Puzzle Pieces

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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

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.