After heated exhanges, county delegates approve supplemental appropriation
LACONIA — With some opponents saying it represented a vote of “no-confidence” in the Belknap County Commission and administrators, a divided Belknap County Delegation on Monday “clarified” a previous vote and then re-authorized a $160,000 supplemental appropriation to hire a consultant to continue the process of establishing a new county correctional system.
Three weeks ago, the delegation — which comprises the 18 New Hampshire House of Representatives members from Belknap County and which annually sets the size, but not spending priorities within, the budget — approved by an 8-7 vote a motion to authorize the spending, but only if it came out of the current 2012 budget.
That delegation session was recessed, however, when questions arose as to whether the delegates had the statutory authority to direct the commission how to spend the money in its charge.
After consulting with legal counsel, the answer is “No,” said State Rep. Alida Millham, R-Gilford, chair of the delegation.
The legislature in 2008 didn’t want to entertain new laws that would give county delegations more say in setting county budgets than they already had, and that essentially limited adding or subtracting money from the commission’s proposed budget.
The point of law in the current matter, Millham continued, was that the vote on June 25 was unclear because, while it supported the commission’s funding request, it included the language to find the $160,000 in the county budget, which was something the delegation could not legally request.
County Administrator Deb Shackett has said finding the money in the budget this year would entail a spending freeze, while Commission Chair Ed Philpot told the delegation Monday that waiting to request the funds in the 2013 county budget would protract a final decision by eight months “with nothing done in the interim.”
The commission is looking to hire RicciGreene Associates of New York, which helped Strafford and Merrimack counties redesign their correctional programs and facilities, with the expectation that the firm would help define the scope of needed programs and the spaces required here. Armed with the consultant’s report, the commission would then retain an architect to begin drawing up plans for what will probably include a new county jail.
Rep. Pete Bolster, R-Alton, reminded his colleagues that the county jail is 120-plus-years-old and it needs to be the focal point for not only incarcerating inmates for some periods of time, but also for preparing them to integrate back into the community.
“We’ve just got this one shot” to revamp the county correctional system — which would also include a drug and a mental health court as well as other initiatives to divert people away from incarceration at county taxpayers’ expense “and we’ve got to do it right,” Bolster said. “Let’s stop playing games and let’s do this.”
Rep. Robert Greemore, R-Meredith, was unswayed, asking why Belknap County simply didn’t copy what Strafford, Merrimack, and Sullivan counties have done.
Rep. Frank Tilton, R-Laconia, chided his fellow delegates for spending several hours on June 25 arguing the merits of what was ruled to be an “irrelevant vote,” and he warned them of “heading down that path again” on Monday afternoon.
“We all agreed — 15 of us — that this is a necessary step” in the process of establishing exactly what it is that Belknap County needs and should have in its new correctional system, said Tilton.
Harry Accornero, R-Laconia, took the opposing point of view and took the current as well as past county commissions to task for not putting money aside for the correctional system improvements.
Rep. Guy Comtois, R-Center Barnstead, said Monday’s vote “should be a vote of no confidence” in the commission, adding that, less than a month ago, the commission told the delegation it had enough money for its immediate needs.
Comtois’ remark prompted Philpot — who is a Democrat from Laconia — to interject “not true,” and marked the first of several heated exchanges among the county delegates and the commissioners.
Rep. Dennis Fields, R-Tilton, said the request for the $160,000 should have been in the county’s original 2012 budget, and then he would have voted for it. Rep. Bob Kingsbury, R-Laconia, wondered whether the commission, which he believed has been lacking in answers, might have the big-city consultant “run circles around them” due to their lack of expertise.
Rep. Collette Worsman, R-Meredith, echoed Greemore, saying any vote Monday would be one of “no confidence” in the 2012 county budget, and, ultimately, in the commission and administrators.
“I am disappointed that we’re here today,” said Worsman who moments earlier charged that the county was using fund balance and so-called “federal economic stimulus” money to cover up overspending.
Philpot shot back that, while Worsman can have “all the soap boxes you want,” she wasn’t entitled to her own version of the facts. That remark in turn led Accornero to ask that Millham charge Philpot to show respect toward Worsman. Before she could, Philpot commented, “respect is a two-way street.”
The highest-ranking elected Democrat in Belknap County, Philpot then wandered into the political weeds by alluding to how the Republican-controlled General Court was behaving which, in turn, begot a reply from Accornero who pointed out that Philpot is a Democrat. Accornero offered to offset any Republican deficiencies with discussion of the nearly billion-dollar debt the state faces thanks, in part, to Democrats.
The delegation’s vote on June 25 was clear, said Accornero, and the commission should find the money for the consultant in its budget without again hitting up county taxpayers. He added that, by coming back to the delegation and asking for more money so soon after the 2012 budget was adopted, “we’re going to look like jerks” to taxpayers who are ill-prepared to and who don’t want to pay more.
In the end, the delegation voted, 9-8, in favor of the supplemental appropriation and then voted, 10-7, to preserve the vote, with State Rep. Bob Luther, R-Laconia, joining the latter majority after voting with the former minority.
Millham appealed to the delegation to put the rancor of the past two meetings behind it, noting that she understood that “this has been a very contentious issue.”
For his part, Fields, who despite his initial concerns, voted in favor of the supplemental request, told the departing lawmakers that I still like everybody.”