AUBURN — Just six days after Androscoggin County budget watchers slashed salaries and eliminated benefits for county commissioners, the commissioners themselves restored much of what was lost.

The County Commission voted Tuesday night to restore $2,000 of their base pay, raising it to $5,000 per person, and to fund individual health and dental coverage worth about $8,400 per person.

They did it despite a chorus of people who insisted that they didn’t have the right.

Members of the county’s Budget Committee and the rule-making Charter Commission said Tuesday that the commissioners do not have the power to change their own paychecks and benefits.

“I just can’t believe that elected officials would go to this length,” Richard Gross, chairman of the Charter Commission, said before the Tuesday meeting.

The intent of the Charter Commission was to give the Budget Committee the right to decide compensation for all of the county’s elected officials, explicitly to prevent the commissioners from setting their own pay, Gross said.

The charter — approved in a county-wide referendum in 2012 — seems to back that up.

It reads:

“Salaries and benefits of all County elected officials shall be recommended by the Board and approved by a majority plus one vote of the full Budget Committee. Said salary shall constitute full compensation for all services. Reimbursement for reasonable expenses incurred in performance of the officials’ duties may be allowed upon formal review and approval by the Board.”

However, commissioners asked longtime county attorney Bryan Dench for his opinion on the charter.

In a two-page memo dated Nov. 19 — the same night the Budget Committee cut commissioners’ pay — Dench argued that the charter never gave the Budget Committee final authority over any part of the county’s $8.3 million budget.

“I am aware that some members of the Charter Commission believe that their intention was to have the salaries set by the committee be final,” Dench wrote. “But the text of the charter does not say that and the voters enacted a text, not an intention.”

On Tuesday, Commissioners Elaine Makas and Beth Bell cited Dench’s opinion and their own belief that commissioners deserve more pay than the Budget Committee was willing to allow.

“I don’t think we did a good enough job explaining what the county does,” Makas said. “We are basically the CEOs of the county and we oversee the operations of the jail, the Registry of Deeds, the Registry of Probate and the functioning of the various courts,” she said. “We’re the ones responsible if there is an area-wide emergency.”

And it takes time.

Bell and Makas talked about the committees they serve on and the time it has taken away from families and other job opportunities. And the charter was unclear, they said.

“The public doesn’t understand what it voted on for the most part,” Bell said. “The charter has passed. We’ve talked about how poorly written the charter has been and people’s opinion of it. It’s made our jobs that much harder.”

In the end, Bell and Makas voted to soften the cuts. County Commission Chairman Randall Greenwood, who served on the Charter Commission, abstained.

He said he was torn. He believed the charter was intended to ban the commission from changing its pay. He also believed the pay cuts by the Budget Committee were unreasonably harsh, he said.

Currently, the commission’s three members all earn a base salary of $7,200 and health care and dental coverage their whole families. Greenwood earns about $1,000 more as chairman.

The softened cuts reflect reductions proposed last month by the commissioners.

The Budget Committee would have paid the commissioners $3,000 each with $500 more for the chairman and eliminated all benefits.

Budget Committee Chairman Michael Marcotte thought his group’s decision was final.

“I’m very disappointed in the leadership of the County Commission,'” he said Tuesday before the meeting.

Charter Commission member Chip Morrison said the move left him “infuriated.”

Morrison, Gross and other Charter Commission members submitted several letters to the county in recent weeks that assert the Budget Commission’s authority over elected officials’ compensation.

For the commissioners to reopen the salaries now is to embody the worst stereotypes of politicians, Morrison said.

“It’s politics in the worst way,” he said. “It’s just greed.”

The salary changes will affect more than the current three commissioners; the charter also expanded the commission. By Jan. 1, four new commissioners — Matthew Roy, Ronald Chicoine, Alfreda Fournier and Sally Christner are slated to join Greenwood, Makas and Beth Bell.

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