AUBURN — An attorney for Androscoggin County officials sought in court Wednesday to have a judge throw out a lawsuit accusing the Androscoggin County Board of Commissioners of improperly approving the 2015 county budget in which they gave themselves raises and benefits.

At issue is a dispute over commissioners’ authority to give final budget approval and their vote in November 2014, setting their yearly salaries at $5,000, and $5,550 for the chairwoman, which is $2,000 more per commissioner than approved by the county Budget Committee. Commissioners also restored their health benefits, valued at $8,400 annually, after the Budget Committee eliminated them.

Arguing for the commissioners, attorney Bryan Dench of the Auburn firm Skelton, Taintor & Abbott outlined several reasons the lawsuit brought by 12 towns and cities should be dismissed.

Androscoggin County Superior Court Justice Lance Walker did not make a ruling Wednesday on the county’s dismissal motion.

Dench said the complaint was brought too late for an administrative appeal under state law. Such appeals must be filed within 30 days of the action they want reversed. In this case, the municipalities filed their suit many months later, he said.

Dench said the commissioners voted Nov. 25, 2014, to approve a budget that included their salaries and benefits, revised from the proposal that came to them from the Budget Committee. In April 2015, commissioners proposed an amendment to the charter that would reduce their power by requiring Budget Committee approval to increase commissioners’ salaries and benefits. That proposed amendment had been approved by voters by a vote of roughly 70 percent in favor, Dench said.

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It wasn’t until July 2015 that the municipalities sued, 239 days after the board passed its budget, Dench said.

Dench also argued that commissioners had the authority under the county charter to approve the budget that included their wages and benefits.

“It’s quite clear that the commissioners did have the authority to do what they did,” Dench said, basing his arguments on the language of the charter, which he read in court.

The complaint brought by the municipalities argues that the county should not pay the personal legal bills that aren’t covered by insurance of the commissioners named in the suit.

Dench said the commissioners are immune from being held personally liable for their actions as elected public officials and that they are entitled to a defense as public employees.

Peter Brann, a Lewiston attorney who represented the municipalities, said Wednesday that the charter doesn’t give commissioners the sole authority to approve their salaries and benefits.

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Before the charter was amended, it read: “Salaries and benefits of all county elected officials shall be recommended by the board (of commissioners) and be approved by a majority plus one vote of the full Budget Committee,” Brann told the judge. “Our argument is not that complex. If the Budget Committee didn’t approve it, you’re not entitled to the money. And you’re certainly not entitled to benefits that the Budget Committee specifically said: ‘You can’t have it.'”

He also said the complaint brought by the towns and cities of Androscoggin County was not an administrative appeal, as suggested by Dench.

There was no single procedural action taken by the commissioners that the municipalities are objecting to, Brann said. It was a “complex series of actions” that his clients are challenging, he said.

“We would like to resolve the issue: Can they do what they did? Was it right? It’s a very simple question,” he said.

As for the claim of holding commissioners personally responsible, Brann said the defense’s argument is: “If we take money we’re not entitled to, we’re actually immune.” Brann said: “That can’t be right.”

The claim is one of seeking restitution, he said, aimed at recovering public money that was misappropriated by public officials.

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The 12 municipalities in the lawsuit are Lewiston, Auburn, Lisbon, Turner, Greene, Poland, Durham, Sabattus, Mechanic Falls, Livermore Falls, Minot and Leeds. The towns of Wales and Livermore did not join the suit.

The cities have spent $15,000 so far in pursuing their claim, and estimate it will cost at least another $20,000 to resolve.

The county has spent more than $60,000.

The Maine County Commissioners Association Risk Pool agreed to defend commissioners at its expense as the suit moves forward but has yet to foot the bill for any related expenses.

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