more than $1,000 from one use to another within a department. In the other vote, the motion was approved.
Rep. Dennis Fields, R-Sanbornton, accused Sylvia of cutting off representatives as they were speaking, and Sylvia complained a few times that “chaos had broken out.”
The delegation will meet again at 7 p.m. on Tuesday to continue going over the budget, with about two-thirds of the spending plan still to be considered.