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Grafton County pitches 4.2% budget increase, 3.4% tax hike

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/3/2020 9:41:34 PM
Modified: 6/3/2020 9:41:26 PM

NORTH HAVERHILL — Grafton County officials say a shortage of nurses, a competitive job market and the need to hire a finance director are contributing to a proposed $2 million, or 4.2%, budget increase for the coming year.

Residents could see the county portion of their property taxes rise by more than 3.4% under the Grafton County Commission’s $48.5 million budget.

Because county taxes traditionally are the smallest portion of New Hampshire property taxes, residents’ overall taxes would not increase by that percentage, though.

The budget, which will next be vetted by Grafton County’s delegation in the New Hampshire House, attempts to balance the need to fund already promised salaries and benefits with concerns that many residents are feeling the effects of an economic downturn, Commission Chairwoman Linda Lauer, D-Bath, said Wednesday.

She added that the county plans to put off several expenses, such as a paving project at the county complex in North Haverhill and hiring an additional corrections staffer, in an effort to lessen the blow.

Grafton County also plans to tap into $2 million of its surplus funds, or an increase of $400,000, next year to help keep the tax rate in check.

“The budget that we put forward was the best possible compromise between keeping the tax rate low and funding critical county operations,” Lauer said in a phone interview.

Meanwhile, neighboring Sullivan County is proposing a nearly $34 million budget, an increase of almost $53,000, or 0.16%.

If the budget is approved, the amount to be raised by taxes would remain unchanged.

The differing spending plans haven’t gone unnoticed, and Enfield officials recently sent a letter calling on Grafton County to be “more fiscally pragmatic” and further cut spending as residents face record unemployment levels.

While Enfield believes officials are acting with the “interests of county residents at heart,” it also asks them to “confront difficult trade-offs” that many Upper Valley municipalities now face, according to the letter signed by Town Manager Ryan Aylesworth.

Enfield, which is operating without an approved budget because of the postponement of its Town Meeting, is among several communities asking New Hampshire to allow for it to consider adopting a scaled-back “default budget.”

Lauer said she understands Enfield’s concerns, but argued much of the budget’s increases come in the form of fixed costs.

Employees would continue receiving step increases and a 2% cost of living adjustment under the plan, while health insurance costs are also expected to rise by more than $109,000.

“I think we all went into this with the goals of a zero tax increase. It was just not possible this year,” she said. “We did the best we could.”

Grafton County also hopes to hire a finance director, a position that’s traditionally been covered by County Administrator Julie Libby.

“With COVID-19, all of the work that’s having to be done to track expenses, FEMA reimbursements, grants ... it is becoming increasingly difficult for her to do both jobs at once,” Lauer said.

Another new, partially funded position at the Register of Deeds office would allow someone to train for six months before taking over the work of a soon-to-be retiring staffer, Lauer said.

Staffing at Grafton County’s nursing home also continues to be challenging, she said. Officials are proposing to spend $362,000 more next year, partially because of a reliance on contract nurses, known as travelers.

Lauer said the county competes with the nearby Glencliff Home, Cottage Hospital and even Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for nursing candidates, who are sometimes deterred from moving to a rural area with few offerings for young people.

“The only way we can supplement that pool is to hire contract nurses,” she said. “We have to have the staff to hire adequate care.”

Grafton County’s Executive Committee will begin its review of the budget Friday. Once they’re finished, it will go before the county’s full delegation later this month.

Sullivan County

Sullivan County officials say previous efforts to fund two infrastructure projects allowed them to keep costs neatly level-funded this year.

Plans to spend $500,000 on a sober living facility in Claremont and $470,000 for a renovation of the Sullivan County House of Corrections both “dropped off” next year’s spending plan because they have already been funded, County Manager Derek Ferland wrote in a May 28 letter to communities.

However, the budget does increase spending for personnel, including an additional $400,000 for employee wages and $100,000 in new health care costs.

The addition of one new position, an assistant director of nursing, will cost about $110,000, according to Ferland.

County officials also hope to use $2.7 million in surplus funds to keep the tax rate level.

Sullivan County’s delegation of lawmakers is now reviewing the budget proposal, and a public hearing is being planned for June 16 at 6 p.m.

A location hasn’t yet been determined.

The delegation is expected to take a final vote on the spending measure at its meeting on June 29.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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