AUBURN — A dozen members of the Androscoggin County Budget Committee have signed a plea to Maine’s Attorney General seeking help to end the growing controversy over the authority to set pay for elected county commissioners.
Meanwhile, the debate is growing among the county’s 14 towns.
By next Wednesday, selectmen and councilors in at least 11 of the county’s 14 communities are scheduled to consider issuing letters or resolutions admonishing the decision by County Commissioners to soften deep cuts in their pay established by the Budget Committee.
Selectmen in Turner, Leeds, Durham, Poland and Wales are among the towns who now say they will be discuss the issue at meetings next week. Leaders in Lewiston, Auburn, Lisbon and Greene have already announced plans to take up the issue. Selectmen in both Minot and Sabattus have already issued pleas to county county commissioners, calling for a reversal of their recent action.
On Nov. 25, county commissioners voted to restore thousands of dollars in pay and benefits that had been eliminated just six days earlier by the 14-member budget committee.
On Oct. 29 and again on Nov. 19, the Androscoggin County Budget Committee voted to slash pay and eliminate benefits for members of the commission, which is scheduled to expand in January from three to seven members.
Gone were family health and dental plans, worth as much as $18,000 per person. Salary was lowered from $8,292 for the chair and $7,200 for the other commissioners to a base pay of $3,000. A $500 boost was afforded for the chair.
On Nov. 25, commissioners voted 2-0-1 to overturn the cut and pass their own version of a cut, which they had proposed weeks earlier.
Commissioners Beth Bell and Elaine Makas voted in favor of $5,000 in base salary, the same $500 boost for the chair and individual health care worth about $8,400 per person. Chairman Randall Greenwood abstained.
The action shocked members of the Budget Committee.
“This has nothing to with dollar amount,” committee member Emily Tuttle of Minot said Friday. “This has nothing to do with who deserves what. This has everything to do with what the charter says. And this has everything to do with government oversight.
“Is there any?” she asked. “Potentially, if this is allowed to stand, they can do anything they want, set (compensation) at anything they want and there is no recourse from any city or town. And that is not OK.”
Commissioner Makas said Thursday that she sought legal advice after the Budget Committee first voted to cut commissioners’ pay. County attorney Bryan Dench issued an opinion, dated Nov. 19, that interpreted the county charter as giving the final authority over the entire county budget — including their own salaries and benefits — to the commission.
By making the request of the Attorney General, the committee hoped to get an impartial decision on the limits of power for both the committee and the commission, said Poland’s Norman Beauparlant, the committee’s vice chairman.
“For the immediate future, we wish to preserve the intended and stated checks and balances over executive powers and seek legal guidance in how best to ensure this,” said the committee in its letter. ” … we strongly object to the idea that seven people can arbitrarily set their compensation at will. For municipalities in Maine, such budgetary powers are balanced by town meetings, referenda or other means. If no such balance is in place, then we believe a dangerous and expensive precedent will be set.”
As of Friday afternoon, 12 of the committee’s 14 members had signed the letters and a 13th was scheduled to sign on Saturday.
Tuttle hoped to have all 14 signatures before sending out the letters.