Stage is Set for Saturday's County Budget Meeting
Funds for WMRR Emergency Response Vehicle Debated

March 6, 2012
By Barbara Tetrault
The Berlin Daily Sun

LANCASTER – The county delegation will meet this Saturday to vote on a 2012 county budget and the stage is set for a healthy debate on the level of funding.  The delegation held a special public hearing Friday to go over changes in the budget proposed by the county commissioners last December. At that time, the commission presented a budget of $31.51 million. The commission has since approved $170,575 in added appropriations to bring the total requested budget up to $31.68 million, which represents a 2.5 percent increase over the current budget. The budget does not include $10,150 in requests from the county attorney and victim witness advocate that the commission left to the delegation to decide.
At the same time, the commission increased revenue projections by $300,000. As a result, the amount to be raised by taxes actually decreased, from 8.8 percent to 7.7 percent.

County Administrator Sue Collins spent about two hours Friday reviewing the changes with the delegation and public Friday. Collins explained that by law, the commissioners are required to issue
a proposed budget in early December when the fiscal year is still on-going. She said that forces the commission and administration to rely on estimates in putting together a budget. By the time the
delegation meets in March to vote on a final budget, Collins said the books on the previous year’s budget are closed and actual figures are available. Commissioner Burnham Judd said it would make more sense for the county budget hearing to be held in February.  Rep. Herb Richardson and Rep. John Tholl both said they will try to get the legislation passed to allow the commission to present its budget later.

Collins pointed out the negotiations on a new one year contract with the two unions that represent corrections employees and Berlin nursing home employees are concluded. The union membership is set to vote on the contracts this week and the commission will vote on  them just prior to the start of the budget hearing Saturday. Based on the contract, there will be no cost of living increase for all county employees including both union and non-union. Collins said employees eligible for step increases will receive those increases.

Richardson asked if step increases are given to both union and non-union employees. Collins explained the county has a 10-step schedule that covers all hourly employees. Employees must receive successful annual reviews to receive the step increases which max out at ten years of service.

Tholl said the step increases are part of the compensation package outlined when employees are hired and said he did not think it appropriate to tell employees there would be no step increases. Collins said part of the budget increase is due to increases in workers compensation, health insurance, and unemployment insurance. The commissions are recommending $6,000 to soundproof the new family room at the nursing hospital in West Stewartstown and there were adjustments in positions at both nursing facilities.

Collins also reminded the delegation that Coos received new Medicaid reimbursement rates for the two nursing homes this Jan.1. As a result of the new rates, the county will see a $234,400 decrease in Medicaid funds. On top of that,  the county is losing $150,000 in Medicaid Quality Incentive funding. In later remarks, Fred King of Colebrook pointed out the current rate for the Berlin nursing home is lower than the 2006 rate.

There was some good news in the budget update. Collins reported the surplus is $600,000 more than projected in December, with a final figure of $2,340,000. That added surplus allowed the final budget to cut the projected increase in the amount to be raised by taxes by one percent despite the increase in appropriations. With the county attorney and victim witness advocate offices moving back to the Coos County courthouse, County Attorney Robert MeKeel said there is a need for new furniture. MeKeel said both offices having been using furniture provided with the rental space.  “We certainly do have furniture needs,” he said.

Richardson said the delegation subcommittee on the county attorney budget agrees with the need for new furniture.  MeKeel also asked for a $3,900 salary increase for the assistant county attorney position which is currently funded at $55,675. Citing the decision not to grant cost of living increases for county employees, the commissioners left the decision to the delegation.
Richardson charged the increase in the budget is closer to 12 percent if one compared the proposed budget to what was actually expended last year.

But Collins pointed out he was including $1 million the county appropriates for federal funding that is offset by revenue. Richardson said he believes there must be someplace the budget can be cut. He noted that Coos County has the highest unemployment rate in the state and local towns and school districts are going without because of the tough economy.  “We have to do something as a county,” he said. Collins replied that the administration and commission spent hours on the budget.
“We try to save in all areas,” she said. Rep. Duffy Daugherty of Colebrook said the delegation is looking at non-constitutionally required programs as it tries to preserve the county's nursing homes.  “We have to start cutting,” he said.

