AUGUSTA, Maine — The state will fund operations of the Dolby landfill, possibly ending a dispute between Gov. Paul LePage and Millinocket town officials, if state legislators can find the money to run it in next year’s state government budget, officials said Monday.
The Senate voted to pass LD 1683 on Monday with the caveat that Appropriations Committee members first find the $250,000 that landfill operations required in next year’s state government budget, said the bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley.
Thomas, who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Herb Clark, D-Millinocket, said finding the money would likely require support from the LePage administration, which has publicly feuded with Millinocket leaders over funding for the landfill.
“My guess is that somebody from the administration will have to come down and tell Appropriations that this is necessary,” Thomas said Monday. “It is probably going to need more support from someone.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said she didn’t want to predict the governor’s actions.
“The Legislature has lots of ideas, but the money needs to be found before it [the bill] goes to the governor’s desk,” Bennett said Monday.
The House passed the bill on Thursday. The bill would probably be among the last things the committee would consider, Thomas said.
Among the options LePage is considering is to have a private firm run the landfill, which takes waste from the East Millinocket paper mill. A state request for proposals went out Saturday, Thomas said.
Two businesses have expressed interest in operating the Dolby already, Thomas said. A private firm’s assuming operational costs for the Dolby would likely relieve all parties of the landfill’s operational costs, he said.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher to find landfill space in Maine. I would be awfully surprised if this wasn’t something that someone wanted to operate,” Thomas said.
LePage “is a businessman and he will make the best business decision for the state of Maine,” Bennett said. “We will consider all viable options. We will assess as we go.”
The LePage-Millinocket dispute, which has given rise to accusations of bullying, lying and lawbreaking, seems to have arisen over the nature of an agreement among two Katahdin region towns and the state.
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.
Conlogue was pleased Monday with the Senate’s actions. He said Millinocket’s Town Council will meet Thursday to decide whether to retract a tentative vote on Dec. 20 to pay the $50,000 and whether to appoint an attorney to represent the town in a lawsuit the town would file against the state seeking the $216,000.
That same day, a bill Clark is preparing that would grant Millinocket the Legislature’s approval to pursue a lawsuit will be reviewed by legislative council. If Clark’s bill passes that review, it will be referred to a legislative committee, Conlogue said.
Thomas hoped LePage’s administration would support LD 1683.
“We have done our part and we will leave it up to others,” Thomas said. “This option is now on the table, and I think that’s our job. We’ve given them an option.