The municipal officials and citizens of Androscoggin County want answers to two simple questions:

• Has the county violated its charter by paying salaries and providing benefits to county commissioners that were not approved by the county Budget Committee?

• Is the county complying with state law in how its budget is adopted?

Those are questions the county’s municipalities have been asking since the county budget was approved last December and which compelled 13 of those municipalities to bring a court action.

You would think the commissioners would want these questions answered as well.

The commissioners are so assured that they are right and the councilors and selectmen of those municipalities are wrong that they won’t even meet with us to discuss those issues. They have adopted a scorched earth policy, aimed at breaking the municipal bank and forcing cities and towns to drop out of the lawsuit due to legal costs. One town has withdrawn — Livermore — where the entire year’s legal budget is only $1,000.

The county has spent $44,000 on this litigation in just three months — most of it aimed not at answering the key questions, but at throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the courts in an effort to have the case thrown out. The commissioners’ mechanism is a law firm that bills at hourly rates of up to and over $300, substantially more than what most municipalities pay. Comparable municipal expenses have been $15,000, which we originally thought would cover all costs through a court ruling that would answer our questions.

As the Sun Journal reported on Sept. 19, this is the same county that spent $50,000 in legal and court costs fighting a sheriff’s department employee’s grievance over a $1,300 salary dispute. Who is running the show on Court Street?

In an 85-page motion, the county argues that the suit was brought both too late and too early; commissioners are absolutely immune from being sued; municipalities and taxpayers have no right to challenge how the commissioners spend tax money; and that the court has no power to decide the question. Apparently, the commissioners believe their actions can’t be questioned.

In a separate motion, the county seeks sanctions against our attorney — something rarely seen in Maine and even less frequently awarded. While totally unjustified, this claim seems based on the same theory — “How dare you question what we have done?” When our attorney requested a short delay in filing a motion, the county objected, at who knows what cost and to no effect, since the delay was quickly granted.

For almost a year now, the county’s municipalities have been asking questions. Why doesn’t Section 3.7 of the charter mean what it says?  It states: “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.”

Why did the commissioners run to the Legislature and have a bill passed changing the voter-approved charter to eliminate the Budget Committee’s power to make changes in the budget? Why have commissioners refused repeated requests to meet with us to discuss those concerns, requests made both before and after the suit was filed? Why are the commissioners doing everything in their power to avoid answering the key questions: Are they complying with their charter and with state law?

One wonders if there are any grownups in the room when the commissioners meet in closed session to discuss legal matters. Are they directing the action or are they captive of their legal advisers, whom we believe wrongly interpret the charter, and are unwilling to either recognize their mistake or work with the municipalities to find an answer that would work for us all?

The county does not have to face its residents to justify what it spends. It simply sends the bill to its cities and towns that then have no choice but to pay it. The commissioners have done everything in their power to reduce the authority of the Budget Committee — a committee elected by city and town councilors, mayors and selectmen — representatives of their communities who must look their residents in the eye and justify property tax bills — bills that include the county tax.

Today, in Androscoggin County, the cry of the American Revolution “No taxation without representation,” is once more being heard. Local, elected officials should not have the power to set their own salaries and benefits and have them go into effect during their current term of office. No elected body should be able to operate in an unaccountable way.

I call on the county commissioners to change their ways and work with the municipal community to restore fiscal sanity and ensure budgetary accountability.

Mark Cayer is president of the Lewiston City Council.


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