By Doug Ireland
---- — After former Derry Town Councilor Kevin Coyle expressed interest in becoming a Rockingham County commissioner, he was flooded with questions.
“I can’t tell you how many people have asked me, ‘What does a county commissioner do?’” Coyle said.
The answer is simple.
“We run the county,” he said.
But as Coyle, 48, and fellow newly elected Commissioner Thomas Tombarello of Sandown prepare to be sworn in to office tomorrow, perhaps few people realize the significance of the three-member panel.
The Board of Commissioners manages an annual budget of approximately $75 million and is responsible for several hundred county employees. It also oversees the county nursing home, jail, sheriff’s office, attorney’s office, the registry of deeds and several departments.
The pay isn’t bad either. Commissioners are paid $19,800 a year, far more than the $100 a year state lawmakers earn.
What was a small-scale operation has grown tremendously over the years. It’s now the equivalent of a big business and requires a professional manager to run, just like any municipality, according to outgoing Chairwoman Maureen Barrows of Exeter.
“We have no county administrator – we are the only county in New Hampshire that doesn’t have a business administrator,” she said. “I just want someone to oversee the finances in a more comprehensive way.”
Having an administrator would avoid the type of contentious situations that occurred in the past, when commissioners didn’t always see eye to eye, she said.
“It’s all about a personality conflict over what gets done or doesn’t get done,” she said.
Barrows, a 19-year commissioner, lost to Tombarello in the September primary by 124 votes.
“I can’t wait to get in there,” Tombarello said last week. “I’m hoping to bring something to the table.”
Barrows, 76, has mixed feelings about stepping down. The former human services administrator is leaving county government after 25 years.
“I loved every minute of it — I wasn’t always right, but I was right more than I was wrong,” she said. “It’s time for me to move on, though I didn’t do it willingly.”
Barrows admits feeling bitter about her defeat, especially after Tombarello made comments critical of her and her campaign. About three weeks ago, she decided it was time to put feelings aside and help Tombarello to make for a smoother transition.
“I said, ‘This is crazy. I can’t hold grudges,’” she said. “At this point, I wish the two men well and I hope it works out.”
Tombarello and Coyle have been attending the commission’s weekly meetings to prepare. Coyle, too, has gotten some help from the incumbent he ousted in the primary — C. Donald Stritch.
“He’s helped me get up to speed,” Coyle said of Stritch. “I couldn’t have asked him to do more. I think because of the help we received, Tom and I are going to hit the ground running.”
They only have until Jan. 14 to prepare the county budget for the legislative delegation’s review. Both men said they are up to the task.
“We’re going to have to make some fairly significant decisions very quickly,” Coyle said.
Tombarello agreed. He started consulting with county officials before he was even elected.
“I’ve been meeting with department heads since the primary,” he said.
Tombarello, 53, is a Sandown selectman and master electrician with his own business, Thomas Tombarello Electrical Services.
He served as a deputy sheriff in Massachusetts for 13 years. He said he is concerned about overcrowding at the county jail, a contract stalemate several employee unions, and the need to upgrade the county dispatch center. An expansion of the jail is under consideration.
The two new commissioners said it may be time for small towns that use the dispatch center for free at nights and on weekends to start pitching in.
“If they want a million-dollar update, you should pay for it,” Coyle said. “If they want to set up their own dispatch, it would cost them at least $100,000 a year.”
Coyle, a prosecutor for the Londonderry Police Department, said one of his goals is to take a thorough look at each department’s budget to see if the current spending is justified. He said wonders if the county really needs approximately 600 workers.
“You have to question whether we need all these employees,” he said.
Coyle disagrees with Barrows that the county needs an administrator, which would be a costly addition to the budget at a time when cutbacks are in order.
“I think we need to look at a lot of things,” Coyle said.
Those include the county nursing home, where he thinks some of programs, such as the adult day-care program, may not be worth the expense.
“There are some programs we are not going to be able to keep,” he said.