MILLINOCKET, Maine — Let them sue.
Gov. Paul LePage reiterated that message Tuesday in response to Millinocket town leaders’ threat to sue the LePage administration over the governor’s decision to withhold about $216,000 in state-mandated economic relief funding.
“What can we do? If they are going to litigate, they are going to litigate,” LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Tuesday. “We certainly don’t welcome anybody suing us, but the town is going to have to make that decision.”
The Town Council’s lawsuit threat came in response to LePage’s decision last Wednesday to allocate to East Millinocket and Millinocket $504,000 each in Sudden and Severe Impact funds, not the $720,000 Millinocket is entitled to, because he believed Millinocket leaders broke an agreement to contribute $50,000 annually to the maintenance of the Dolby landfill in East Millinocket.
Millinocket leaders denied the accusation on Thursday, the same day they received a $504,000 check. They said LePage was lying and trying to bully them out of needed state funding by illegally withholding the Sudden and Severe Impact funds.
Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said that in a conversation with LePage on March 6, the governor seemed to dare town leaders to sue the state and threatened to pull his support for a natural-gas pipeline that would run from the Old Town area to the Katahdin region.
Conlogue couldn’t say Tuesday whether Millinocket would sue the state.
“We are exploring the possibility and we are taking steps in that direction, but we have nothing firm yet because we are still hopeful that the governor will still recognize the need to follow the law,” Conlogue said.
The council will discuss the issue during its March 22 meeting, Conlogue said.
On Tuesday, Bennett sought to distance LePage from Conlogue’s statement about the pipeline, not confirming or denying whether the threat occurred.
“This administration is not going to play this out in the media, and that statement being characterized as a threat from Mr. Conlogue is concerning,” Bennett said. “The pipeline is a crucial element to the economic development of that region.”
“The governor has proven over the past year that he is committed to the Katahdin region and doing whatever he can do to further develop the economic growth in that area and throughout the state,” Bennett added.
The state’s assuming ownership of the landfill was crucial to the state-engineered sale of the two Katahdin region mills and the restart of the East Millinocket mill, which restored 216 jobs to the region in October. The gas pipeline is seen as a key element to the mills’ survival.
Mandated by state law to go to municipalities that suffer significant property-tax losses, the Sudden and Severe Impact funds will help the towns recover from the massive devaluation of their two paper mills last year as part of the sale.
Because the Legislature’s ownership agreement contained no funding for landfill operations, East Millinocket and Millinocket leaders have been negotiating with the state over landfill-operation costs since the mills’ sale last fall.
Both towns agreed to give the landfill $50,000 each in cash or in-kind services, with the state providing $150,000, but Millinocket and state officials disagree about the duration of the payment period.
Millinocket officials said they agreed to pay for one year, while LePage said the towns and state have a multi-year verbal agreement ― a handshake deal ― to make annual payments in support of landfill operations. East Millinocket officials have declined to comment on the dispute.
Rep. Herbert Clark, D-Millinocket, said Tuesday that the landfill and Sudden and Severe Impact funding were separate issues LePage had mistakenly combined.
“He is using that [the landfill] as a ploy to get Millinocket on board with the Sudden and Severe funding,” Clark said.
Clark plans to meet Thursday with House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, to discuss LePage’s handling of Millinocket’s state aid.
Clark has pending before the Legislature a bill that would have the state allocate $250,000 to landfill operations starting July 1 and plans to submit by Friday a new bill that would give Millinocket permission to sue the state over the $216,000 cut. Under Maine law, a municipality needs the Legislature’s approval to sue the state.
Clark has also sought legal opinions on LePage’s actions from the Maine Attorney General’s Office, the Maine Department of Education and Maine Revenue Services, he said.
“A lot of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle [Republicans] have come to me saying: ‘What can we do? We think what is being done to your town is wrong,’” Clark said.
He doubted that LePage, who advertises Maine as “Open for Business,” would pull support for the pipeline.
“That sends an awful signal to everybody,” Clark said. “I can’t fathom him doing it. He might think it, but I can’t see him doing it.”