Cheshire County seal

The Cheshire County Board of Commissioners has finalized its 2020 budget proposal, which calls for appropriating a little over $58 million.

The proposed 2020 budget would mark a significant increase over this year’s $51.7 million budget, mainly because it must account for a nearly $7 million bond to buy the courthouse in Keene, which the county delegation approved last week. That figure does not directly affect the tax rate, however, because the expenditure on the courthouse is offset by the revenue from the bond.

The portion of the budget to be raised through property taxes, $29.1 million, would be up $809,194, or 2.9 percent, from this year.

A public hearing on the budget proposal is scheduled for Monday, Dec. 9, at 7 p.m. at the County Hall on Winter Street in Keene.

The county delegation’s 12-member executive committee then starts reviewing the proposal before the full delegation — comprising Cheshire County’s 23 state representatives — votes on the budget in the spring.

The budget process begins in the fall, when department heads present their budget requests to the commissioners. In a cover letter dated Tuesday, the commissioners — Charles F. “Chuck” Weed, John G. “Jack” Wozmak and Robert J. Englund — wrote that while they made significant reductions to those requests, and found additional sources of revenue, “some increases were difficult to contain.”

Specifically, the letter cites cost-of-living adjustments and other regular pay increases for county employees totaling about $490,000 and health insurance costs expected to rise about $146,000.

In addition, Medicaid payments for eligible county residents in nursing homes or in need of home-based care are projected to go up about $121,000. The county is obligated to shoulder 50 percent of such costs, with the federal government covering the other half, according to county Finance Director Sheryl Trombly.

The county budget covers a range of functions, including the sheriff’s office, the county jail, the county prosecutor’s office and the Maplewood Nursing Home in Westmoreland.

Here are some other proposed elements of the 2020 budget.

A giving mood

The commissioners are proposing to increase contributions to area nonprofit agencies, citing the county’s “centuries-old mission of caring for the poor, the infirm and the needy.”

Under the commissioners’ budget, 11 programs would receive a total of $242,600, up from $208,600 in each of the past three years.

The letter notes that Home Healthcare, Hospice and Community Services, which would see an increase of $20,000, provides care to elderly people who might otherwise need to move into a county nursing home sooner. Additional agencies slated to get funding support other vulnerable populations, including those affected by the opioid crisis and other societal problems.

“We think it’s really important to increase funding for many of the outside agencies, because of the help they provide keeping people out of the nursing home a little longer,” said Weed, chairman of the board of commissioners. He added that commissioners are also very concerned about the impacts of the opioid crisis.

Personnel changes

The proposed budget also includes a few staffing changes. The Cheshire County Attorney’s Office would gain a new position, director of restorative justice services and victim witness.

According to Weed, County Attorney D. Chris McLaughlin has been asking for a third victim/witness coordinator to ease the burden on the two current staffers, who carry large caseloads. Weed said the commissioners approved the request, but also want that person to work with a restorative justice program established earlier this year. The volunteer program provides an alternative to prosecution for people charged with certain low-level offenses.

Additionally, a part-time position in the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office investigating sex offenses and other crimes against children would become full-time. According to Trombly, 70 percent of the position’s salary and 100 percent of its overtime costs are reimbursed by the N.H. Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

The part-time job is currently held by Todd A. Faulkner, who is resigning from his position as Hinsdale’s police chief to move into the full-time role at the sheriff’s office.

The proposed budget also adds three housekeeping positions at Maplewood Nursing Home, where a new wing is scheduled to open soon as part of an ongoing expansion project. Overall, though, Maplewood’s $15,985,641 budget would be about $135,000 less than this year.

The new bond

The county’s planned purchase of the courthouse on Winter Street early next year from a subsidiary of Monadnock Economic Development Corp. comes with a guaranteed revenue source: the state court system, which leases the space.

The county expects the deal to be profitable in the first year, and then again starting several years later. The court system will owe about $590,000 in rent next year, and the figure is set to rise by 3 percent annually. The county expects about $130,000 of that will go toward facilities costs.

Meanwhile, the county will pay only interest on the bond — not any of the principal — in the first year. That means its payment in 2020 will be lower than in subsequent years.

While the precise amount will depend on the interest rate, the county is budgeting for a $116,000 payment in 2020. That means the county anticipates earning a $344,000 profit that year.

Once the county starts paying down the principal in 2021, the rental income will fall short of the bond payments plus facilities costs for several years. But the arrangement will become profitable again around 2025 or 2026, according to county projections, because bond payments will decrease each year as rental revenue rises.

County officials also hope to use some of the income from next year to offset the shortfalls in the following years. The budget calls for putting away $130,000 for that purpose.

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or pbooth@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @PCunoBoothKS.