In Auburn, school officials maintain that spending $20,500 — and counting — in attorneys’ fees to battle over ownership of a narrow strip of teacher parking at the East Auburn Elementary School is in the public interest.

In Androscoggin County, county and municipal officials maintain that spending a collective $175,000 — and counting — in attorneys’ fees in a protracted battle over commissioners’ salaries and benefits is also in the public interest.

The underlying principles in both cases are worth their respective fights, to be sure. But, is it really in the public interest to spend what is approaching $200,000 in legal fees because the parties in these cases refuse to settle on common ground?

Hardly.

This is not to disparage the very talented attorneys involved in these cases. Or even the many hours and overall good intentions of local elected officials. The issue here is the inability of those elected officials to reach agreement, preferring instead to fight at what appears to be unlimited cost to taxpayers.

Here’s the situation in Auburn: Last summer, the Auburn School District was told it didn’t really own a small strip of land it has used for parking for about 15 years. But, rather than immediately stop using the strip until the issue could be straightened out, the district continued making thousands of dollars in improvements to the lot and allowed parking there because it was more convenient than re-organizing the bus turnaround and adjusting teacher parking.

School officials pushed off action to the end of the school year, and have now decided to continue using the parking lot in the upcoming school year.

Not OK, according to Alan Whitman, treasurer of the nonprofit East Auburn Community Unit.

He said he discovered a boundary line error in a deeded gift of the land from EACU to the school, notified the district and, when the parking lot use continued, he threatened to block the land in February. Last week he sent a formal intent-to-sue letter to the district.

Whitman originally wanted to trade the improved parking lot for a 5-acre parcel owned by the district (which seems a little grabby), and the district was willing to do that provided Whitman agreed to maintain a public right of way. He won’t, so the fight is on.

The land at issue is valued at $14,500. Whitman’s lawsuit is seeking $100,000 in damages.

Here’s the situation in Androscoggin County: In 2014, what was then a three-member commission voted to increase salaries and benefits for themselves beyond what had been approved by the Budget Committee.

Municipalities, with Lewiston in the lead, filed a lawsuit against commissioners in July 2015 contending commissioners overstepped their powers and asking for the return of all salaries and benefits not approved by the Budget Committee.

The Budget Committee had recommended salaries of $3,000 for two commissioners and $3,500 for the chairman; commissioners raised their salaries to $5,000 and $5,500 for the chairman — so, a difference of $6,000 in salaries plus $8,400 in health care benefits for each.

The changes were made as the county prepared to expand the commission from three to seven members and to hire an administrator, who would take over some of the responsibilities of individual commissioners.

Total amount in dispute? Just over $31,000 for existing commissioners and another $40,000, or so, for four more officials once elected.

After the lawsuit was filed, a change was made to the charter to permanently assign authority over salaries and benefits to the Budget Committee so this issue won’t be repeated, but the lawsuit still battles on.

If there is any common ground in either of these disputes, the parties are making a point to walk clear around it.

In Auburn, the cost of the fight is starting to get absurd. Spending $20,500 in attorney’s fees and preparing to spend much more over a $14,500 property is not smart money.

The cost in the county case has moved beyond absurd as the towns and county have collectively spent more than $175,000 fighting over $71,000 in contested pay. To make it simple, elected officials have knowingly and willingly spent far more than twice the amount of the pay in dispute to win their point, with no win in sight.

Question: Would these elected officials have spent this much if it had been their own money at stake?

Answer: We think not.

Question: Where does this leave taxpayers?

Answer: Caught in the middle and paying the bills.

How is that in the public interest?

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