Belgrade Selectman Ernest Rice submitted his resignation earlier this month after a heated budget discussion involving town employee health benefits, in which he bemoaned that the action would “screw the taxpayers.”

Then Rice rescinded his resignation six days later.

He said Thursday that he changed his mind about leaving the board after hearing from several people who asked him to stay, including fellow Selectman Rick Damren, who conveyed a similar sentiment of the board.

The resignation is clear on an audio recording of the Dec. 13, 2017, select board meeting.

Chairman Gary Mahler said, “Ernie, tell me you’re not leaving.”

“I’m not comfortable. That’s official,” Rice responded. “You want to screw the taxpayers over, go for it.”

“We’re not screwing the taxpayers,” Mahler said.

“You are too.”

Rice said he’s the only one who comes prepared with data about costs.

“I am resigning as of right now, the 13th,” Rice said. “I am all done. I’m not wasting my time. You can’t wait to spend the money.”

Then he walked out of the meeting.

In fact, the board took no action on Rice’s resignation letter that night.

“They figured they’d let me cool off and think about it,” Rice said Thursday.

The remaining four selectmen continued to talk with each other and Town Manager Dennis Keschl and others about what to do about the proposal to have the town pick up 100 percent of the health insurance costs rather than continue the current arrangement, under which the town pays 80 percent and the employee pays 20 percent.

Keschl had suggested the change in an effort to retain experienced town employees. The discussion took place as the board looked at coming up with a budget for the upcoming fiscal years. Later at that same meeting, selectmen voted to increase the employee wages by 2.5 percent and move the health benefit share from 90-10, Chairman Gary Mahler said on Thursday.

“That’s where it is right now. The budget process is not finished,” he added. The completed town budget goes before the residents at Town Meeting in March 2018.

“We’re struggling through the budget process, and sometimes there’s a little more temper on the part of some members than there should be, and that includes all five of us,” Mahler said.

Rice then came to the next selectmen’s meeting the following Tuesday night. “The first thing I did on the 19th when I came into that meeting, I walked over and withdrew my resignation,” Rice said.

He is in his eighth year as selectman, with another 15 months remaining in his current three-year term.

Rice said he wanted more research done before acting on any proposal that would change the town’s share of health insurance costs.

“I was frustrated because we was going to spend a lot of money without having done the proper research,” he said Thursday. He said the cost-sharing arrangement is a policy that is contained in the town’s employee handbook.

He added, “Usually there’s a process that we go through to research before we make a change.”

Rice was one of the leaders of the unsuccessful movement to begin the process of withdrawal from Regional School Unit 18, the Messalonskee and China schools. The proposal was rejected 692-400 at the polls in November.

A similar resignation incident occurred in neighboring Readfield in the summer of 2016 when then-Selectman Thomas Dunham said on camera, “I think I’m going to resign this board” over a dispute involving the award of the town’s snow plowing contract. Dunham did not submit a resignation in writing, and he remained on the board.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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