House passes operations bill for landfill at center of LePage, Millinocket dispute

Posted March 15, 2012, at 7:39 p.m.
Paul LePage
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Paul LePage

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill Thursday that would provide $250,000 starting July 1 for the operation of the Dolby landfill, a key element of a dispute between Gov. Paul LePage and Millinocket town leaders.

LD 1683 now goes to the Senate for review. If the Senate approves the bill, the Legislature’s appropriations table will review it to ensure the funding for it is there, according to Rep. Herb Clark, D-Millinocket, the bill’s sponsor.

Clark said he hoped LePage, who earlier declined to support the bill, wouldn’t veto it.

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, did not immediately return messages left Thursday.

Legislators “know at the end of the day that this needs to be done,” Clark said Thursday of the bill’s passage. “It has gone so much further than I thought. There was so much reluctance initially. But members of the House, with all the communication going on, know that we have to do something with it.”

“Communication” was Clark’s word for the accusations of lying, bullying and deal-breaking hurled between town officials and LePage over what the governor called “a handshake deal” to fund operations at the landfill in East Millinocket.

East Millinocket and Millinocket agreed to provide $50,000 in funding or in-kind services for landfill operations, with state government contributing $150,000, but Millinocket and state leaders disagreed about the duration of the partnership. Millinocket leaders maintain that the $50,000 payment was a one-shot deal; LePage said it would be an annual payment.

Bennett announced on March 7 that because Millinocket leaders had failed to keep their word, LePage was withholding from Millinocket about $216,000 of $720,000 in Sudden and Severe Impact funds due the town. That is state money given to municipalities that suffer severe tax valuation losses, such as those caused by the devaluation of the two towns’ paper mills.

The devaluation and the state assumption of ownership of the landfill last spring were key elements in the state-engineered sale of the two mills and the restart of the East Millinocket mill in October. The restart restored 216 jobs to the region.

A heated conversation between LePage and Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue on March 6, Bennett’s announcement on March 7, and the March 8 receipt of a certified check for $504,000 — with what Conlogue called LePage’s threat to “use it or lose it” — prompted town leaders to call the governor a bully who had lied about the Dolby deal.

They said LePage’s actions were illegal and that the landfill and tax relief funds were separate issues. They pledged to meet March 22 to consider whether to sue the state for the money. Clark has also asked Maine Attorney General William Schneider to rule on the legality of LePage’s withholding of the $216,000.

On Thursday, Conlogue said he was pleased at the House’s vote.

“There is no other known source to finance the operation of the landfill going forward except state government,” Conlogue said.

Clark had hoped to meet with House and Senate leaders on Thursday to discuss support for another bill of his, one in which legislators would give Millinocket permission to sue the state, but opted not to pursue the meeting.

“Sometimes,” Clark said, “you don’t want to push your luck.”

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