2020 Final Belknap County Budget

Belknap county delegation

On Monday February 24, the Belknap County delegation met to complete its work on the 2020 budget. The grand total of expense lines total $30,829,837, an increase over the 2019 budget of $827,065. While the budget over budget increase appears to be in line with inflation at 2.75%, the increase as compared to the actual 2019 spending is approximately 5.7%. This means that in order to avoid out running inflation the administration will have to control spending to $30,053,004. This is far from a tall order as there is plenty of excess built in to provide for operational savings.

On the revenue side the budget expects to bring in $15,168,250 and uses $891,080 from undesignated fund balance, leaving $14,770,507 to be raised from taxes. This is the same tax level as last year.

In 2018 taxes were needlessly raised by over 14% which has led to a very flush fund balance held in reserve, which sits at approximately $4.2 million. You should understand that is money that was taken from taxpayers unnecessarily. It represents 13% of operational expenses sitting in the county’s bank account not the citizens’.

The delegation also, on Monday, approved cost items for three collective bargaining agreements. The unit covering the sheriff’s department gives 3% step increases each year over the 3 year term. The Corrections department and the Nursing Home both will receive 5% steps each year for the 4 years of the contract. Each of these contracts will, over time, bring the employee’s contribution toward health insurance up to 10%.

Gunstock Changes

In an article I found at Patch, about some changes that have been in the works for a while, I found a few items that could use some clarification.

By Paula Tracy, InDepthNH.org

GILFORD, NH — Belknap County-owned Gunstock ski area is in for some changes as its longtime general manager and its marketing director leave. And legislation is proposed to give legislative leaders more control over the makeup of its governing board and the ski area’s money.

The writer kicks off this article with a pretty clear bias against legislators. The FACT is the legislators and the commission worked together to address deficiencies in the law that unduly restricted Gunstock from more efficient operation.

News of the change at the helm in the middle of the ski season came a day before legislation was heard on a bill to give the county legislative delegation more control over who operates Gunstock and where the money goes.

As to management of the ski area, it is functionally the end of the year and time to begin planning for future operations. As to ‘the money‘, this is more than a small quibble for control of a couple of bucks. The ski area has been rescued by the county taxpayers twice in recent decades. The last was a $6,000,000 bailout in 2000. If you can be bothered to do the math, there is hardly a return on investment, if you chose to look at in such terms.

The current law states that no more than one person from the same municipality can serve on the board but the bill looks to drop that requirement and it would add term limits.

The current law states that no more than one two persons from the same municipality can serve on the board.

The Gunstock Area Commission has a regularly scheduled meeting set for Jan. 29 at 6 p.m. at the ski area.

From the Gunstock web page;

The next meeting of the Gunstock Area Commission will be held Wednesday January 29th at 6pm at the Belkanp County Complex, Meeting Room 2, 34 County Way, Laconia NH 03247.

Belknap County Budget Up 13% For 2020

Year End County Budget Evaluation

Saturday, December 28, 2019

As the year comes to a close, we will soon have final budget figures for 2019. There are two possible labor cost items that may effect the 2020 budget that will be considered on Monday the 30th. There are a number of items which were not in the 2019 budget for which the commissioners believe they can encumber funds. I consider this to be a misappropriation of funds from the 2019 budget; other than the funding for Community Health Services Network, LLC., the monies being spent are for items which lacked a 2019 appropriation.

A long running dispute over appropriation authority seemed to have been settled with a ruling from the Belknap Superior court. On March 3, 2015 the county commissioners signed off on a stipulation agreement. The ruling reaffirmed the provisions of RSA 24:14 and further acknowledged that the delegation has appropriation authority down to individual lines in the budget. With no regard for the law and the clear direction of the delegation, the commissioners have allowed 5 departments in the nursing home to exceed their appropriations for 2019. The commissioners, having been caught, are now claiming that the nursing home is a department all to itself. This is pure nonsense. Department defined; a category consisting especially of a measurable activity or attribute. In our budgets these are segments which are divide out and considered separately. For instance, ‘outside agencies’ are not part of the county government, yet they are grouped together as a unit within the budget. As to the nursing home, the minutes of the delegation’s votes on February 20, 2019 explicitly refer to 7 of the 11 distinct segments as “departments.” Even commissioner Waring asked about staffing in the “activities department” (only found in the nursing home) at the December 19, 2019 commissioners’ meeting.

