Knox County budget vote comes under fire

Posted Jan. 30, 2012, at 2:40 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 31, 2012, at 4:40 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — There is growing unrest among Knox County towns over pay raises as great as 40 percent that were approved as part of the 2012 county budget last month.

Selectmen from at least three communities are protesting both the raises and the fact that the budget meeting was held without adequate public notification.

The county, however, has responded to one town with a letter saying its lawyer contends that even though there was a technical violation of the public notice requirement in the voter-approved county charter, that any action taken at the Dec. 1 meeting was valid.

The criticism and questions from towns followed votes taken by county commissioners and members of the county budget committee approving the $9.3 million budget. The Dec. 1 meeting was attended by a packed room of 30 people at the Knox County Courthouse in Rockland. Many in attendance criticized the commissioners and budget committee members for considering raises totaling $280,000.

The commissioners voted unanimously for the budget while the budget committee approved it on a 5-4 vote with the tie-breaking vote being cast by member William Jones of Hope. There also is some objection to Jones’ vote because he voted by telephone. He was hooked up to the meeting through a conference call while he was in Washington, D.C.

Thus far, complaints have been raised by selectmen in Thomaston, St. George and Union.

A lawyer for Thomaston sent a letter Jan. 12 to the county questioning whether it met the 10-day public notice requirement of the county charter.

The St. George selectmen discussed the matter Jan. 23. Board Chairman William Reinhardt has drafted a letter questioning the county vote both because of inadequate public notice and for allowing a budget committee member to vote by telephone. The board is expected to review the letter at its regular meeting Monday, Jan. 30, and vote whether to submit it.

“We do not feel it was proper procedure to have someone vote by telephone. This was highly irregular,” Reinhardt said.

Reinhardt said the magnitude of the raises is why selectmen object to the county budget.

Union Selectman Greg Grotton has been a leading critic of the budget approval.

“The unbelievable pay raises are ludicrous,” Grotton said.

He said he has received numerous complaints from residents about the county budget and he expects to ask commissioners to allow him to make a presentation at their next meeting in February in which he will ask them to hold a new vote.

Knox County Administrator Andrew Hart responded to Thomaston in a letter dated Jan. 25.

“I do agree that Knox County did not comply with the 10 day notice requirement. Knox County did e-mail the notice of the public hearing and the last draft of the budget to all Knox County municipalities and media on Wednesday, November 23, 2012, which is 9 days prior to the public hearing,” Hart said in his letter.

Hart said because of the extensive cost of postage and printing costs, the county made the decision about 5 years ago to email the public hearing notice and the proposed budget. He said this was the first year that he has received a concern with the process that Knox County is following.

“I hasten to add that the county’s general counsel has opined that the technical non-compliance does not negate the legality of any and all actions taken during the budget process, as all municipalities had actual notice of all proceedings and related matters,” Hart stated.

But Attorney Sigmund Schutz, who represents the Maine Press Association on legal matters, said it was a slippery slope for the county to argue that failing to meet the 10-day meeting notice requirement in the charter was only a technical violation.

“What if it was eight days notice or six days or two days? Do they have to comply with anything in the charter?” Schutz asked.

He added that there is an easy solution to the problem — call a new meeting with proper notice and vote again. He pointed out that spending taxpayers dollars was one of the most important actions of government.

Thomaston Board of Selectman Chairman Lee-Ann Upham said Jan. 28 she had no comment to the response from Hart. She said she would bring the matter to the full board at its next regular meeting on Feb. 14.

The county budget includes a 40 percent raise for Emergency Management Agency Director Ray Sisk. His salary increase totaled $17,000, bringing his salary to $59,946. Knox County Regional Communications Director Linwood Lothrop’s salary was increased by 24 percent, bringing his annual pay to $66,186. The administrative assistant in the emergency management agency office received a pay raise of 20 percent to $28,922. The deputy treasurer’s salary rose 18 percent to $50,502. Airport Manager Jeffrey Northgraves’ salary rose 16 percent to $58,760. Finance Director Kathy Robinson’s salary was increased 10 percent to $67,350.

Sheriff Donna Dennison and Probate Judge Carol Emery received no increases.

The county had commissioned a study last year of the pay and benefits of county employees. The firm of Gary Thornton Associates of Scarborough was paid $22,230 for the study. The study included the pay of all Maine counties except Androscoggin, several local communities and businesses.

The study indicated that many positions in Knox County were underpaid when compared to similar public and private posts in other communities, counties and businesses. The county administrator then formed a panel with himself and some county department heads to determine recommendations concerning pay schedules.

A majority of commissioners and budget committee members approved the raises and defended the increases at the budget hearing.

Budget Committee member Ann Matlack of St. George told the gathering at the public hearing that she supported the pay increases because pay inequities had gone on for 10-15 years.

“The raises are long overdue,” she said.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story contained an error. Registrar of Deeds Lisa Simmons did receive a pay raise.

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