Several members of the Tuftonboro Budget Committee are preparing to sign form MS 737, which states: “Under penalty of perjury, I declare that I have examined the information contained in this form and to the best of my belief it is true, correct, and complete.”
But the board of selectmen have not provided the budget committee with basic information about how the budget is calculated: They will not say how much we spend per employee on health benefits. How can any member of the committee declare that the information in the budget is “true, correct, and complete” without knowing whether the information is in fact true, correct, and complete? To do so would be perjury, a class B felony.
The amount proposed for public-employee benefits is $594,274, or 16.2% of the total proposed 2017 budget.
The selectmen claim that public-employee privacy rights prevent them from disclosing how much the town spends per employee on health benefits.
But this information has been made available in previous years. In addition, the Carroll County business office recently turned over approximately 3,000 records in a Right to Know request for all employment records for anyone employed by the county during a specific period, including information about each employee’s eligibility for dental or health insurance. The County also turned over records of insurance claims that had been filed by individual employees during the same period.
As taxpayers, we have the right to know how much we’re spending per employee on health benefits. At the February 15th public hearing on the budget, I stated my concern that the selectmen were exposing the town to future litigation by refusing to disclose basic budget information and flouting Right to Know laws. Selectmen chairman Carolyn Sundquist replied, “What’s one more case?”
Not all budget members are preparing to commit perjury. Steve Brinser, the vice chairman of the committee, will not be signing. “With respect to almost $600,000, that’s in the budget,” said Brinser, referring to the total amount Tuftonboro spends on employee benefits, “which I can’t tie down—that causes me to have a problem. I can’t sign off to attesting that it’s accurate.”
The committee should not commit perjury but instead should insist that the selectmen provide true, correct, and complete information.
The proposed 2017 operating budget would appropriate more than $1,000,000 more than the town spent in 2012.
Steve Brinser, the budget committee’s vice chairman, noted that the 2017 operating budget would also increase spending 12% over what was actually expended in 2016 at a time when the Social Security Administration says the rate of inflation is 0.3%.
Selectmen chairman Carolyn Sundquist last night dismissed concerns that refusing to disclose how much the town spends per employee on health benefits would open the town to future litigation through New Hampshire’s Right to Know statute (RSA 91-A). Seeming to invite a lawsuit, Sundquist said, “What’s one more case?”
The Tuftonboro selectmen are refusing to provide the budget committee with information critical to finalizing the town’s budget. The selectmen claim that public employee privacy rights prevent them from disclosing how much the town spends per employee on health benefits. The selectmen apparently base this decision to violate the Right to Know law on a single email that Carla Lootens, the chairman of the budget committee, received from someone at the New Hampshire Municipal Association. Lootens described this last night as “advice from counsel.” However, it’s not clear that an email from someone at NHMA really constitutes “advice from counsel.”
Recently the Carroll County business office turned over approximately 3,000 records in a Right to Know request that specifically asked for all employment records for anyone employed by the county during a specific time period including each employee’s eligibility for dental or health insurance. The County also turned over records of insurance claims that had been filed by employees during the same time period.
By refusing to provide the budget committee with basic information about how the budget is determined, the selectmen are not only violating the public’s Right to Know but also severely damaging the budget committee’s ability to do the job that they were independently elected to perform.
As budget committee vice chairman Steve Brinser noted, each budget committee member is supposed to sign off on the budget, with the statement “Under penalty of perjury, I declare that I have examined the information contained in this form and to the best of my belief it is true, correct and complete.”
“With respect to almost $600,000, that’s in the budget,” said Brinser, referring to the total amount spent on employee benefits, “which I can’t tie down, causes me to have a problem with that. I can’t sign off to attesting that it’s accurate.”
John Libby, also a member of the budget committee, voiced similar doubts about signing off on the budget when so many of the numbers within it, particularly tax revenues, are estimates. “How do we sign off on this, if this is an estimate, and these are all going to change?” He asked.
Update: In response to a comment from Rick, below, here is the 2016 personnel administration spreadsheet that shows how much we spent on each employee for health benefits:
And here is what the selectmen provided for 2017:
The selectmen (Carolyn Sundquist, Bill Marcussen, Lloyd Wood) have refused this year to disclose how much will be spent per employee in 2017 for health benefits. The town’s health insurance provider is Interlocal Trust.
The budget committee voted 4-3 on December 6, 2016, for the personnel administration budget without knowing whether the budget line item of $315,622 for health benefits was accurate or not. Carla Lootens, Helen Hartshorn, Bob Theve, and Carolyn Sundquist voted in favor, while Steve Brinser, Tyler Philips, and John Libby voted against.
At Monday’s budget committee meeting, selectmen’s representative Carolyn Sundquist (term ends 2017) made the case for an additional $1,000 in overtime for the administrative secretary and administrative assistant in next year’s budget. Carolyn suggested that the extra funds for overtime next year would be needed because the selectmen have received a request through the Right to Know law, which she characterized as frivolous and “a fishing expedition,” for all emails to or from the selectmen, the administrative secretary, and the administrative assistant from March 1, 2016, to October 17, 2016.
It’s not clear who made the request for emails. [Update: The request was made by Tuftonboro resident Bob McWhirter.]
Carla Lootens, the chairman of the budget committee, seemed taken aback. She asked, “So we have to pay $1,000 overtime because someone wants…?”
Carolyn quickly said, “No.” That the work for the Right to Know request is part of their “normal work schedule.”
Despite Carolyn’s explanation that there is no connection between the Right to Know request and next year’s overtime request, despite her earlier linkage of the two things, Carla joined Helen Hartshorn, Bob Theve, and Carolyn in voting to approve the budget. Vice chairman Steve Brinser and John Libby voted against the budget, and Tyler Philips abstained.
Carla said that she thought it was a “poor use of taxpayer money” to respond to Right to Know requests.
The Right to Know law does not require any reason be given for a request for public documents, so Carolyn’s belief that the current request is frivolous is irrelevant. It does however show her negative attitude toward the public’s right to know.
In 2015, Carroll County Superior Court ruled that the selectmen — at the time Dan Duffy, Carolyn Sundquist, and Lloyd Wood — had violated the Right to Know law.
The selectmen, and the majority of the budget committee, need to understand that the public’s right to know is neither frivolous nor a poor use of taxpayer money. It is the law.
The video at the top of this post is at 2x speed. To watch at normal speed, see the full meeting video at the 58:52 mark: