Belknap County Delegation adopts budgetBy BEA LEWIS
Union Leader Correspondent
March 20. 2018 11:06PM
LACONIA — In response to concerns raised by Belknap County commissioners, the Belknap County Delegation met Tuesday to decide whether its Feb. 20 vote to adopt a 2018 budget was valid.
“These are all valid points and I accept responsibility for the mix-up,” said Belknap County Delegation chairman Herb Vadney before suggesting that a revote might be in order.
In a March 6 letter to the delegation, the commission said, a careful review of the videotape of the Feb. 20 meeting “raises serious questions about the validity of any budget that is claimed to have been approved at that meeting.”
Commissioner Glen Waring said among the issues that needed to be addressed was the inconsistency between what was actually voted on and what Rep. Marc Abear, R-Meredith, clerk of the delegation, subsequently described in an email to the county administrator as the content of the enacted budget.
A second set of problems with the Feb. 20 meeting, Waring said, were violations of the Right-to-Know Law. One occurred when Rep. Valerie Fraser was allowed to participate in the meeting by telephone, which by statute is only allowed when physical presence is “not reasonably practical” and requires that the reason for participation by phone be explained and made part of the record of the meeting.
Further, when there is an absent participant, all votes taken in such a meeting are to be taken via roll call instead of voice vote, which was the case during the prior budget meeting.
Waring recounted that there was also confusion created when Rep. Barbara Comtois, R-Barnstead, moved to call the question and end debate. Chairman Vadney treated it as a final motion on the budget.
Commissioner Hunter Taylor said during the Feb. 20 meeting it was then unknown that the county’s credit rating was in the process of being downgraded by Moody’s Investor Services. In dropping the county’s financial rating two notches from Aa2 to A1, Moody’s cited continued depletion of reserves to fund the county’s “modest” operating budget, coupled with an inability to raise sufficient revenues to cover all costs without relying on the use of fund balance as well as the enterprise risk of the nursing home and the Gunstock Area Commission.
The commission had planned to market bonds for the community corrections center in the typical way but in the wake of the credit downgrade, Taylor said, bond counsel advised them that the rate will be prohibitively high. The commissioners are trying to find an alternate way to market the bonds.
Moody’s March 5 credit opinion, Taylor stressed, did not take into account the budget now being discussed, and cautioned that following its adoption the county would likely face another downgrade, urging lawmakers to take that into consideration.
To bring perspective to the issue, Taylor said the difference between the commissioner’s budget that would increase the amount to be raised by taxation by 33 percent and the delegation’s proposal that would cause a 15.8 percent hike is about $40 a year on a home assessed at $200,000.
“What Moody’s is saying is, if you don’t invest in your county why should anyone else,” Taylor declared.
An effort by Rep. Frank Tilton, R-Laconia, to add $100,000 to the Department of Corrections budget to fund the Corrections Opportunity for Recovery and Education program, which focuses on treatment rather than incarceration for inmates with drug dependency problems, was defeated in a 10-5 vote.
Belknap County Attorney Andrew Livernois told the delegation that the budget discussed during the Feb. 20 meeting did not include the needed appropriation to allow him to accept a two-year $90,000 grant from the N.H. Department of Justice to fund a second full-time victim/witness advocate for his office. The county must appropriate $11,000 for its share each year, and in exchange will have $56,595 in salary and benefits to hire someone.
In an 11-4 roll call vote, the delegation ultimately approved expenditures of $27,992,926, which will be offset by revenues of $12,112,200. One million dollars in unreserved fund balance will be applied, leaving $14,880,726 to be raised in taxation.
Voting no were Rep. Dennis Fields, R-Sanbornton; Rep. David Huot, R-Laconia; Rep. Phil Spagnuolo, D-Laconia, and Rep. Frank Tilton, R-Laconia. Rep. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, and Rep. Charlie St. Clair, R-Laconia, were absent.
Following the vote, Livernois said he was grateful to the delegation for endorsing the county’s contribution allowing him to accept the grant and hire more staff to work with victims at a time when Marsy’s Law, which seeks to enhance protections to crime victims, is at the forefront.