Collins reminded the delegation that state assistance programs, for which the county serves solely as tax collector, account for more than half the county taxes.  During public comments, Fred King defended the work of the commission and administration. In a detailed presentation, the former county administrator noted that from 1997 through 2009, the state budget saw total appropriations increase by an average of 6.5 percent annually. In comparison, he said the county budget has increased an average of 4.3 percent annually over the last nine years. In his community of Colebrook, King said the average annual property tax increase over the past ten years has been 5.4 percent. For the county, the average increase over the past nine years has been 6.3 percent.

King provided some examples of cost increases from 2001 to 2011. In 2001, he said a case of dishwashing detergent was $60.10 and fuel oil was $1.13 a gallon. In 2011, those same items cost $85.85 and $2.98 respectively. Health insurance premiums have risen from $265.10 for a single person and $715.78 for a family plan in 2001 to $767.81 and $2,073 for those same premiums in 2011.   King said a big part of the county's budget goes to fund its two nursing home which he argued serve some of the neediest people in the county.  “You need to think about the people you are serving,” he concluded

Daugherty said he appreciated the comments. He said he understands the county's commitment to take care of its neediest people. At the same time, he said the delegation can do something to try and balance the budget without overburdening the taxpayer. “We are in control of our own destiny,” he said. “This is local control.”

Jefferson selectman Norman Brown, former superintendent of corrections for the county, said the county budget has gone up over 30 percent in four years. Calling it morally criminal, he said taxpayers are having to mortgage their property to pay taxes. Brown questioned the need to carry a $2.3 million surplus and said it should be trimmed to reduce the amount collected from taxpayers. He suggested the county issue its own tax bill to increase transparency and accountability.

The delegation spent considerable time debating the commission's recommendation to provide $1,500 to the White Mountain Ridge Runners snowmobile club for the purchase of an emergency response vehicle to rescue injured snowmobile and ATV riders from remote trail locations. The proposed vehicle would be a utility terrain vehicle capable of negotiating rough terrain in any season. It would have a specialized medical transport skid attached to the cargo bed that could accommodate a patient and medical attendant as well as medical supplies.

Club Trail Master Larry Gomes explained the club must raise $40,000 to purchase the emergency vehicle which would be available to local emergency responsers. Fish and Game Lt. Doug Gralenski urged the delegation to approve the request, noting if Fish and Game purchased such a vehicle, it would not be able to allow other responders to use it. He said the club's purchase would make it available regionally.

Rep. Gary Coulomb of Berlin said the Berlin Fire Department responded last year responded to five rescues in the state's Jericho ATV park. He said they used a privately owned ATV to evacuate injured riders. He said it is only a matter of time before there is an accident with multiple victims and no equipment to handle the situation.

The commissioners recommended taking $500 from the budgets of the unincorporated places of Success, Cambridge, and Kilkenny to come up with the $1,500. All three unincorporated places have major ATV and snowmobile trail systems and the appropriation would come out of timber tax revenues and have no impact on the tax rate.

The commissioner also recommended appropriating $750 from the Atkinson-Gilmanton Academy budget to assist Pittsburg Fire and Rescue with purchase of a rescue equipment trailer.  Rep. Richardson said he was concerned about the county's potential liability if someone got hurt using the rescue vehicle.

But MeKeel said it would be treated as a contribution and there would be no liability to the county but promised to research the issue. Richardson said he feared giving money to the club would open up the county to similar requests. He said he could envision requests for funding from the three chambers of commerce in the county. Rep. Marc Tremblay of Berlin said the need for rescues will increase as the region promotes ATV and use of the trail systems grows..

Daugherty said he did not disagree with the need for the emergency rescue equipment but said he also had concerns about setting a precedent.  “We're going to end up with a lot of folks on our doorstep wanting their share,” he said.  Commissioner Tom Brady said as selectmen for the unincorporated places the commissioners felt it was appropriate to use funds generated by the places to provide needed services.

Richardson said he had no problem with the appropriation to the Pittsburg Fire and Rescue but was uncomfortable with the giving money to a private entity.

The proposed appropriation to Pittsburg Fire and Rescue was questioned by Coos County Democrat reporter Edith Tucker who noted it was not approved during the commission's public meetings. Commissioner Burnham Judd admitted the written request came in after the Feb. 8 commission meeting. He said he polled the other commissioners and included it in the final budget presented to the delegation.

Judd admitted his actions were probably in violation of the Right to Know law. Richardson said e-mail polls are definitely illegal and called Judd's action a clear violation of the Right to Know law.

The delegation will be meeting Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Coos County Nursing Home in Berlin.

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