County budget at $35.8 million up bite jumps 8.99%

By Archie Mountain

CLAREMONT-- At exactly 1 p.m. on Tuesday, June 28, Representative John Cloutier of Claremont called the Annual Sullivan County Convention to order and in less than a half hour the Sullivan County Delegation approved the county's Fiscal Year 2023 budget.

That budget calls for expenditures of $35,800,684, a 3.6 percent increase over the 2022 budget. The property tax revenue of $15,402,937 reflects an increase of 8.99 percent. The Executive Finance Committee voted 5-0 in support of this proposal before it was considered by the entire Sullivan County Delegation that was in agreement following its 11-1 vote.

The meeting was held in the John Goodrich Business and Community Room at the Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center, 111 South St., Claremont.

The Board of Commissioners adjustments to the initial draft budget reduced the tax increase from 29.4 percent to 11.99 percent, a total of about $2.4 million.

Variances from FY22 operating budget totaled $900,000; reductions to wage increase proposal, $700,000; use of unassigned fund balance, $500,000 and use of Sullivan County Health Care Fund by $300,000, a total of $2.4 million.

Additional adjustments made by the Executive Finance Committee to the BOC proposed budget trimmed the proposed tax increase from 11.99 percent to 8.99 percent. Those reductions covered an increase in interest income revenue, $120,000; reduce grant writer expense, $25,000 and additional use of Unassigned Fund Balance, $278,964 for a total of $423,964.

The EFC also identified other potential adjustments for BOC consideration:

1. Reduce annual capital allocation for Sheriff's vehicle and other vehicle equipment.

2. Reduce transfers to capital reserves for projects

3. Reduce all county grants by a small percentage

4. Reduce travel and training budgets.

The EFC had four major goals:

1. Minimize growth in total budget, 3.6 percent

2. Support BOC's targeted wage increase proposal

3. Keep tax increase in line with inflation, 8.99 percent

4. Preserve Unassigned Fund Balance in accordance with County policy

County Leadership members include Rep. Cloutier, chairman; Rep. Brian Sullivan, vice chair; Rep. Andrew O'Hearne, clerk; Rep. Sue Gottling, EFC chair and Rep. Linda Tanner, EFC Vice-Chair.

Other Representatives in the County Delegation include Judy Aron*, John Callum, Gary Merchant*, Lee Oxenham, Skip Rollins, Steve Smith, Terry Spilsbury* and Walt Stapleton. *Also members of the EFC.

The three Sullivan County Board of Commissioners includes Bennie Nelson, George Hebert and Joseph Osgood.

After discussion for an hour, the Delegation could not agree on a plan that would have authorized acceptance and expenditure of unanticipated future funds. The article was even split into two votes and in the end failed to get a majority from the Delegation on a 6-6 tie and was tabled. The article again will be on the agenda of a future Delegation meeting.

During this give-and-take session, Sullivan County Commissioner George Hebert shared a thought of his own. "If you don't believe we are able to be honest, I'm a little bit set back."

Following the meeting, Sullivan County Manager Derek Ferland was asked to provide additional details of the breakdown relative to proposed salary increases for county employees aired during the meeting.

His statement follows:

"Our wage increase targeted the lower end of our wage and grade structure. Our entry level positions are Grade 2 (Dietary and Housekeeping) and Grade 4 (Laundry). The wage range for Grade 2 positions started at $12.06 and Grade 4 was $12.66. These wages would be for a new employee with zero experience. The $3 per hour raise applied to all Grade 2 and Grade 4 staff.

Our next targeted raise was S1.50 per hour for certain Grade 6 positions: Cook, Licensed Nursing Assistant (LNA) and Licensed Medication Nursing Assistant (LMNA). These are positions that have been increasingly difficult to fill. Grade 6 positions started at $13.67 per hour for someone with zero experience.

All other Group 1 staff up through Grade 9 received a $1 per hour raise. Grades 10 and above were not included in this wage increase--we just couldn't fit it all into this budget. We have more work to do.

The final element of this targeted raise was for our Corrections Officers in the jail. They are classified as Grade 7 in our Group II pay scale. Their starting pay was $16.03 and the FY23 increase is $2.50 per hour for all Corrections Officers. Sullivan County was dead last in starting pay for COs and even with this $2.50 increase in pay, we are still significantly behind the State Prison in Springfield, Vt., most other law enforcement agencies in our area and security jobs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

We are optimistic that these increases will help address the severe staffing shortages we are experiencing in certain areas, but we'll have to wait and see if this plan actually works. It's a very competitive labor market and we are in the same boat as just about any other large employer.

In all, this wage proposal added about $900,000 to our FY23 budget."

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