LACONIA – The Belknap County delegation has rejected the adoption of a $12.9 million budget recommended by the executive committee by a 12-4 vote, a spending package, supporters said, that was in line with last year’s actual spending plus contractual increases.
The goal of delegation chairman Rep. Michael Sylvia, R-Belmont, was to fast-track the budget approval process, but it was stonewalled by Friday’s vote that came on a motion by Rep. Ray Howard Jr., R-Alton, and seconded by Rep. Peter Spanos, R-Laconia.
The motion proposed revenues of $14.6 million and using $1 million in unencumbered fund balance to reduce the amount to be raised by taxation.
The executive committee has recommended a budget that is $2.1 million less than proposed by commissioners and has axed a $75,000 appropriation for the Belknap County Economic Development Council (BEDC), and not funding a $42,170 full-time dispatching position for the Sheriff’s Department. Other proposed cuts include $80,000 in full-time nursing wages, $35,000 in part-time Corrections Department wages, $75,000 in nursing overtime wages as well as a $75,000 contingency fund.
Rep. Dennis Fields, R-Sanbornton, accused Sylvia of trying to push the executive committee’s budget through without giving adequate opportunity to new members of the delegation, or the public, to review their work first and with trying to block any amendments.
“I think you’re trying to railroad us,” declared Fields, who said he wanted to make an amendment to restore funding to the Belknap County Conservation District to their original $75,000 request.
Rep. Barbara Comtois, R-Barnstead, said the executive committee spent more than 23 hours over six meetings reviewing the budget and that video of their sessions as well as detailed minutes were posted to the county’s web site.
“Transfer authority has been a bone of contention and triggers the more ire of the management of the county,” Sylvia said at the start of the meeting.
Rep. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, later successfully challenged the chairman’s attempts to block him from making a motion on whether or not to require the commissioners to obtain delegation approval to make intradepartment budget transfers of $1,000 or more.
The delegation voted 12-5 to overrule the chair, action Sylvia predicted would result in motions being able to be made at any time. On Rep. Lang’s motion, the delegation voted to only require the commissioners to get delegation approval to transfer amounts of $1,000 between departments. Line item transfers within a department budget, can occur without additional approval.
Rep. David Huot, D-Laconia, noted during Friday’s meeting that while by law a public hearing must be held on the county budget proposed by the commissioners, there is no such mandate for the budget that is ultimately adopted by the delegation. The deadline for budget approval is April 1.
He was among delegation members who favored allowing more public comments and having time to consider them before a budget vote was taken.
“It sounds like (Washington) D.C. log-rolling. Everybody gets to add their favorite,” said Rep. Sylvia.
When public comment was allowed, Ann Nichols of Lakes Region Mental Health Center said she was “extremely disappointed,” that the executive committee cut their $32,000 from the budget. Last year, they provided mental health services to nearly 1,000 county residents keeping them from ending up in the emergency room or in jail, far costlier options, she said.
Donna Hepp urged the delegation to restore the $25,000 cut from the county conservation district, asserting that for every $1 received in county funding, the district leverages it to $10 through grant funds and the work of volunteers.
Chris Kelly urged restoration of funding for the Belknap Economic Development Council, stressing its work to keep young people in the Lakes Region and create jobs.