On its face, it looks like a simple policy matter. But at its core, how lifetime health benefits were conveyed to spouses of deceased Androscoggin County employees embodies everything wrong with how this county government operates.

This week, the county commission decided to “re-interpret” this benefit. The commission had received legal advice the benefit was never intended to exist, and therefore the county is not obliged to continue it.

Retired county employees were rightfully shocked. They thought this benefit would be there. Yet — this is the crux of the problem — nothing in writing either created the benefit, or extended it to them. It is a ghost, bestowed without legality or negotiation. It was seemingly given with the nod of a head. And in the politicized world of county government, who knows for what reason.

The benefit shows, to us, the pitfalls of running this county without day-to-day management. This issue is one of human resources, a basic of responsible administration: negotiating terms of labor contracts and ensuring employees know the benefits they are entitled to receive, especially retirees. Government entities do it all the time, from the smallest towns to the biggest bureaucracies.

Lack of management created this scenario in which everybody loses: retirees, who are losing a benefit, and the county, which loses face over righting an old wrong. How is this even possible?

It is possible because this is how county government operates: with a lack of leadership and a surplus of politics. Now this behavior is hurting its most vulnerable, retired employees, who have paid their dues only to discover benefits they believed were legitimate were actually vapors. 


If this is how employee benefits were decided, what other important county business has been conducted this cavalierly? The workings of Androscoggin County governance are long, long overdue for a thorough review, and one should now begin — in earnest — with the establishment of a charter commission.

The time has come. This all-new county commission was swept into office because of the dysfunction displayed by its predecessor, so it has the political capital to make a charter happen. The board can depend on internal support from powerful county leaders, as well; Sheriff Guy Desjardins, for example, is an avowed charter supporter.

Twelve of 14 county towns have expressed support for a charter. So have many municipal leaders from around the county, town managers and elected officials included. Popular support has never been greater. Business-as-usual was rejected. Change was endorsed. This commission has heard this from constituents since taking office. 

And now, the lack of professional administration in Androscoggin County has come back to harm its retirees. There is simply no excuse for them to believe in benefits that never existed. That is irresponsible management.

The case has more than been made for a county charter. The current commissioners must act toward creating one.


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