The delegation appropriated $30,002,772 to cover county expenses in 2019. As we come to a close of the year we see that final figures for the gift to Community Health Services Network, LLC. has not been determined. So for 2019the only amount given was the appropriation of 2018 of $759,505. The remaining $1,152,510 will be included in the excess taxation figure which the commissioners euphemistically call ‘operational savings’. That will bring the ‘operational savings’ figure for the year to $1,735,763 (Dec 18, 2019). When we deduct that from the amount appropriated we get $28,267,009 that was needed to run the county in2019. Actually that number is a bit high and does not account for the misappropriations made during the year.

Now for the 2020 budget the commissioners have asked for $31,982,847 (which does not account for new labor agreements). This is a 13% increase over 2019 spending. Because the 2019 budget was so inflated they can claim it is ONLY a 6.6% increase budget over budget.

On the revenue side of the budget game the county brought in $810,932 more than estimated. This is money you were taxed and will be rolled into the fund balance. Fund balance is money the commissioners prefer to keep in their accounts so they have it available, and you don’t.

Puzzle Pieces

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ofernandezberrios

When you buy a puzzle the box gives you lots of useful information. Of course, the first is the pretty picture that you will be assembling. The box will give you ideas on how many pieces there will be and maybe an experience level for those putting it together. Puzzles are interesting and entertaining, good stuff for your brain.

Politics is a bit of a different puzzle. You likely have no idea the sort of fun you will have when you open that box. In a lot of ways you get to build your own puzzle in the political world; choose your challenge. Even as you are building your own, you may not know what it will look like when you’re done.

Today I’ll look at a couple of pieces that fit together that I had not recognized as they slipped together without me noticing.

Budget battles are particularly invigorating, if you want to spend the county taxpayer’s money you’re going to get resistance from me. Such was the case in 2017 when we had a fairly conservative delegation in Belknap county. We trimmed back the commissioners’ bloated spending plan to something not too egregious.

County commissioners like many managers want a bit extra in their budgets so they don’t have to work so hard at actually managing the budget. It’s much easier to have an extra million in the budget than it is to control expenses to finish the year without running out of money. In 2017 they hooted and hollered so much at the ‘tight’ appropriation that the Town of Belmont’s selectboard felt the need to chime in with a letter to the commissioners, and the Laconia Daily Sun. I can only guess what inspired them as there are no clues to be found in the minutes of the Board of Selectmen. There may be a missing puzzle piece here that I need to find. That or the board was acting outside of public view.

The budget crisis in Belknap county was so bad that the commissioners were forced to request a supplemental appropriation. That’s their story. Because such requests must be sent out to the towns and city of Laconia, I did my selectboard the service of laying out the reality of the budget in a letter. On July 31, 2017 the minutes of the selectmen note that they received my correspondence. After the meeting they went in to non-public session under RSA 91-A:3 II c (Matters which, if discussed in public, would likely affect adversely the reputation of any person, other than a member of the public body itself, unless such person requests an open meeting. This exemption shall extend to any application for assistance or tax abatement or waiver of a fee, fine, or other levy, if based on inability to pay or poverty of the applicant.) at which time they discussed the need to check my property for possible code violations. This seems curious, especially because I was never invited – unless such person requests an open meeting. – so sue me.

The taxpayers lost this little skirmish, and the commissioners would be able to sit out the rest of the year fat and happy.

