A disagreement between State lawmakers and the Rockingham County Commissioners on the protocol for spending county dollars has escalated to threats of lawsuits against the commissioners.
Representation from both sides are set to meet on Thursday, Oct. 16, with hopes to resolve the matter, but for now are at a standstill.
Chair of the Delegation Norman Major, R-Plaistow, said he would wait to comment on the matter until after that meeting, noting that the two sides were attempting to come to an understanding and he did not want to upset that process.
State Rep. Gene Charron, R-Chester, chair of the delegation’s Executive Committee, also refrained from comment, preferring to let the two sides work out the issues before speaking publicly.
County commissioners Tom Tombarello, R-Sandown and Kevin Coyle, R-Derry had similar takes on the matter, arguing that it’s a power struggle that could waste taxpayers’ money.
The Rockingham County Delegation is made up of State House Representatives from the municipalities within the county. At a recent meeting members reviewed a draft lawsuit against the commissioners.
At their last meeting on Oct. 6, however, the delegation failed to gain a quorum to vote on taking that lawsuit to the next step.
Lawmakers say the three commissioners did not gain their approval for transferring and expending budget dollars as required by state law, pointing to four line items in their argument.
Money for those items was in the delegation’s line within the county budget.
The commissioners argue that they never transferred funds, do not need delegation approval to spend budgeted money and further, used the funds in question for their intended purposes.
A letter from the commissioners to the delegation reads, “Broadly speaking, the Petition contains two allegations of wrongdoing by the Commissioners – both of which, as set forth below, are the product of the Executive Committee’s misunderstanding of the statutes by which the County is jointly governed by the County Convention and the County Commissioners.”
Later the letter states, “The Commissioners’ basic obligation is to enter into contracts for goods and services on behalf of the County, and to make payments as they come due within the limits of appropriations, and for the purposes for which the dollars are appropriated. That is all that happened in this case.”
Coyle sees the delegation’s efforts as attempts at micromanagement.
“They want to have more power than the legislature has given them,” said Coyle, noting that this same battle has been flaring up now and again for at least a hundred years.
Tombarello argues that personal vendettas are getting in the way of doing the business of the taxpayer. He added that he hopes the two sides can compromise and come to a working relationship soon.
“We should keep in mind that we all work for the taxpayers and stop wasting time on foolishness,” said Tombarello.
The commissioners say the bills in question were not a surprise and that they have always handled these kinds of expenses in the same manner.
Coyle noted that they pay other county bills without reproof.
“We pay the employees; we pay the electric bill and don’t ask them (the delegation),” said Coyle.
Both Coyle and Tombarello think the issue stems from the closure of the County’s Adult Day Care program last year. The decision was approved by Coyle and third commissioner Katharin Pratt and opposed by Tombarello.
The decision did not sit well with legislators at the time.
Longtime commissioner Katharin Pratt, R-Hampton lost a bid for reelection in the primary to Kevin St. James, R-Kingston. Coyle was unsuccessfully challenged by Kevin Waterhouse, R-Windham, an officer of the delegation.
Increasing the seriousness of the potential lawsuit is the fact that the delegation could sue the commissioners both in their elected roles and as private citizens.
“I’m disappointed that they would look to sue us personally,” said Tombarello.
Coyle argued that the money in question was not used for personal expenses and as such there was no justification for making the suit personal.
“It’s just an unnecessary distraction,” said Coyle on whether the potential suit was affecting other commission work.
Coyle pointed to the likelihood that the commissioners will return $1 million to $1.5 million to the taxpayers this year, but a lawsuit could cut into that amount by $30,000 to $50,000.
“It’s a waste of county money,” Coyle said.