AUBURN — A room packed with retired elected officials blasted Androscoggin County commissioners Wednesday over health care insurance and whether the county ought to end their paid-for-life policies.
One by one, former commissioners and registers testified that they were promised the benefit and might have made other career choices if they thought the deal might be broken.
About 40 people filled the county courthouse law library for the hearing.
“I think the people that are employed in this building ought to be concerned,” former commissioner Patience Johnson said. “When I planned on retirement, I planned on this.”
The benefit was created in 1988 as part of the benefit package offered to the county’s elected officials and their spouses. Over the years, it was changed several times. In 2004, commissioners voted to end it, halting the lifetime insurance for newly elected officials.
This year, insurance for the grandfathered officials is estimated to cost the county about $80,000.
It’s too late for many of the people to change their incomes to make up for the loss, Johnson said. Many cannot return to the work force.
“It concerns me because I have a husband who is not well,” she said.
Former register of probate John Cleveland, 60, asked commissioners to remember the effects of what they may do.
“We’re talking about real people with real consequences,” he said.
He said he ran for office and served 10 years, in part, because he believed he would be earning the health benefit.
“I cannot undo the last 10 years,” he said. “We cannot replace the salaries we might have made.”
He warned commissioners that if they press the matter, it will go to court.
“I know I held up my agreement fully,” he said. “You can’t unilaterally change the deal.”
The speakers included several people who never worked for the county.
Richard Grandmaison, a retired official with the Maine Department of Labor, described the inquiry as “disrespectful” to people who had done their jobs and were promised benefits.
Mary Roussel of Auburn called it “immoral.”
The current commissioners — Chairman Randall Greenwood, Elaine Makas and Jonathan LaBonte — listened and took notes. It was all they intended to do.
“We are interested in hearing the thoughts of the public,” Greenwood said at the start of the session.
At the end, he said he planned to examine his notes and continue listening to whatever comments people wanted to make.
Though he has said he opposes lifetime health insurance for elected officials, Greenwood said he could change his mind.
“I want to hear all sides,” he said.
Further action, perhaps including more public forums, will likely continue in May, Greenwood said.
LaBonte, who was undecided before the meeting, said he planned to continue the process.
Makas, an opponent of removing the benefit, said she worried that the commission may lose the trust of its employees and spend too much money in legal fees.
It would also serve as a distraction to the commission, which has plenty of other things to do, she said.
“I want us to get back to the stuff we’re supposed to be doing,” Makas said.