AUBURN — Calling the problems “self-inflicted,” the chairwoman of the Androscoggin County Commission scolded Budget Committee members for not attending the five meetings when commissioners compiled the 2016 preliminary county budget.

She said commissioners are too busy to attend Budget Committee meetings.

“Had at least a majority of Budget Committee members bothered to attend the meetings at which the preliminary budget was formulated, the Budget Committee would know everything that the Board of Commissioners knows and the Budget Committee consideration of the preliminary budget could have been greatly enhanced and expedited,” Beth Bell wrote in a letter to Budget Committee Chairwoman Emily Darby.

Bell said she was writing “on her own behalf and not on behalf of any other commissioner.”

Bell’s letter was in response to one sent by the Budget Committee earlier this week requesting that commissioners attend the budget hearings underway this month to help provide context and clarification.

With no one available to answer questions, committee members have complained that the commissioners’ absence has delayed the process and made their work for the county taxpayers and municipalities more difficult.

Instead of providing real-time information, commissioners instituted a new policy this year that requires the Budget Committee to write its questions and await a written response from the commissioners at a later date.

Budget Committee members have said commissioners have cooperated and attended meetings in past years. Bell’s letter made that scenario seem unlikely.

“The Board of Commissioners has many other responsibilities and issues which it must deal (with) on behalf of the county that are separate and apart from the Budget Committee deliberations,” Bell wrote. “We simply cannot put all other county business on hold because it serves the convenience of the Budget Committee.”

Bell noted the commissioners’ “painstaking review process” of the 2016 budget, which consisted of five public hearings covering 16 hours of testimony and discussion.

“The commissioners heard detailed presentations from county department heads, received voluminous documentation and deliberated and debated the issues presented,” Bell wrote. “Unfortunately, there was virtually no attendance by Budget Committee members at these public meetings.”

Three members did attend at least one meeting. Norman Beauparlant of Poland attended all five meetings, while Joseph Grube of Lewiston and Andrew Titus of Auburn attended one each.

Those three have joined their 11 counterparts in requesting that commissioners be present at their budget hearings.

While Bell said the county charter does not require either panel to attend the other’s meetings, she still believes it is the Budget Committee’s responsibility to attend the commission’s budget deliberations and not the other way around.

Commissioners and the Budget Committee have had an icy relationship since last year’s budget season when the committee voted to cut the salaries of the commissioners and eliminate their health insurance. Commissioners reversed that decision and adopted their own salary and compensation numbers.

Whether the county charter gives the commissioners that power remains in dispute. Thirteen of the 14 municipalities in Androscoggin County have filed suit against the commissioners, challenging their interpretation of the charter. The case is pending.

Darby said Friday that she did thank Bell for her response but did not want to engage in a war of words.

“The commissioners’ conflict is not with the Budget Committee but rather with 13 out of 14 municipalities in the county that fund more than two-thirds of the county’s budget and expect to be represented by both the commissioners and the Budget Committee,” Darby said in a statement. “I am only a citizen who is volunteering my time away from my full-time job to serve without any compensation on behalf of those who asked me.

“While it’s discouraging to see the disintegration of cooperation as the county charter issues make their way through the court system, it is very heartening to receive support from virtually the entire county for the work and authority of the Budget Committee as originally set forth in the voter-approved charter,” Darby said. “I also greatly appreciate the county department heads who take public service and accountability seriously and who put in countless hours outside of their normal business day to participate in the budget process.

“In the end, the job will still get done,” she said.

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