Federal funds help boost Grafton County budget

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/23/2022 11:17:09 PM
Modified: 5/23/2022 11:17:14 PM

HAVERHILL — Grafton County officials are tapping into federal COVID relief funds to keep taxes low in a year when inflation and fuel prices are high and the county’s revenue is down.

The three-member County Commission is recommending a nearly $45.3 million budget for the 2023 fiscal year, which amounts to a nearly 1% decrease over the county’s current spending plan.

In a letter to municipalities, commissioners emphasized that they tried to keep the tax burden low. The tax rate will decrease by 0.16% from fiscal year 2022. Without funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, better known as ARPA, it would have had to increase by 6.9%.

The commissioners emphasized that staffing is one of the most pressing challenges in the county, with high attrition and vacancies weighing on morale. Everyone on county staff will see a raise in the coming fiscal year, but some argue that the raises were not distributed fairly.

Staffing challenges and controversies

To address the pressing labor shortage, the county contracted to have a comprehensive wage study done. The study found that the county’s salaries were below market by 3%. Based on the study, the commissioners recommend salary increases ranging from 1% to 13%, with an average of about 4.6%. Implementing the wage study will cost $750,000 in the coming fiscal year.

“The Commissioners adopted this measure in order to incentivize employees and to increase retention and recruitment by providing employees more opportunity for growth,” they wrote.

“The way the wage study worked the people the positions that have the highest number of vacancies for longest period of time got the highest increases,” said Wendy Piper, a county commissioner. For example, the county has significant labor shortages in its nursing and the department of corrections. In the nursing home, there are 49 open full-time equivalent positions. Meanwhile, in the Department of Corrections, 12 out of 43 full-time positions are vacant. Employees there saw some of the most significant raises.

The unionized employees who fill the county’s laundry and housekeeping needs also saw some of the highest raises, Piper said.

“They are the ones we have to compete for. They are the ones we are having a hard time losing. They are very happy — they have been recognized and their salaries were lifted significantly,” she said.

The “salary survey resulted in a lot of unrest,” said Kelley Monahan, the register of deeds. Monahan argues that long-serving, experienced employees in her department deserve higher raises. Her deputy, who has worked with the county for over 30 years, earns just over $50,000, she said.

“Her institutional knowledge, do you know the value in that?” asked Monahan. Her office ought to be compared to management in a law office, she said; after all, lawyers often check with them on updated laws. The four full-time clerical employees in her department saw an average raise of 4.57%.

Monahan and the employees in her department are not in a union, and “we have to stand up for ourselves,” she said. She also pointed out that her office raised millions each month for the state of New Hampshire and about $100,000 to Grafton County as they handled real estate deeds during the booming market. All the while, her department had to interact with the public, including people who were unvaccinated, during the pandemic, she said.

Piper emphasized that the highest raises went to the positions that the county has had the most difficulty filling.

“It was a $750,000 price tag to get everyone on the wage study,” Piper said. “...We are taking onto consideration everyone in Grafton County, whether they work or live here. We have to ensure that we have adequate staffing.”

Monahan also takes issue with her salary, which is not set by the county commissioners because the register of deeds is an elected position. The position’s salary rose from $55,850 in 2009 to $60,154 in 2022, with increases lagging behind inflation. Meanwhile, other department heads whose salaries are set by the commissioners saw their salaries rise by as much as $35,000 in the same period.

The Grafton County Delegation sets salaries for elected officials in the county. At its May 23 meeting, the  delegation approved a 10% raise effective January 2023 and an additional 10% raise effective January 2024 for the sheriff, the county attorney and the register of deeds, all of whom are elected officials.

The commissioners are also recommending three new positions in their budget for the 2023 fiscal year. In the human resources department, a recruitment and retention specialist who will help recruit new employees and reduce dependence on expensive contract nurses in the county.

They also hope to hire a new full-time dispatcher. With more communities using the county’s dispatch services, the new fees will exceed the salary of the new position. Finally, the county recommends hiring a full-rime maintenance assistant.

ARPA Funds

Grafton County received nearly $17.5 million in ARPA funds. Up to $10 million can be used as a “standard allowance for revenue loss” to provide general government services, an option the county decided to take.

This year, the commissioners recommend using about $1.9 million of ARPA funds for “general government services.” The county does not need to decide how to use all of the money until the end of 2024, and does not need to complete spending until the end of 2026.

County revenues for fiscal year 2023 are down by $792,135. Decreased enrollment in the nursing home account for much of the decrease. About 35 beds will remain empty because of limited staffing.

The county already used some of its ARPA funds to pay $6,000 bonuses to some employees working directly with the public during the pandemic as well as a six-month stipend to employees in the nursing home and the Department of Corrections.

The ARPA money will also go toward one-time investments that will help the health of the budget going forward. For example, ARPA is funding two feasibility studies into building an independent sewer and water system for county buildings including the nursing home and the Department of Corrections, Piper said

The county has been “harnessed” to Woodsville Water and Light for its utilities, she said, and the commissioners are eager for ways to reduce operational costs. Some of Grafton County’s ARPA funds will go towards an ongoing engineering study into expanding fiber optic internet and enhancing cybersecurity

An in-person public hearing on budget recommendations will be held on Wednesday, May 25, 2022 at 6:00 at the Grafton County Office.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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