As our section of the puzzle comes to a close at the end of 2017, you can see that the delegation had appropriated $933,604 (2017 audit) more than was needed for operations. Even before $256,852 was raised from a supplemental appropriation, the commissioners had $676,752 more than was needed to ‘fully fund’ the jail.

So why do I find the need to write about this stuff two years after the fact? One piece of the puzzle was the county budget; another was the Town of Belmont’s special interest in county affairs. Those two came together on July 31, 2017. They were hidden from view until I received discovery after the town chose to sue me. They have caused me to do a lot of review of the past. They have opened up a view to this puzzle and the connections to other pieces that are attached.

Puzzle image credit

Privatizing Dining

I received a call prior to the Belknap County commissioners’ meeting regarding the nursing home dining services.  It was from a local newspaper reporter and he was seeking a comment about ‘privatizing’ the kitchen at the nursing home.  My first remark was about the use of this ‘privatize’ term; it just doesn’t seem to sit right.  If it is to be ‘privatized’, then had it been ‘socialized’ all this time? 

I attended both meetings on the topic, the first on March 28th where the commissioners decided to hold a public hearing on the proposed contract, and then meeting again on April 4th for the public hearing.  I’ve attended a number of commissioners’ meetings and I am generally the closest thing to a member of the public sitting in the audience. 

Naturally, with jobs on the agenda the public hearing was close to standing room only.  The kitchen staff was bolstered by other nursing home employees, and a few nursing home residents.  Whereas the commissioners had already been presented the contract on the 28th, they went through the motion of asking the nursing home administrator a series of questions prior to opening the floor to comments from the ‘public.’

The county workers made their plea to shelve the idea of turning over the service to a corporate entity.  They pointed at the commissioners stating that the commissioners were only concerned about the money that would be saved.  They looked at the residents and tearfully stated that they were family (it’s a small county and some are likely actual family members).  After each speaker’s emotional plea came a round of applause.

The public airing of grievances wandered well into the neighborhood of an angry mob.  The chairman of the commission loudly begged the crowd to calm down as he ‘never uses his gavel and was not going start using it.’  Eventually the public comments were closed, but only in a technical sense as occasional grumblings would continue as the commissioners deliberated. 

Two of the commissioners voted in support of awarding the contract to Glendale Senior Dining, one voted against stating ‘that he did not have enough information to support approval.’  I found this to be the most disingenuous statement of the night (and there were many) having had a week to get answers to any questions that might have arisen.

After the vote the room cleared out and warnings circulated that there would likely be a number of sick calls from the dining staff in the morning.  That might make one wonder how much they love their residents.

Yes people it is about the money, on both sides.  Government intervention in health care, retirement and taxation is the root of this problem.  And the unions are also guilty of contributing to schemes that push costs down the road so that they might claim victory in getting benefits in the future, instead of solid wages today.

Whether you chose to call it privatized or socialized it is all paid for with other people’s money.  As Frederic Bastiat said, “Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”

Gunstock Bailout

Gunstock bailout

Rep Raymond Howard has facts on his side

2018 has presented Gunstock with some tough sledding on the fiscal front.  As we approach the November 6th election Gunstock and its financial woes has been used as political fodders.  In recent letters 1, 2, to the Laconia Daily Sun a candidate (a current Gunstock commissioner) and a former Gunstock commissioner have written a jumble of incoherent misleading scribblings aimed at the integrity of Rep. Howard.

After a number of years being run by the Belknap County Commissioners, the Gunstock Area Commission was formed to resolve problems associated with the ski area being run by the County Commissioners. This ignores the actual problem which is a government body trying to run a competitive business. 

One of the problems of a government run business is moral hazard.  The taxpayers are on the hook for any failures but management reaps rewards if things run reasonably well.  In the ski industry 2-3 years of bad weather can be expected and plans for such need to be in place.  The late 1990’s put Gunstock in a position which required a hard choice; shut it down, or go to the taxpayers to keep it running.

