Published Date Written by Roger AmsdenLACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners are seeking an opinion from an outside legal expert on whether or not the Belknap County Convention's Monday night move to strip it of its authority over executing the county budget is consistent with state law.
Commission Chairman John Thomas (R-Belmont) said yesterday that the commission hopes to have the opinion by the end of the week as it attempts to mount a challenge to the convention's move, which comes in the midst of attempt by the local House members to assert line item authority over the budget and to prevent the commissioners from exercising any discretion in transferring funds from one account to another.
''The commission runs the county and taking away that authority keeps us from doing that job,'' said Thomas, who said that he has tried for years to get the Legislature to clarify exactly what the law (RSA 24:14) which was cited by the delegation as giving it authority over the budget, actually means.
''We need clarity on this. Different counties do it differently and there needs to be a clear understanding of who has authority over the budget,'' said Thomas.
The County Convention voted 10-8 Monday night in support of a motion by Rep. Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) to take the budget transfer authority away from the commission. It then proceeded to vote on a number of subcommittee recommendations for cuts to specific line items in department budgets, and in the case of one subcommittee, for recommended changes which would affect all departments of county government.
Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith), who chaired one of the subcommittees, offered the motion to strike funds for a proposed three-percent step raise from the budget, along with funding for sick day and longevity bonuses. He also proposed requiring employees to pay the entire 7.3-percent increase in health insurance premiums.
The motion to deny the pay raise was adopted on a straight party-line vote, with all 13 Republicans supporting it and all five Democrats opposed. Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton) joined the Democrats to oppose passing along the increase in health insurance premiums but it was supported 12-6.
All told, the provisional cuts made Monday night added up to $745,000. according to County Administrator Debra Shackett, who said that the County Convention is scheduled to meet again on February 4 at 5 p.m. for a continuation of budget discussions.
That is more than a half million less than the $1.3 million that Convention Chairman Colette Worsman (R-Meredith) has set as a target for cuts from the $26.8 million spending plan proposed by the commissioners.
Thomas said that from his perspective as a former member and chairman of the County Convention, Monday's meeting was very confusing for members of the public, who had to wait three hours before what was billed as a public hearing on the budget was opened.
''It was very confusing. Many people weren't sure what budget was being talked about,'' said Thomas.
Peter Ellis of Gilford, chairman of the advisory board for the Belknap County Cooperative Extension Service, one of the outside agencies partially funded by the county, said that he was disappointed in the way the meeting was run.
''I commend them for trying to cut the budget. But they should be looking at the bottom line and not trying to micromanage the budget.'' said Ellis.
He said that there appeared to be no rules of parliamentary procedure being followed at the meeting and that motions were being discussed without being seconded and that there were motions which were seconded for which no votes were taken,
''It was very chaotic. And the public wasn't allowed to speak until after all the votes were taken. There was nothing left for them to say on particular items they supported. The only people who spoke who were those who supported the cuts,'' said Ellis.
He said that he hopes that when the convention meets next the public will be allowed to participate and that it will have a clear idea of exactly what is taking place.