MILLINOCKET – A Superior Court judge has dismissed the town’s lawsuit against Gov. Paul LePage and state education officials seeking $216,000 in school funding LePage ordered withheld from the town.
In a single-page ruling town officials released Thursday, Kennebec County Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills dismissed the complaint because Millinocket’s request for the additional funding was filed after the 30-day deadline imposed by the Maine Administrative Procedures Act.
Under the law, Maine Attorney General William Schneider had argued on behalf of the state, a civil court petition for review of an administrative decision would have had to be filed within about 30 days of LePage’s decision to allocate only about $504,000 of $720,000 the town was owed under the Sudden and Severe Impact law.
The law shields municipalities against drastic and immediate losses to their tax bases ― in Millinocket’s case, by providing compensation for the property tax loss caused by the shuttering of the town’s paper mill.
LePage’s decision occurred on March 7, 2012. The town, through a public statement condemning LePage for his actions, voiced its opposition to the decision the next day, but as Mills’ decision notes, town attorneys did not file an appeal with the court until June 12.
Mills’ decision, Millinocket interim Town Manager Charles Pray said, skirts a central question the lawsuit raised — whether a governor has a right to effectively alter a state funding formula and thereby violate the will of the Legislature that set that formula.
“I think there are strong reasons for an appeal,” Pray said. “It seems to me that if the governor is going to interject himself into the funding formula process like this, it takes the whole check and balance system [within state government] and throws it out.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett expressed satisfaction with the ruling.
“The court’s decision puts to rest an issue that needed to be addressed and now we can all move forward,” she said in a statement Thursday.
The fight began between Millinocket and LePage on March 7. That’s when LePage claimed that town leaders broke their pledge to pay $50,000 annually toward the estimated $250,000 annual cost of the maintenance and operation of the Dolby landfill in East Millinocket used by the region’s two paper mills.
Millinocket officials angrily denied the claim and produced correspondence that they said made clear that their commitment was for one year only, and the Maine Municipal Association called LePage’s actions unprecedented. East Millinocket leaders said they also never agreed to multiyear payments.
The state’s assuming ownership of the landfill was a crucial part of the LePage administration’s enticement of a New Hampshire investor to purchase the two mills in the fall of 2011. The East Millinocket mill’s restart returned about 225 jobs to the region.
Millinocket Town Councilor Michael Madore called LePage a “bully” for his actions, and other town leaders criticized the governor for connecting education funding to a landfill in another town that was crucial to new ownership of the region’s paper mills.
None of these things, they said, had anything to do with the funding of town schools. Millinocket’s town manager at the time, Eugene Conlogue, called news of the lawsuit’s dismissal sad.
“I am disappointed and I think the judge is in error,” said Conlogue, who is now Houlton’s town manager. “That is based on the understanding I had with the town’s attorneys on this matter.”
Millinocket’s attorneys argued that the Maine Administrative Procedures Act, which Mills cited, does not apply to the governor’s office and that LePage effectively violated his oath to see that state laws are upheld.
Town Council Chairman John Davis could not be reached for comment.