Several nights ago, I was having dinner with a Gilford friend at Johnson’s Seafood & Steak in New Durham. The food was excellent, as always, and the conversation ultimately turned to Belknap County government, which produced indigestion for both of us.
My friend wanted to know exactly what essential governmental functions are performed by Belknap County and, ultimately, he wanted to know why we even need to have and pay tax dollars for a county government apparatus separate and apart from our towns and our single city (Laconia).
So, I tried my best to explain, as follows:
Fire protection/EMS services– nope- done by the towns and our single city, not by the county. There is no Belknap County Fire Department. But our towns and our city in the county are in a mutual aid arrangement that seems to work well for major incidents.
Police protection– it is fairly well known that I strongly believe that public safety is the number one duty of government. But with that in mind, the Belknap County Sheriff’s Dept. is only responsible for transporting incarcerated prisoners (why can’t this be done by correctional department staff I wonder); serving civil court papers (in many states, private process servers fulfill this function efficiently, quickly & cheaply); and providing security at the Courthouse (obviously essential).
It is probable that some of the younger officers in the Sheriff’s Department would like to see the role of the department expanded into patrol functions, now done by the police departments of our towns and city, and there has even been some talk of a push to consolidate all of the police functions within the county into the Sheriff’s Dept. with the elimination of our individual police departments throughout the county. Some singularly bad ideas that all of our citizens will hopefully resist.
Public Works– nope- road work and other public works are done by the public works departments of our towns and city. There is no county public works department.
Schools– nope- the county does not operate any schools. We should be thankful for small favors.
Parks & recreation– nope- there is no county department for parks & recreation. This function is done by the cities and the town.
Cemeteries– nope- this function is done by the cities and town.
County Jail– Probably an essential function, but certainly one with some unresolved issues.
Register of Deeds– Definitely an essential function. Our land records must be maintained accurately.
County Attorney– Also an essential function. Prosecutes all crimes other than homicides (which are handled by the office of the Attorney General). We happen to have an unusually well-qualified County Attorney at present. But the office is obviously overworked and understaffed. Seems to me like an essential county function that should receive more support. It appears that with their workload, there is little or no time for the staff to advise county government on civil matters so it must turn to outside private counsel for help when needed, for which taxpayers foot the bill.
Nursing Home– care for our nursing home residents is paid for either by self-pay, private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, or some combination thereof. When I inquired a couple of years ago how much money the county taxpayers were required to subsidize for the nursing home in addition to those payment sources, I was told by staff that it was about $500,000 per year. And we have a large staff tending to the nursing home patients, as well as to the administrative functions associated with it (not that they do a particularly good job on the administrative side).
When I suggested to one of the county commissioners (the Board of County Commissioners consists of 3 elected members- see photo above) that we should consider privatizing the nursing home, he (a successful businessman and holder, allegedly, of an MBA degree) said that it could not be done because the nursing home occupies a good portion of the county building in Laconia that houses other county offices. But in my own experience, it would not be terribly difficult to make the county building into a two-unit condominium, with one unit being the nursing home (a simple wall separator would do) and the other unit being the remaining county offices. Then the nursing home could be privatized which might reduce or eliminate the need for a county taxpayer subsidy.
There are many private companies in the business of operating nursing homes at a profit and who might be interested in operating our nursing home. And they might even end up paying the county for the privilege of running the operation. I know, a radical thought.
County Administration– an inefficient mess. A simple request to use direct deposit for stipend & mileage payments to members of the county delegation was blown off and never honored. Several staff members are involved in handling payroll matters which could be easily outsourced to one of the numerous reputable payroll services available throughout the country. The prior finance director allowed enormous amounts of obviously uncollectible nursing home receivables to remain on the books for years without writing them off, thereby giving a false picture of county finances.
And the present county administrator was hired by a prior board of county commissioners that had promulgated minimum qualifications for the position but hired an individual who did not meet those minimums, and then entered into a contact with her, with no fixed term (i.e. no specified time for expiration) initially drafted by her and supposedly reviewed by outside counsel selected by her (and presumably paid for by the county). I am not making this up.
Gunstock Recreation Area– a very large, potentially wonderful, property given to the county by the state, with oversight and so-called management outsourced to a separate group of commissioners appointed by the county delegation. Operated so inefficiently over the years that it has had to be bailed out by the county taxpayers several times. Has “required” issuance of bonds for capital projects, for which the county itself, and its taxpayers, goes on the hook. Typically does not operate at a profit or return a reasonable profit to the county. Pays less than $7,000 per year in property taxes on assets estimated to have a fair market value of over $14 Million but receives full municipal services from Gilford. Has so far refused to consider privatization, unlike the now privatized Sunapee Resort, that pays hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in taxes to its town and profits to the State that retains ownership of the property being leased to a private operator.
Finally, we ordered dessert to try to clear away the depressing feelings our discussion had produced.
Their ice cream was great!