Oxford County officials cleared in unofficial review

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PARIS — An Albany Township resident who requested county officials clarify why taxes spiked dramatically said he’s satisfied those funds were properly awarded for construction projects. 

In a meeting Thursday morning with Oxford County Administrator Scott Cole and road agent Todd Sawyer, longtime lawyer and Albany Township resident Jeffrey Rosenblatt said he was confident public officials showed due diligence when they devised a master plan to upgrade 56 miles of road in the unorganized territory.

The work saw capital improvement expenditures soar $300,000 in a single year, with taxes rising 17 percent. Coupled with state increases, total taxes in the UTs grew about 35 percent in one year, which was wildly unpopular with residents, who Rosenblatt said could ill afford a rate hike.

“It came as a shock,” Rosenblatt said.

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In what county officials treated as a Freedom of Access Act request, Thursday’s inspection, which amounted to a detailed conversation with little auditing of the county’s books, gave a blow-by-blow account of how officials plan, solicit and award work for the unorganized territories. 

UTs have no local municipal government and rely upon the county to provide basic services such as road repair, plowing and levying property taxes. Cole said he was more than happy to comply with the request.

“We want it vetted; we want it aired. There’s nothing to hide here,” Cole said.

Though in dire need, Cole said repairs in the territory were underfunded for years. The combination created an “unacceptable” scenario, in which certain stretches of road could not be plowed because inadequate drainage had contoured the road surface.

In other cases, neglected bridges caved in and poised a threat to public safety. Yet, Sawyer explained, laying a new road foundation and then paving made little fiscal sense if ditching wasn’t completed around the same time, as pooling water would eventually wash away the work.

An explanation for the costs also prompted criticism of how county officials award contracts.

According to Cole, the county directly advertises and directly mails companies in the UT when it is opening up bidding for summer and winter road maintenance. Approximately eight responded. 

After choosing the bids, those companies serve as the de facto municipal road crew for the county which, unlike many towns, does not run its own road works crew funded through a municipal budget every year. It also contracts towns with road crews such as Andover to plow stretches otherwise deemed too costly. 

This means not every repair job is bid out. For instance, Sawyer pointed to a bridge in northern Albany that the county closed after reviewing a state safety assessments.

After an analysis, Sawyer said he found the cheapest way to repair it was to lay thick, wide hemlock beams, which it sourced from the state’s only supplier in Belgrade.

The project cost around $7,500. Though county officials shopped for the cheapest quote, Sawyer said they did not put the project out for independent bidding.

According to Rosenblatt, projects such as those should have gone out to bid, as the Legislature requires entities spending public funds — in this case, the county — to conduct a thorough bidding process for all nonemergency projects above $2,500. The process is supposed to ensure fairness in awarding public money to private companies by advertising the project is open, listing a pre-bid meeting and issuing a deadline.

Cole disagreed with some of Rosenblatt’s interpretation, saying the original act of soliciting bids in three-year blocks constituted a competitive bidding process.

“We believe we’re meeting the spirit of the law,” he said. 

As a comparison, in Aroostook County, where the county government oversees more than 50 miles of roads in the winter for its unorganized territories, Public Works Director Paul Bernier also contracts services in three-year blocks, which he said cuts down on the expense and hassle of soliciting bids on an annual basis. 

“It’s a clean way of doing it. It helps me in my budget cycles. I know what to expect,” Bernier said.  

Rosenblatt, who has acted as a liaison for residents in the sparsely populated township, said he was convinced the county acted with deference to its taxpayers, though he implored Cole to make changes in how the county discloses information and to reassess whether the repair schedule could be ramped down to ease the burden on taxpayers. 

“For some of those people, $100 to $200 is a brutal requirement to meet,” he said.

ccrosby@sunjournal.com

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