LEWISTON — Members of the Androscoggin County Budget Committee hope to bring Maine’s attorney general into the growing debate over whether county commissioners broke the law Nov. 25 when they voted to restore thousands of dollars in pay and benefits eliminated by the budget committee.
The 14-member committee has drafted letters to AG Janet Mills and leaders in each of the county’s 14 towns calling for a reversal of the commission’s decision.
Meanwhile, towns have already begun taking up the matter. This week, selectmen in Minot and Sabattus sent letters calling on the commissioners to reverse their decision.
Next week, councils in Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon are scheduled to discuss the issue.
“I can’t believe where this has gone,” Michael Marcotte, chairman of the Budget Committee, said Thursday. “It shouldn’t have gone this far.”
On Oct. 29 and again on Nov. 19, Marcotte’s group 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 $3,500 and $3,000, respectively.
Budget Committee members thought the issue was closed when their Nov. 19 meeting ended, having been assured that the two-year-old County Charter gave them the authority to set compensation for elected officials.
However, six days later, county commissioners voted 2-0-1 to overturn the cut and pass their own version of a cut, proposed by themselves 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.
Though the County Charter seemed to give final authority over commissioner pay to the budget group — “Salaries and benefits of all County elected officials shall be recommended by the Board and approved by a majority plus one vote of the full Budget Committee” — longtime county attorney Bryan Dench told commissioners in a Nov. 19 memo that they could decide their own salaries.
He cited other sections of the charter that seemed to give final authority to commissioners.
“I am aware that some members of the Charter Commission believe that their intention was to have the salaries set by the committee be final,” Dench wrote. “But the text of the charter does not say that and the voters enacted a text, not an intention.”
Makas, who asked for Dench’s opinion after the Budget Committee’s first salary vote, agreed with the lawyer.
“The intentions are irrelevant,” Makas said.
She pointed out that the version of the charter passed by voters in 2012 and became the county’s rule of government was a mistake. It was an early draft that was published in error, according to members of the Charter Commission.
Last year, the Maine Legislature passed a revision to the charter meant to fix some problems.
Some problems remained, Makas said. “It’s not just a glitch somewhere.”
Budget Committee members argued Thursday that intentions do matter.
“Everyone seems to have a slightly different interpretation of what they’re reading,” Marcotte said.
That’s why members of the Charter Commission were consulted during budget talks, he said.
Charter Commission Chairman Richard Gross, Vice Chairman Richard Grandmaison and Secretary Chip Morrison all said the intention of the Charter Commission was that salaries were meant to be set by the Budget Committee.
Committee member Mark Lunt of Lisbon believes the charter was clear.
“One of the major selling points of the charter was this provision, because who else in life gets to set their own salary?” said Lunt of Lisbon. “We all think we’re underpaid. We all think we’re overworked. It’s not reasonable for them to have that kind of power.”
Commissioners argued Thursday that power, rather than money, was the source of ongoing debate.
The charter also weakened the Budget Committee, changing its role to advisory in most cases, Makas said.
“They’re trying to be the kings of the mountain,” she said.
Bell called the debate “crazy.”
“I think the root of it all is that the taxpayer is fed up with taxation and that’s the only reason I ran for county commissioner: to change that,” she said. “I agree, but you’ve got to pay quality people who have integrity and who will put the time into it.”
Members of the Budget Committee who agree with the letters plan to gather Friday afternoon to sign them before sending them to the towns and the Attorney General’s Office.