A years-long dispute over who has final say on the Androscoggin County budget – and the commissioners’ salary and benefits – is finally headed for court.

Nearly all the municipalities in Androscoggin County filed a civil lawsuit in Superior Court alleging that the county’s seven commissioners set their own salaries and benefits without having the legal authority to do so.

At the heart of the debate is whether the commissioners can act alone in approving a final budget, including any salary or benefit changes for themselves, or whether they need the approval of a finance committee made up of representatives from the towns.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday on behalf of 12 cities and towns by Lewiston-based attorney Peter J. Brann, follows years of contention over the wording of the county charter approved by voters in 2012.

Within months of the vote, the Legislature changed the charter language in a bill, ultimately signed into law by the governor, that said voters had cast their ballots for the “wrong charter,” and the bill corrected the language to reflect the original intent of the charter commission.

The new language gave the commissioners final budget approval, not the budget committee.

“That’s what started it. That bait-and-switch made people unhappy,” Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett said Thursday.

The contentious budget process is playing out as many towns see increasing costs and less state aid, squeezing their budgets and making municipalities more sensitive to county costs.

What tipped the Androscoggin County dispute over to a court case was the commissioners’ vote last November, overruling a budget committee’s decision to cut the pay and benefits for an expanding board of commissioners.

There were only three Androscoggin County commissioners through the end of 2014; the chairman earned $8,392 and the other two earned $7,000. Starting in 2015, the commission grew to seven members and the budget committee had voted for an across-the-board pay cut to $3,500 each.

The three commisioners rejected the deeper cut, but reduced salaries to $5,000 per commissioner, and $5,500 for the chair. They also rejected the committee’s vote to eliminate family health and dental insurance benefits worth up to $18,000 per person. Instead they approved individual health benefits worth about $8,400 per person.

The towns, which provide 80 percent of the county’s $10.7 million budget, objected. Barrett said the towns’ understanding was that compensation for the larger commission would be about the same as the three-member board.

Plus, Barrett said, county officials had, up to that point, been telling budget committee members that they had authority over budget issues.

“It was only after (the vote) that they said, oh by the way, we have legal opinion that we can do whatever we want. That just magnified the unhappiness,” he said.

After a wave of criticism, the commission voted in May to take the dispute to the voters. They approved a November 2015 referendum to ask voters whether to add charter language requiring the budget committee to approve any increase in salary and benefit changes for the commissioners. Barrett said that language doesn’t go far enough, and the towns want the final budget approval authority to rest with the budget committee.

“It is our money, our tax bills and our taxpayers hold us accountable. Yet if we have a problem with something (in the budget,) the commissioners can ignore it,” he said.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday says it’s a matter for the courts.

The civil action says commissioners setting their own salaries represents “an obvious conflict of interest,” and asks the courts to order the commissioners to repay all their salaries and benefits that were not approved by the county’s budget committee.

The suit also asks a judge to enter a permanent injunction against the county prohibiting it from paying salaries and benefits to elected county officials without first getting approval from the county’s budget committee.

“The fact that virtually every municipality, large and small, in Androscoggin County has joined together to sue the county and its commissioners speaks volumes about the extent to which they feel strongly that the county and the commissioners should not be approving their own budgets, salaries and benefits, and then just sending the bills to the municipalities and the taxpayers,” Sabattus Police Chief and Interim Town Manager Anthony Ward said in a press release.

The cities and towns in the lawsuit are Lewiston, Auburn, Poland, Lisbon, Turner, Durham, Greene, Sabattus, Minot, Leeds, Livermore Falls and Mechanic Falls. Only the towns of Wales and Livermore did not join it. The defendants are county commissioners Elaine Makas, Ronald E. Chicoine, Matthew P. Roy, Randall A. Greenwood, Alfreda A. Fournier, Beth C. Bell and Sally A. Christner.

Historically, the county’s budget committee has voted on whether to approve commissioners’ salaries and benefits.

The lawsuit describes the legislative action in 2013 as a “power grab.”

“Although labeled a technical amendment, Chapter 62 perpetrated a substantial power grab, transferring final approval over the county budget from the budget committee to the commissioners,” the civil action states.

Brann, in his court filing, says nothing changed until late 2014 when the commissioners “changed course and took it upon themselves to approve not only the county’s budget, but also their own salaries and benefits.”

Lewiston City Councilor Mike Lachance, who is also a member of the county’s budget committee, said the commissioners have “spurned the representative voice of every municipality in Androscoggin County.”

“Not only is this an unprecedented disservice to the taxpayers, jeopardizing the concept of checks and balances, it is likely a violation of state law,” Lachance said in a statement.

County commissioners issued a statement earlier Wednesday, acknowledging the lawsuit. The county provided their response to WCSH-TV.

“The commissioners regret that public resources are being expended on this unfortunate lawsuit but are confident that the county has carried out its business in full compliance with the terms of the charter. The charter itself is valid as the governing document for our county. The commissioners will be reviewing the lawsuit with legal counsel and will have no further comment at this time,” the statement said.

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher contributed to this report.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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