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Belknap County Commission, delegation square off on budget

Sunday News Correspondent

December 09. 2017 2:04PM
Rep. Michael Sylvia, R-Belmont, Rep. David Huot, D-Laconia and Rep. Charlie St. Clair, D-Laconia listen during a public hearing on the county budget. (Bea Lewis photos/Sunday News Correspondent)

Rep. Ray Howard (R-Alton) Vice Chairman of the Belknap County Delegation said he supports a flat-line county budget. (Bea Lewis/Union Leader Correspondent)

LACONIA — Belknap County commissioners told local lawmakers Friday that while their proposed $29.05 million budget would hike the amount to be raised by taxes by 33 percent, the actual increase in spending would be less than 5 percent above the prior year.

Commissioners during the public hearing asserted that the increase to be raised via property taxes is the result of using “surplus” to fund the budget, which artificially reduced the tax rate. In the past several years, more surplus was used to offset taxes than was added the previous year, creating a $2.2 million tax shortfall in 2018, they said.

Commission Chairman Dave DeVoy told the delegation the county has the smallest staff and the lowest tax rate of any county in the state.

“Taxes increased in 2007 and since have continued to fall, fall, fall. This is unsustainable. I’m out of tricks. I ran for county commissioner, not magician,” DeVoy said.

The true spending increase would be 4.7 percent, the result of a few significant items totaling $1.7 million. Key among them is the operation and staffing the new Community Corrections Center for a full year, which will cost $450,000 more than last year. Contractual obligations to county employees adds an additional $700,000 to the budget and a full year of contributions to the state Retirement System will increase by $94,000, the result of a rate hike.

Due to the lack of fund balance, the county’s borrowing costs are expected to increase by $144,000.

Some county financial woes were attributed to faulty billing practices by past nursing home administration.

When Rep. Marc Abear, R-Meredith, questioned how receivables at the nursing home had an impact on the surplus, DeVoy said administrator Shelley Richardson changed billing practices after receiving advice from a consultant and reviewing the process in neighboring Grafton County.

DeVoy said that from 2004 to 2016, $550,000 in uncollectable accounts had built up, was written off as bad debt and was taken out of surplus funds.

“We’ve got a sharp operation over there now,” DeVoy said, praising Richardson.

Rep. Norm Silber, R-Gilford, said the issue isn’t one of determining the rate, but rather that the billing wasn’t done in a timely manner.

The commission is proposing a $11.6 million budget for the nursing home, up $42,000. Expenses would be offset by estimated revenue of $9.3 million. The rate of reimbursement is set by the state but does not cover the actual cost of providing services.

“I spoke with my employer, the taxpayers, and asked if they wanted to give us a raise and they said, ‘no.’ We are going to have to craft a budget without a raise,” said Rep. Ray Howard, R-Alton, vice chairman of the delegation.

Sheriff Mike Moyer said his proposed $2.3 million budget, up $265,000, includes funding for a second full-time dispatcher for the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. The county dispatches for 11 different agencies and one dispatcher can easily get overwhelmed if there are emergencies in several towns at once, he said.

The budget also includes $43,000 for the lease-purchase of four new vehicles. The department has not had vehicle purchases funded since 2015 and two vehicles are approaching 150,000 miles, he said. The department generates offsetting revenue of $409,000, according to the proposed budget.

County Attorney Andrew Livernois said he wants to hire a second victim witness advocate, who would be paid using a two-year federal Department of Justice grant that could be extended. While the office has typically disposed of about 300 criminal cases per year, the number is expected to double by year’s end, he said. Livernois attributed the increase to the implementation of the Felonies First Program by the state and to the opioid epidemic. The commissioners have recommended a $919,180 budget for the county attorney’s office, up $96,000.

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