For far too long the Belknap County Board of Commissioners have been usurping budgetary authority from the county Convention. This was seemingly corrected in 2014 when the Convention won an injunction barring the commission from acting without authority given by the Convention’s Executive Committee.
Some highlights from the court’s ruling:
Upon review, the Court agrees with the petitioner’s argument. The legislature has created a comprehensive scheme of checks and balances for the creation and implementation of county budgets. Voters elect state representatives, who make up the county conventions of the counties from which they are elected. Voters also elect a board of commissioners for each respective county. The commissioners draft proposals for the county budget, which they present to the county convention. The County convention then votes on a finalized budget, taking the commissioners’ proposals into account. Once passed, the effective budget for the following year is returned to the county commissioners so that they may execute it.
Should the petitioner prevail on its merits, then this would necessarily mean that that respondent has been transferring and spending taxpayer money outside of the scope of its authority under law. If the Court were to deny this request for temporary relief, then this would allow the respondent to continue this practice until a final disposition in this suit was rendered.
The possibility of the continued unauthorized transfer and expenditure of taxpayer money, especially in the wake of the likelihood that the petitioner will succeed in this case on the merits as discussed below, creates the prospect of immediate and irreparable harm to the taxpayers of Belknap County. This factor therefore also militates in favor of the Court granting the petitioners request for temporary injunctive relief.
If the respondent continues to transfer and expend funds during the pendency of this case, there is the very real possibility that the vast majority of the 2014 budget will be expended by the time the Court issues a final disposition.
Applying the above standard, the Court finds that under the plain meaning of RSA 24:14, line-items in the 2014 budget constitute “appropriations.” RSA 24:14, II defines an “appropriation” as “an amount of money authorized for a specified purpose by the legislative body.” [emphasis added.] In this definition, the legislature made no distinction between money allocated to departments generally and to specific line-items within each department. Instead it defined “appropriations” broadly. The definition on its face suggests that line-items fall under this provision.
Additionally, RSA 24:14, I, states that “[a]ppropriations by the county convention shall be itemized in detail.” (emphasis added.) The legislature’s use of the word “shall” in RSA 24:14, I, not only suggest that conventions are permitted to itemize their budgets, but appears on its face to expressly require them to do so.
This reading of the definition of “appropriations” is also supported by the way in which RSA 24:14 functions in conjunction with RSA 24:15. RSA 24:14, I, grants conventions the power to “require that the county commissioners obtain written authority from the Executive Committee before transferring any appropriation or part thereof under RSA 24:15.” RSA 24:15, III reads:
Unless otherwise ordered by the county convention, under RSA 24:14, whenever it appears that the amount appropriated for a specific purpose will not be used in whole or in part for such purpose, the county commissioners may use such sum to augment other appropriations, if necessary, provided the total payments for all purposes do not exceed the total sum of appropriations in any year made by the county convention.
Thus, while commissioners are generally afforded limited authority to transfer funds between appropriations, county conventions are explicitly reserved the power to regulate these transfers by requiring the written consent of the Executive Committee. If line items were not “appropriations” under RSA 24:14, then this would severely hamper the ability of a county convention to utilize this power. The respondent’s reading of RSA 24:14, I, would give commissioners virtually unfettered ability to transfer funds under RSA 24:15, III without regard to convention restrictions under RSA 24:14, I, as long as transfers were made between line-items within the same budgetary department. County conventions would either have to substantially alter the way by which they formulate budgets in order to ensure that fewer items were outside of the scope of these provisions, or resign themselves to the fact that they have limited oversight over how commissioners expend appropriated funds. This would encompass an unwarranted erosion of the power expressly afforded to the county conventions on the face of RSA 24:14, I.
On March 3, 2015 the county commissioners submitted to the court a stipulation, agreeing to abide by the law and seek transfer authority as adopted in the yearly budget.
You might think this would be the end of budgetary shenanigans at Belknap County. Who could fault you for thinking the commission would abide by their word.
To be continued… It Is Overspent
All the pieces in this series: