MILLINOCKET, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage is a bully who might be violating state law by withholding from Millinocket about $216,000 in state aid, angry Town Council members said during a meeting on Thursday.
Councilors accused LePage of lying in an attempt to cower them into something they never agreed to: a multiyear partnership operating the Dolby landfill, which LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said that town leaders agreed to and then opted out of.
“What the governor said through his spokeswoman is a lie. It is not an error. It is a lie,” Councilor Michael Madore said Thursday. “I find the man to be a bully. I find him to be someone who is used to getting his own way, and in this case … . We did not make any commitment to partner with them on the landfill.”
“The governor is robbing our children of their educational opportunities in this town just to operate a dump, a dump we do not own,” Madore added.
Bennett said Wednesday that LePage was allocating to East Millinocket and Millinocket $504,000 each in Sudden and Severe Impact funds, not the $720,000 Millinocket is entitled to, because Millinocket leaders broke an agreement to contribute $50,000 annually to the maintenance of the East Millinocket-based landfill.
Millinocket’s schools, to which most of the $504,000 allocation would go, will not suffer because of the $216,000 loss, Bennett said Wednesday.
LePage also thought town leaders overvalued the Millinocket mill, Bennett said. The mill’s valuation helps determine the size of the town’s Sudden and Severe Impact payment, which the state is legally required to allocate to municipalities that suffer sudden losses to their tax base.
The state’s agreement to assume ownership of the landfill last year was a key component of a New Hampshire investor’s purchase of the East Millinocket and Millinocket mills last fall, a deal the LePage administration brokered. The restart of the East Millinocket mill restored 216 jobs to the Katahdin region.
“Millinocket is not honoring that deal,” Bennett said Wednesday. “All parties agreed that they were going to pay for the costs associated with Dolby. Is it hardball? Yeah. Did they break a deal? Absolutely.”
State officials have “done everything in our power to keep our word. We expect the same from town officials,” Bennett added.
“I want people to understand how bogus this claim is,” Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said during Thursday’s meeting. He accused LePage of “putting out this erroneous venom as a way of avoiding paying what the town is due under the law.”
Bennett did not immediately respond to telephone messages and emails requesting comment on Thursday.
During the meeting, Conlogue released 24 pages of correspondence between state and town officials that he said proved that Millinocket only agreed to a one-time $50,000 payment toward the landfill. In none of the documents do town officials speak of a partnership.
Councilors challenged LePage to provide documentation showing that they agreed to continuously pay for landfill operations.
“What has been printed is a boldfaced lie,” Councilor John Raymond said of Bennett’s comments in Thursday’s Bangor Daily News.
If anyone broke the deal, councilors said, it was LePage. He ignored key components of the council’s Dec. 20 resolve to allocate $50,000 to the landfill. He opted not to endorse state Rep. Herbert Clark’s pending bill that would allocate $250,000 from state coffers to the landfill starting July 1.
LePage ignored Millinocket’s condition that the town be indemnified from any landfill liabilities. Town leaders agreed to drop LePage’s endorsement of Clark’s bill from their stipulations, but not the latter condition, Conlogue said.
In connecting the landfill to the Sudden and Severe Impact funding, LePage leaped beyond logic and injected himself in a debate the governor’s office doesn’t belong in, council Chairman Jonn Davis said.
Under state law, Sudden and Severe Impact funding comes through several state offices — including the state assessor, comptroller and Maine Department of Education — but not LePage, Conlogue said.
“He has no place in this,” Conlogue said, adding that the town’s attorney has said that he believes LePage is breaking state law.
Councilors agreed Thursday to have Clark, D-Millinocket, draft a bill seeking permission from the state Legislature for Millinocket to sue the LePage administration for the $216,000. Under state law, the Legislature must agree that municipalities have grounds to sue the state, Conlogue said.
They also voted 5-1 to table a motion to rescind a Dec. 20 vote to allocate the $50,000 to landfill operations to give LePage time to reconsider. The council will reconsider the matter at its next meeting on March 22.
Millinocket leaders have been getting an up close and personal introduction to the governor’s style all week, Davis said.
Apparently angry at a Davis letter mailed last week in which Davis sought the full $720,000 and defended the town’s valuation of the mill, LePage telephoned Conlogue on Tuesday and told him Millinocket must take the $504,000 payment or lose it, Conlogue said.
“He lit into me,” Conlogue said of the short conversation. “‘Good morning, Governor,’ was about the last coherent sentence I got in.”
LePage seemed to dare the town to sue the state and even threatened to pull his support for a plan to run a natural gas pipeline to the Katahdin region, an important part of the mills’ survival and LePage’s economic plans for the region, Conlogue said.
Bennett’s statements came the next day, and Millinocket received a check in a certified-mail envelope for $504,000 on Thursday. Town officials have locked the check in the town safe and will keep it there for now, Davis said.
Several councilors and residents said LePage’s threats undermine his claims to be pro-education and pro-business.
“This is child education money that was supposed to come here by law. I would hate to think that this is education versus a dump,” Councilor Gilda Stratton said. “That article in the paper really disgusted me. We have been trying to be above-board all along.”