LEWISTON — Amid debate on an $8.1 million budget for 2014, Androscoggin County leaders are weighing pay and benefits for the county’s three commissioners.

The trio annually earns at least $7,273 each — plus health care and retirement benefits worth thousands of dollars more — for their roles as the county’s principal policymakers and administrators. However, a new 14-member Budget Committee is re-examining the compensation.

Committee members are questioning whether commissioners who typically spend a few hours each week on county business ought to earn the same benefits as full-time workers. They’ve also asked how their compensation, which also includes an $8,392 salary for the chairman, stacks up against commissioners in other Maine counties.

The answer is that most Maine counties pay their commissioners more money.

The Sun Journal contacted officials in all 16 counties and received budget numbers from all but Somerset. Salaries and benefits varied widely.

They ranged from a low in Sagadahoc County, which pays all three commissioners $7,000 per year with no benefits, to a high in Penobscot County. Salaries there start at $13,380 and rise to just over $14,000 for the chairman.

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The commissioners there earn the same benefits as full-time workers, including health insurance, retirement pay and a dental plan.

In Franklin County, the commission chairman earns $8,723 and the others earn $7,273. In Oxford County, the chairman makes $10,296 and the others get $9,382. Oxford County commissioners receive health insurance and retirement. Their counterparts in Franklin County do not.

Besides Sagadahoc County, only Knox County commissioners are paid less than those in Androscoggin County.

Commissioners in most other counties also have fewer responsibilities.

All but three counties — Franklin, Waldo and Androscoggin — have full-time administrators who pick up the load of day-to-day duties such as purchasing, hiring and budget preparation.

In Androscoggin County, the issue of pay is falling on the recently created Budget Committee. A majority of the 14 members are new to county finances.

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The members have been working to learn the county’s issues as quickly as possible, Chairman Norm Beauparlant of Poland said.

The salary issue isn’t yet a controversy, but it’s definitely ignited pointed discussions, he said.

Michael Bowie of Lisbon has heard it all before. He served as chairman on several previous budget committees and is currently serving as vice chairman.

He opposed a legacy benefit that gave promised health care coverage for life to some longstanding county employees, including commissioners. It was ended for new elected officials in 2004.

“You should be doing this to serve the public,” said Bowie, who made about $1,500 a year as a town councilor in Lisbon.

Money muddles motives, he said.

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Scott Lansley, a former Maine legislator from Sabattus, agrees. He currently serves with Maine Taxpayers United.

“I’ve had really mixed feelings about all of this,” Lansley said of the county pay. “It’s been bubbling in the background.”

In Sabattus, where he served as a selectman, he was part of the initiative that cut pay for selectmen from $500 per month to $250 per month, or $3,000 per year. The move happened at the same time the town hired a professional administrator, relieving much of the work done by selectmen.

A similar move could be coming to Androscoggin County, said Lansley, who served on the group that drafted the new Androscoggin County charter.

Following the November 2014 election, the charter will expand the commission to seven members. One of their first jobs will be to hire a professional administrator.

“(Androscoggin County commissioners) are really going to have to justify what they do,” Lansley said.

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Randall Greenwood, chairman of the Androscoggin County Commission, opposed the charter on the grounds that a seven-member commission would be too costly, he said.

The commission has asked for no increase in pay for the coming year.

“I don’t think we are out of the norm,” Greenwood said. “I think we’re on the low end.”

Commissioner Elaine Makas called the compensation “modest” and opened the door to changes when the new commissioners come aboard.

“I certainly think it’s something that can be considered,” she said.

“I’m a county commissioner primarily because I want to serve the community and feel it’s my giving back a little bit,” she said. “I also have to look out for paying for food and stuff like that, so I can’t do it completely gratis.”

“I don’t think we’re overpaid and overbenefited,” Makas said.

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