ROCKLAND, Maine — There was little love on Valentine’s Day for the way the 2012 Knox County budget was approved in December and commissioners ended up voting unanimously Tuesday to hold a new public hearing and vote.
The vote came after weeks of criticism from a growing number of towns in the county. An overflow crowd of 70 people attended Tuesday afternoon’s commissioners’ meeting, where many citizens asked for a new vote.
“Your meeting was illegal but it can be easily corrected,” said attorney Paul Gibbons, who represented the town of Thomaston.
Gibbons said Thomaston selectmen had authorized him the previous evening to file a lawsuit to challenge the Dec. 1 budget hearing if commissioners did not call for a new hearing and vote.
The main issue raised by Gibbons and other speakers was the failure of the county to meet the county charter requirement that there be public notice in all general circulation newspapers in the county at least 10 days before the hearing.
The county acknowledged that it did not publish a notice in any newspaper but instead emailed the proposed budget and hearing notice nine days before the meeting to the media and municipal clerks.
“You represent the conscience of the community,” Gibbons said and as such commissioners owe it to the public to do the right thing and hold the new vote.
Owls Head Selectwoman Linda Post said selectmen in her town also approved a resolve the previous night asking the county to hold a new vote.
Union Selectman Greg Grotton challenged the Dec. 1 approval based on one budget committee member, William Jones of Hope, being allowed to vote by conference call while he was in Washington, D.C.
“It’s time to show your quality of character,” Grotton said.
On Dec. 1, the commissioners voted unanimously for the $9.3 million budget which included raises for county employees totaling $280,000. The budget committee also voted that night to approve the budget on a 5-4 vote. Jones was the tie-breaking vote.
Warren selectman Dan Davey, a former Knox County sheriff, argued that the federal government has been trampling on people’s rights, the state has been fiscally irresponsible over the years, and “now county government was showing signs of fiscal irresponsibility.”
He criticized the pay scale that was approved by the commission and budget committee as out of line compared to the private sector.
Lynn Talbot, a victim witness advocate for the district attorney’s office, defended the raises granted to employees, including herself, noting that workers had gone without raises previously.
She said the pay study done by the county found that she had been greatly underpaid.
“After 14 years, I finally feel I’m getting grown-up wages,” Talbot said.
County Commissioner Carol Maines of Rockland agreed that a new vote was needed. She recalled that the City Council faced a similar situation more than 10 years ago when she was on that body. In that case, a judge voided a tax break the City Council had given to the owner of the Samoset Resort to build a new hotel because the council missed the 10-day notice by one day. The council ended up not taking the matter up again and the hotel was not built.
The county commissioners voted 3-0 to hold a new hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 15, in the courthouse.
County Budget Committee Chairman Bob Duke noted that the county needs to get legal advice on how to proceed with its budget since it has been spending under the previously approved 2012 budget for the past six weeks.
There was no discussion on what to do with pay raises already approved.
The county previously approved budget included 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 raises.
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.