Officials urge county to keep funding mutual aid
June 09, 2009
ALTON — The board of selectmen joined forces with Fire Chief Scott Williams Monday night in an effort to urge visiting members of the Belknap County Commission to keep funding for the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association in place at the county level.
Commissioners Ed Philpot and Richard Long appeared before the selectmen along with County Administrator Debra Shackett as part of their "County Conversations" initiative, an effort to reach out to residents and officials from each of the county's 11 communities and seek feedback on what role the Commission should take in the future; what county services citizens consider most valuable; and what the best format would be for ongoing communication.
Attempting to answer the question he said many people asked him when he ran for re-election last year — "What's that [a county commissioner]?" — Philpot explained, with the aid of a PowerPoint slide show, that the county government is divided into two branches.
The three county commissioners, he said, make up the Executive Branch, and are responsible for administering the budget approved each year by the County Delegation (which acts as the Legislative Branch, and is composed of all 18 state representatives from Belknap County).
Walking the audience through the county budget process (which begins in late August or early September and culminates with the passage of the budget in March), Philpot explained that each town's share of the budget is determined by setting its valuation against the county's total valuation, and then factoring in the amount of tax revenue needed to fund county programs.
Alton currently shoulders the fourth highest share of the county operating budget, at 14.38 percent, behind Laconia (19.81 percent), Meredith (17.69 percent), and Gilford (15.71 percent).
Neighboring Barnstead's share is among the lowest, at roughly five percent.
The county, Philpot said, is constitutionally responsible for funding its nursing home (at a cost of $11,209,403 this year, with only $8,049,954 available through revenue), jail ($3,258,684 this year), sheriff's and county attorney's offices ($1,927,124 and $568,020 respectively), and registry of deeds (the only revenue-positive department, whose budget came in at $515,222 this year).
In addition to its statutory obligations, he explained, the county is also responsible for funding a number of community service organizations, such as the Citizen's Council on Children and Families ($228,760 this year), the Juvenile Restorative Justice Program ($130,055 this year), and several outside agencies like the UNH Cooperative Extension, the Belknap Range Conservation District, Genesis, the airport, the Community Action Program, and the Belknap County Economic Development Council, whose respective appropriations totaled $895,318 this year.
What most concerns the commission at the moment, Philpot said, is the fact that under the provisions of HB 2 (passed in 2007), the county was forced to assume 100 percent of the cost for providing non-federal nursing care in exchange for the state taking over aid to disabled persons, elderly assistance, and court-ordered child services.
While there is a cap on the county's responsibility for non-federal nursing care through 2011, he said, there could be a devastating effect on the county budget once that cap is lifted due to the increasing average age of the population and skyrocketing inflation in the medical field.
With Philpot opening the floor to questions or comments from the public, Selectman Pat Fuller invited Williams to voice his concerns about mutual aid funding.
When the Mutual Aid association was created in 1971, the county convention decided that since its membership was limited to Laconia and the 10 other towns within Belknap County, it made sense to incorporate the organization's operating costs within the county budget, with the member communities reimbursing the county for those costs through property taxes.
Today, the Mutual Aid association has grown to include more than 26 communities, each of which pays an annual assessment directly to the organization.
A large portion of its operating expenses are still encompassed within the county budget, however, and the question of whether or not the county should continue to provide funding or put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of member communities became a subject of considerable debate during the 2009 budget process.
Although the Mutual Aid system is "solid as a rock" right now, Williams said, the loss of funding from even one or two of its member communities could create instability, and would have a "catastrophic" effect on the quality of service the Association is now able to provide.
Explaining that Mutual Aid provided Alton with "everything it needed … everything we asked for" during the Easter Sunday fire at the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center, Williams wondered aloud where the town would have been if forced to absorb the cost of battling the 14-alarm blaze alone, on a default budget.
"Don't you feel any responsibility" toward your families, or for the families of constituents who might fall victim to a similar event? he asked.
"I don't understand why you'd put the system at risk," he added.
Replying that he and Long were there to listen to what the townspeople felt was important to fund at the county level, Philpot assured Williams that they were "not saying that anything's not worthwhile," only questioning whether Mutual Aid was being funded through the most appropriate mechanism.
Regardless of whether Mutual Aid is funded through the county or by individual municipalities, he added, taxpayers are still going to see the impact of it on their bills.
Williams expressed concern, however, that voters might not understand the importance of funding their share of the Mutual Aid system if Alton's $51,000 portion of the association's budget were presented to them in the form of a Warrant article.
Fuller said an apartment fire in Pittsfield Monday morning that claimed the lives of a disabled woman and her father (who died trying to rescue her — see the story on page A9) had hit her very close to home, bringing back memories of her firefighter father's death while trying to save two of her brothers from a house fire 43 years ago.
Pointing out that the only reason the Conference Center fire didn't produce a body count was the fact that it happened in early April, rather than July, Fuller said the results, under a worst-case scenario, would have been "catastrophic" without assistance from Mutual Aid.
"You need to understand the ramifications of your vote," she said, envisioning the potential consequences if member communities were forced to withdraw from the association due to the lack of county funding.
As someone who hails from a long line of firefighters and officers, Fuller said she was "absolutely proud" to see how effectively the Mutual Aid system prevented what could have been widespread destruction at Alton Bay.
"This needs to be funded at the county level," she said. "It's very important to me … you need to consider the body count."
Long explained that when the commissioners began discussing the Mutual Aid issue in December, they felt that they did have a "good handle" on determining the quality of service provided by the organization, and were not capable of adequately assessing its needs.
For those reasons, he said, they questioned whether it would be better for individual municipalities to monitor the organization and determine on their own whether or not to fund it.
Philpot advised Williams and Fuller that if Mutual Aid were to remain in the county budget, the Delegation would likely place it under more intense scrutiny than local voters.
"If it can't stand scrutiny, then it shouldn't stand," he said, suggesting that member communities might find themselves questioning the wisdom of funding Mutual Aid if the program failed to pass muster in the Delegation's eyes.
Commenting that she felt the system should be funded at the county level, and could withstand the Delegation's scrutiny, Fuller said the selectmen would have been forced to cover the $60,000 cost of the Conference Center fire out of the town's surplus fund had it not been for Mutual Aid.
In an effort to clarify William's stance, and the board's, Selectman Dave Hussey explained that Williams had seen the effectiveness of Mutual Aid first-hand, and didn't want to see it stop working.
"Why would we even discuss it" if the program is working as it should be? He asked.
Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org