For Grafton County, budgeting for fiscal year 2022 has been a challenge and the COVID-19 pandemic is largely to blame.
“This has been a rough budget year,” Grafton County Commissioner Linda Lauer, of Bath, said Friday. “We have $500,000 downshifted to us from the state because our contribution to the pension plan went up. Our admissions at the nursing home stopped for quite a while and 14 beds at the nursing home had to be set aside for a COVID unit and quarantine. We lost $1.2 million in revenue from the nursing home. COVID had a major impact on us. It’s been rough.”
The county was able to obtain federal money for expenses, but not for lost revenue, at least so far, she said.
“The hope is that we can use more recent federal money to offset lost revenue,” said Lauer. “We could know by the end of May. At this point, we don’t know what we can use the federal money for so we are not using it for anything now rather than take a chance of using it improperly and having to pay it back.”
The fiscal year 2022 budget takes effect July 1.
(The county’s total fiscal year 2021 budget is $48.527 million).
The commissioners’ proposed 2022 budget next goes to the county executive committee for review and possible changes, followed by a vote at the end of June by the Grafton County Delegation.
The commission is finishing up its proposed budget on Monday.
“I think we are in a good place,” said Lauer. “There won’t be a zero increase in the amount to be raised by taxes, but my guess is it will be less than 1 percent.”
County budgeting in any given year, pandemic or not, can be challenging, as well as frustrating for some towns because the county could reduce taxes by 5 percent, for instance, but one town could see their county taxes go up by 5 percent because of each town’s apportionment of county taxes, which has to do with town-wide valuations and when towns report it, she said.
“We do what we can to keep taxes down, “said Lauer.
One county department presenting its proposed budget is the sheriff’s department, which went to a county commission discussion last month regarding its digital forensic unit, the only one of its kind in the North Country that investigates crimes ranging from computer and other offenses against children to drug cases, homicides, and just about any other crime that has some sort of digital footprint.
The U.S. Secret Service provides Grafton County with the equipment, which the unit, headed up by Grafton County Sheriff’s Detective Justin Charette-Combs, uses to explore digital devices brought to him by state police and local police departments, some of them outside of Grafton County, and at no charge to the police agencies.
Earlier in the year, the three Grafton County commissioners requested that the sheriff’s department establish a fee for digital forensics investigations after they expressed a need for a fee assessment for services provided outside of Grafton County to offset some of the program costs.
During the April 14 commission meeting, Grafton County Sheriff Jeff Stiegler said if Grafton County charges fees, the Secret Service will take back the equipment.
Grafton County Sheriff’s Lt. Frederic James said the forensics unit, launched in 2018, has hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and training from the Secret Service and the department is only asking taxpayers to fund one tool.
The equipment and training come from a federally-funded grant with the requirement that the county cannot make money on it, included making money through a fee-based program, he said.
There is a memorandum of understanding in place stating that the federal grant funds are being appropriated as a resource for communities, said James.
If the tool requested is not approved for funding, James said the Grafton County Sheriff’s Department will still conduct investigations and take in certain devices, but will need to determine if it’s something they can do.
If not, the sheriff’s department has access to the tool at another law enforcement agency in southern New Hampshire, but taking it there won’t mean it will be cost effective, he said.
Combs said that last year the sheriff’s department unlocked 123 devices with the tool, and if Grafton County didn’t have it, those devices would have had to be shipped out or brought to southern New Hampshire, which he said is not cost-effective or efficient use of time.
On Friday, Lauer, in looking at the county’s agreement with the Secret Service, said she doesn’t see how the county can now move to a fee-based program for the digital forensics unit.
“I think the sheriff is doing what he can to minimize the impact on the taxpayers,” she said.