COUNTY DELEGATES prepare to hear the county commissioners’ proposed 2012 budget at their meeting Dec. 12. Pictured here are Reps. Laurie Pettengill, Norman Tregenza, Steve Knox, David Babson, and Frank McCarthy. Pictured seated is former Rep. Susan Wiley and Janice Tulley, recorder of minutes. (Mellisa Seamans photo) (click for larger version)
December 15, 2011OSSIPEE— In a marathon meeting Monday, Dec. 12, that lasted more than five hours, the public got its first look at the 2012 county budget and the county delegation shot down the commissioner's $1.5 million plan to renovate the old nursing home.
The purpose of the public hearing, as announced by Delegation Chairman Betsey Patten, is to give the public a chance to ask questions about the proposed county budget for the coming year. Rather than ask questions as Commissioner David Sorensen went through the 31-page budget line-by-line, Patten asked her fellow delegates to write down their questions and comments to bring up in January when the delegates are charged with dissecting and approving the budget.
A few members of the public showed for the Monday morning session and asked some questions while the members of the county delegation asked questions and made comments for hours.
The county commission is charged with overseeing all county departments including the jail, nursing home, administration, registry of deeds and sheriff's department. The county delegation, made up of the 14 state representatives from Carroll County, is charged with setting the annual budget for the county. The commissioners are required to hold a public budget hearing within the timeline set forth by state law. The budget the public saw Monday, however, will likely change a great deal before the final budget is approved in March. Now that the commissioners have taken suggestions from department heads and sent their proposed budget to the state, there is still plenty to be done in this budget process that consumes nearly half of the calendar year. Next, department heads will present their budgets to the full delegation and continue to work with subcommittees assigned to their departments as well as work with commissioners to get their budgets to a realistic bottom line that doesn't increase the county property tax rate but allows them to efficiently run their departments.
One member of the public, former state representative and delegate Susan Wiley, asked delegates to take a hard look at the cuts to mental health and other support services to county jail inmates.
In her speech to the delegation, she cited a 2010 study of 1,000 persons that were released in 2006 from NH State Prisons that looked at the recidivism rate – the rate at which released prisoners reoffend and end up back in jail. That study found that 48.5 percent of males and 51.9 percent of females end up reoffending and ending up back in jail within three years of being released, with 90 percent of those reoffending within two years.
Wiley suggested that despite the county jail's mission statement that states the jail will aid in the rehabilitation of inmates, cuts are being made to programming, education, and counseling and little is being done to rehabilitate inmates to help them be successful outside of jail. She suggested the $125 per day cost of housing an inmate could be better spent in programming to reduce the number of inmates returning to the county jail.
"When you are sitting in your seats in Concord and cutting education programs, dropout prevention programs, parenting programs, community resource centers/programs, and mental health programs – you might think you are saving money and on that line on a piece of paper you are but you will likely pay more in corrections. Prevention, work, and education programs indicate success; there are many evidence-based studies showing that. We need to get these people out of corrections, out of courts, and we need to keep them out.
"When you are sitting at this table and putting budget constraints on those programs that can respond and rehabilitate those young men and women in our corrections department you are not using our taxpayer money responsibly. When I see a willingness of our farm manager to expand programs, to develop business plans, and offer to cooperatively work with the inmates I firmly believe that those programs should be supported. When I hear [Jail] Superintendent Johnson speak about education and training programs he would like to offer to the inmates, I see the potential to reduce recidivism and hence costs to not only the County budget but also the State budget and the Federal budget. Whether the money to fund corrections comes from this pocket or that pocket it will always be money that could be used in better ways," she said.
The commissioner's total recommended budget sits at nearly $27 million, up five percent over last year's budget of $25,687,243 and includes the first bond payment of $1.9 million on the new nursing home. Commissioners pointed out that of the five percent increase in the budget, only one and a half percent of that represents costs they actually have control over. Cuts made by state representatives to the NH Department of Health and Human Services budget will result in the county picking up an additional $759,704 in Division of Elderly and Adult Services charges. Changes to unemployment, retirement and workers compensation laws result in an increase of $119,651 the county budget will have to include. Lastly, the item commissioners say they have no control over in the budget is building and liability insurance which will increase $33,056 in 2012, mainly due to the cost of insuring the new nursing home.
Old nursing home
At the Monday meeting, Chairman Patten called deciding what to do with the old nursing home the "hardest decision we (delegation) have made in 17 years."
For months the delegation has been arguing over what to do with the old home. Should it be torn down? Should the 15,000 square foot core remain and two of the four wings be torn down? Should all four wings be torn down at a cost of $500,000? Should the core remain and the four wings be "mothballed" for future possible use?
While some delegates remain adamant that a vote taken earlier this year to maintain the core and tear down all four wings is the way to go, some delegates continue to argue that there is no rush and the wings should not be torn down just yet. What they managed to agree on Monday is that the commissioner's proposal to spend $1.5 million to renovate the core and tear down the wings is too expensive and they decided to send the commissioners back to the drawing board. Their previous vote to tear down the four wings and renovate the core gave commissioners a budget of $1 million to accomplish that.
What is also still up in the air is whether or not the Carroll County division of UNH Cooperative Extension will be moving back from Conway to the county complex. That group's advisory board has voted in favor of moving back to the county complex but is concerned about whether or not the move will be cost-effective for them. The suggestion from that board is to get more than one estimate on the cost of renovating the 3,000 square feet they need. Some in attendance Monday remained hopeful though doubtful that the delegation and the commission will try again and actually reach agreement at their January meeting.
Patten, also a Moultonborough selectman, told delegates that the selectmen in her town as well as Wolfeboro and Conway would like to work with commissioners or a delegation subcommittee to research whether or not those towns are being taxed disproportionately for the county's emergency dispatch center. All three of those towns have their own dispatch centers for fire, ambulance and police. Patten said that property-rich Moultonborough pays 25 percent of the cost to run county government. Wolfeboro Representative Chris Ahlgren said those three towns "feel like they are subsidizing dispatch for the other towns."
Sorensen told the group that nine years ago the county offered to take over dispatching for Moultonborough for $90,000 but that town turned it down, opting to continue to operate their own dispatch center. Sorensen said while he understands concerns town leaders from the three towns might have, this could open a can of worms. He questioned whether this discussion will be limited only to dispatch services or will move into discussion about towns only wanting to pay their portion of the jail budget based on how many inmates are from their towns. Rep. Joe Fleck of Wakefield said it is important to consider not only the impact changing dispatching services will have on individual towns but also on the mutual aid system that all towns rely on.
The discussion is expected to continue on this topic as well as the formation of a subcommittee to study it though likely any changes that might result will not have an impact on the budget for 2012.