Published Date Written by Michael Kitch
LACONIA — With the Belknap County Convention and the Belknap County Commission at loggerheads over how to cut $1-million from the 2013 county budget, not for the first time eliminating the annual appropriation for the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association (LRMFAA), which amounts to $554,037 in 2013, could come into play.
The LRMFAA manages emergency communications and coordinates mutual assistance for 36 municipal fire departments operating across 1,500 square miles in all or part of five of the state's 10 counties. Never has the LRMFAA been an agency of county government. But, the LRMFAA it has long enjoyed a close relationship with Belknap County, where all eleven municipalities are among its members.
Both the convention and commission seek to reduce a projected 8.9-percent jump in the county tax burden, which would require trimming expenditures or boosts revenues by approximately $1-million. The commissioners proposed supplementing revenues with $2.1-million from the fund balance, $1,650,000 less than was used last year, but has indicated a willingness to raise that amount, noting that another $1-million would reduce the increase in the tax burden to two-percent.
Appropriations to fund statutory responsibilities and contractual obligations represent account for $23.8-million, or almost 90-percent, of the $26.8-million of proposed expenditures in the county budget. These include the sheriff's department, county jail, county attorney, registry of deeds, the nursing home and human services, or monthly payments for long-term care, as well as debt service.
Appropriations for administration, finance, maintenance and information technology services amount to $1.6-million.
Another $955,504 is appropriated to so-called "outside agencies," including the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Service, Belknap County Conservation District , Belknap Economic Development Council, Genesis Behavioral Health, Belknap-Merrimack Community Action Program, Greater Lakes Child Advocacy Center and LRMFAA, which represents more than half the total appropriation.
Although there has been talk among the county commissioners about drawing on the "outside agencies," particularly the LRMFAA, to pare the budget, they have taken no steps in that direction. However, when County Administrator Debra Shackett noted that she had requests from "outside agencies" for first quarter payments, including LRMFAA, in January, the commission asked her to not to release any funding until the convention acts on the budget.
The LRMFAA is governed by a board of directors composed of the fire chiefs from each of the member municipalities, four of whom are elected to the executive committee. Each year the executive committee adopts a budget then distributes the cost among the member municipalities.
The LRMFAA calculates the shares of the 25 municipalities in Carroll, Grafton, Merrimack and Stafford counties and bills them directly according to a formula consisting of the sum of a fixed charge of 10-percent of the total assessment plus charges based on the municipalities' total property values and population.
However, Laconia and the 10 towns of Belknap County are treated differently. Instead of billing the eleven municipalities directly, their total share of the LRMFAA budget is included in the county budget and apportioned among them according solely to their share of the total assessed valuation of the county. This year the county's share of the LRMFAA operating budget is $554,037, an increase of 3.9-percent.
Although the county acts only as a collection agency, removing the appropriation for the LRMFAA from its budget would reduce its total appropriation by $554,037.
In 2006, when the LRMFAA requested a 9.9-percent increase in its budget, Representative Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), then as now a member of the county convention, proposed severing the county's relationship with the LRMFAA, but found scant support. Describing the process as "a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house," Tilton argued that since the county does not fund the LRMFAA, it "has no real function" in overseeing its budget, which he claimed lies "hidden" from property taxpayers.
However, his fellow lawmakers countered that without the county there would be no oversight of the LRMFAA's budget while local fire chiefs balked at billing the municipalities directly, which would compel them to run the gauntlet of local budget processes.
If the appropriation for the LRMFAA were stripped from the county budget, the eleven municipalities, like the other 25 members of the association, would be billed directly. Altogether the municipalities would pay the same amount — $554,037 in 2013 — but the shares would be distributed differently.
Billed through the county tax, Alton would pay $81,048, Barnstead $27,350, Belmont $34,381, Center Harbor $22,457, Gilford $88,631, Gilmanton $25,680, Laconia $106,731, Meredith $100,545, New Hampton $17,528, Sanbornton $22,072 and Tilton $27,614.
Billed directly, according to the formula applied by the LRMFAA, four towns would pay less; Alton would save $18,922, Center Harbor $4,721, Gilford $14,326 and Meredith $25,445. The other seven would pay more: Barnstead $9,206, Belmont $18,290, Gilmanton $6,237, Laconia $17,606, New Hampton $3,372, Sanbornton $4,527 and Tilton $4,176.