The people of Androscoggin County have reason to be proud of their county and the employees who work hard every day, both efficiently and effectively, to provide court services, law enforcement, processing of deeds, emergency management and PSAP/dispatching assistance.
As county commissioners, we look forward to continuing our oversight of these services and strengthening them further in the new year by modernizing the way in which we do business. We now have a county charter, and we will soon have four additional commissioners, county by-laws, and, eventually, a county administrator.
Unfortunately, there are some serious misperceptions that are interfering with this modernization. As people probably know, there are differences of opinion between members of the Budget Committee and the commissioners related to the interpretation of the newly-enacted charter, the commissioners’ salaries and benefits, and the role of the county administrator.
I would like to clarify these issues in the hope that this controversy can be resolved amicably, and that we can all get back to the modernization task at hand.
First of all, the charter, like most newly-minted legal documents, is somewhat unclear. We, as commissioners, have already worked with the state Legislature to resolve several of the more serious problems.
The largest remaining problem is clarifying the role of the Budget Committee.
Although the charter states in Section 3.7 that the salaries and benefits of elected officials shall be “recommended” by the commissioners and “approved” by the Budget Committee, it does not specify what must be done if the Budget Committee does not give its approval. This issue is not addressed again until Section 5.5, at which point the Budget Committee’s advisory role is clearly presented as well as the commissioners’ final authority over the budget.
From the last sentence in Section 5.5.2 through the beginning of Section 5.5.4 (a total of seven consecutive sentences), the word “proposed” is used nine times to refer to the Budget Committee’s recommended budget, which “shall include proposed salaries and benefits for elected officials.” Section 5.5.4 clarifies the commissioners’ role: “The Board [of Commissioners] has the authority to modify the proposed budget and the authority to adopt the final budget for the county.”
A second often-repeated misperception is that the commissioners raised their own salaries and benefits. In fact, the opposite is true. We, as county commissioners, voluntarily made significant cuts to our own salaries and benefits in mid-September, well before those reduced numbers were presented to the Budget Committee on Oct. 1.
The cuts that we made included a 32 percent reduction in salary (from the current $7,273 to a proposed $5,000) and up to a 53 percent reduction in health benefits (from single or family, the latter being $18,064, to single only at $8,473).
On Oct. 29, the Budget Committee reviewed these already-reduced salaries and benefits and proposed slashing them an additional 40 percent and 100 percent, respectively. On Nov. 19, we, as commissioners, rejected their proposal in favor of the substantial cuts we had already budgeted.
Finally, another persistent misperception: The Budget Committee’s proposed cuts to commissioners’ salaries and benefits (to less than 20 percent of those currently received) seem to be based in part on the belief that a county administrator will assume most of the responsibilities and work of the county commissioners.
Aside from the obvious fact that the commissioners must go through a lengthy process in the new year of recruiting, interviewing, selecting, and training/familiarizing a county administrator, it should be noted that the commissioners are precisely those who must determine the administrator’s role, including his or her responsibilities. Once hired, this individual will function as an administrator, working under the direct authority and at the will of the commissioners, who remain the CEOs of the county.
Certainly the new year will bring with it a great deal of work to assure that Androscoggin County continues to function efficiently and effectively for all of its citizens. We, as commissioners, are committed to doing this hard work, but, in order to do so, we must get beyond the temporary and unnecessary logjam that is holding back this modernization.
We must all work together so that our county and our employees receive the respect that they richly deserve.
Elaine Makas of Lewiston is an Androscoggin County commissioner.