Published DateTo the editor,
The Belknap County Commissioners have remained silent, generally preferring to discuss these issues in open public meetings, but at some point the correct information must be provided to those who are unable to attend the meetings.
Each year the commissioners prepare a recommended budget, based on the knowledge and experience of the professionals who are hired or elected to manage their departments and to provide county services. This budget is presented to the delegation with the expectation that it will be thoroughly reviewed, challenged, and revised. It is further expected that the delegation will take the time to learn about county operations and the costs and challenges associated with providing these particular public services. From the beginning stages of budget preparation (departmental requests) and through every revision, the impact on taxes is the primary concern. At the point in the process where the commissioners receive the departmental requests, mid–late September, every discussion regarding the budget is held in open, public meetings. There are minutes posted on the county's website, usually reporters are present, and some are televised on public access tv. The commissioners encourage public participation at every meeting.
It is always difficult when each biennium, a new delegation is elected and one of their first tasks is to appropriate a county budget. Often they have no prior knowledge of county operations, very little time to devote to attending county meetings, and all of the state's issues on their plate to contend with. So yes, it is concerning when a brand new delegation makes it's first order of business to exert it's statutory right to restrict the governing body's ability to transfer any funds from department to department. For many years past delegations have allowed commissioners to use their discretion up to $10,000 for transfers of this nature. There has been no problem, concern, or even a question asked about this process.
The commissioners spend all year planning, forecasting, and monitoring the budget. They encourage employees to reduce spending where they can, consolidate, cooperate, and conserve. They also acknowledge the employees for the work they do on behalf of the 65,000 residents of the county, who only become aware of these services when something goes very wrong for them or their families. All of this goes on all year long, with little to no input or involvement by the delegation. Every year the commissioners request, invite, and encourage delegation participation at meetings, on committees, and in consultation regarding the impacts of their work in Concord on the county's property tax payers.
This year's 8.9 percent tax increase comes after five years of level funded or decreased county taxes. No elected body wants to be the one to allow for an increase, however, this is a trend that cannot continue without significant impact on county operations and therefore county services. An operation of this size and responsibility, with approximately $30 million dollars coming in and $30 million dollars going out, with over 200 employees providing public services, requires general personnel, finance, and administrative oversight and accountability. In addition to an elected governing body to provide policy direction, long range planning and stewardship over taxpayer money and property. All of this depends upon a legislative body to appropriate responsible funding.
With tighter revenue and expense budgets, comes reduced undesignated fund balance. The ability to maintain a stable fund balance at a reasonable level has long been recognized as a governmental accounting best practice. For many years the county has maintained a stable level of fund balance, while continuing to hold the tax rate level. We have been able to make significant infrastructure improvements, implement energy efficiency strategies, reduce the county's workforce by 37 full time employees, and are well into a very public planning process for a new community corrections facility and jail. As the fund balance deteriorates, our ability to plan for controlled, stable, necessary tax increases is diminished, along with our credit rating. We believe that this is the point (after five years) at which a tax increase at the county level is finally unavoidable.
At this delegation's insistence that county taxes shall not increase under their watch, the commissioners have gone back to the drawing board and identified the areas of least impact to the provision of services. This will not be without sacrifice by the county employees and will certainly slow the progress of some programs. The commissioner's initial recommended budget increase would have cost an average homeowner approximately $25 in 2013. The majority of the delegation has chosen to pass that entire cost onto 200 of their constituents who happen to be county employees at a rate of approximately $2,000 each in 2013.
The Belknap County Board of Commissioners
John H. Thomas
Stephen H. Nedeau
Edward D. Philpot, Jr.