On May 11, 2000 the County Delegation handed the bill to the county taxpayers:

Gunstock 2000 Memorandum
May 11, 2000 Gunstock Memorandum of Agreement

Contrary to Rep. Howard’s critics the county taxpayers are on the edge of having to pick up another $6 million in bonds which Gunstock is having difficulty servicing.  The Gunstock Commission has failed over the past 17 years to build enough reserves  to get through one summer without a Revenue Anticipation Note.  Let’s not forget the downgrade of the county’s bond rating earlier in 2018 whereas Moody’s cited Gunstock as a risk factor in that decision.

This should not be taken as an assault on any of the current or past commissioners.  The problem is that government is not capable of running a business and shouldn’t even ever attempt to do so.  It’s time to find a way to turn over the keys to a qualified operator.

Belknap County Finances

As we approach the end of 2018, reviewing the past year and planning for the future I am happy to report that the fiscal condition of the county is in good shape.  Looking at the year end projections, the county will have budgeted approximately $600,000 more than was necessary for operations.

In a system of checks and balances such as we have in the county, the Board of Commissions and the Delegation have differing roles.  The Commissioners propose a budget for which they will ultimately have the responsibility of managing.  The Delegation reviews and adjusts the budget, and then make the appropriation for such.  Never forget; ‘make the appropriation’ means forcing the property owners of the county to give over their money.

Because we are taking money from taxpayers, as a member of the Delegation, I believe there should be no excess in the budget.  It’s not hard to understand that if there is ‘excess’ money available, someone is going to come up with a ‘need’ to spend it.  On the other side of that equation, the Commissioners have a harder time managing the county when there is less money available.  As you can imagine they would prefer to have as much money available as they can get.

In early 2018, I went through the budget in great detail and presented an absolute bare bones budget to the Delegation.  I had pared down the Commissioners’ budget to $27,129,560 which still would require an 11% increase in county taxes; a budget so shockingly low, it was quickly dismissed.  As we close in on the end of 2018, and setting aside unplanned events, that amount would have left the Commissioners $110,000 short of funding for operations.  Off the top of my head I know of $18,000 that was spent ‘because it was available‘.  Yes, cutting spending by $100,000 would require hard choices for management; citizens have hard choices every day – food, medicine, and rent.

CORE Program

The county Commissioners do a lot of finger pointing, and blame the Delegation for not ‘fully’ funding the CORE program.  One commissioners’ ego is so large as to drive him to take out a full page advertisement chastising those who question what ‘fully‘ funding is.  Whereas there is more left unspent in the budget than was taken out of funding for the CORE program, and given the commissioners’ claims that they have authority to spend to the bottom line of the budget; the question should be why have the commissioners not used all of the money in the budget to provide CORE programming?

I’ll give you a hint to the answer; it is likely that ALL inmates that could get CORE programming likely did get that programming.  The requirements for the terms of the inmates are such that they must be sentenced for a period long enough to receive the programming.  The real question is how many inmates qualify and does their sentence align with the programs availability?  The issue is not as black and white as the commissioner would like the public to believe.

Unexpected Revenue

In our county run nursing home we take care of a number of patients who are on Medicaid.  Through a complex scheme of money shuffling the county receives funding from the Federal government to partially compensate for their care.  This funding is called ProShare.  The county had planned on receiving $1.2 million in ProShare revenue but received $3.9 in July.  The Department of Health and Human Services wanted half of the excess revenue returned to the State so that they could use it to fund a private company working on Substance Use Disorder.  The rump of the Delegation went along with this scheme and gave over $1 million taxpayer dollars away because it was available.

Looking Ahead

The county Commissioners are currently in the process of building the 2019 budget.  They will produce a budget that is padded sufficiently as to require very little actual management and fluffed up enough to top off their desired ‘fund balance’ level.  A new Delegation will be sworn in on December 5th and will assemble in the county the following week to hear the commissioners’ budget proposal.