Tax hike prompts unofficial audit of Oxford County records

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PARIS — A liaison for Albany Township residents will review Oxford County financial records over concerns officials improperly awarded contracts for repairs in the unorganized territories.

In remarks to Oxford County commissioners Tuesday morning, Albany Township resident Jeffrey Rosenblatt said the lack of information around a 35 percent increase in residents’ tax bills has engendered a culture of mistrust between county officials and residents of the unorganized territory. 

Longtime attorney Rosenblatt and County Administrator Scott Cole are expected to meet Thursday morning to review contracting bids awarded for roadwork projects and other budgetary information. 

Rosenblatt, who previously stated he represents the concerns of over 20 residents, said he hoped the review would quell residents’ suspicions that the county had awarded parts of $500,000 in road repairs in violation of state statute by not advertising the work and opening bids in private.

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He also hoped the episode would prompt an overhaul of the county’s practices. 

“We don’t have complete confidence, and I think a large part of that is Mr. Cole has failed to establish a relationship of trust and confidence with the local people,” Rosenblatt said. “Because we have no organization, we rely upon you, who are not elected by us, to make all the decisions for us.” 

Taxes in Albany Township, one of 19 unorganized territories administered by Oxford County in lieu of a local municipal government, rose 35 percent in fiscal year 2014-15. The budget included $1,355,655 in expenditures, a 32 percent increase from the previous budget.

The current tax rate in Albany is $9.94 per thousand dollars of assessed value. 

According to Cole, 27 of 56 miles of road the county maintains are in Albany Township.

Bids for maintenance mailed to six to eight “interested parties” every three years; for the two most recent cycles in 2010 and 2013, the county issued requests for proposals from contractors for the work in June of each year, according to documents provided in an email. 

The county also contracts work through Andover, Cole said. 

County officials contend that the money spent on road repairs is necessary to match the rate of degradation. 

“Prior to 2010 — my arrival — (the) county had not bid road maintenance in Albany, or anywhere, for 25 years,” Cole said in an email.

In September, Rosenblatt told commissioners residents were upset and wanted answers on the tax increase. In October, Cole told residents at a special forum that the costs were legitimate

By way of an example, Rosenblatt said the $500,000 capital improvements line in the budget under which the unorganized territory road work fell needed to be itemized. 

“We don’t know anything about it,” he said.

Cole called his office’s management of the unorganized territories “loose, but lawful” and said the concerns of its residents have sparked reassessment of its practices. 

“Your request is forcing some cleanup around here,” Cole said. “The costs are what they are. Jobs have been put out to bid; costs have been recorded.” 

Commissioner David Duguay said the message had been received. 

“You’re a constituent, a customer,” Duguay said. “It’s our job to find out what it’s going to take to make it right.” 

Albany Township and county officials have also sparked commissioners to assess offloading the administrative duties and costs it incurs for overseeing the township. 

In a memo to commissioners, attorney Bryan Dench outlined the steps necessary to encourage or force a township to assume local control. 

After airing many of the concerns, Rosenblatt said he hoped the issues could be put to rest. 

“We would — I would personally — have complete confidence this was done in the most prudent, efficient and legal way possible,” he said. “I’m operating under the assumption it was that way.”

ccrosby@sunjournal.com 

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