EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Town leaders denied Tuesday that they had a handshake deal with Gov. Paul LePage to oversee or fund the operations of the Dolby landfill beyond this fiscal year.
Speaking for the first time about the dispute between Millinocket officials and LePage and about their own efforts to address Dolby operations — a key element of the restart of their town’s mill — Selectmen Clint Linscott and Mark Scally each related what they knew of the landfill discussions.
“What is difficult is that nobody has agreed to anything. This is all in negotiations,” Scally said Tuesday.
Scally expressed surprise that LePage was treating Dolby “like it was a done deal. The handshake only involved us saying goodbye to everyone: that it was nice to meet you and we will work on this.”
Linscott, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said town leaders had a handshake agreement with LePage to keep the Dolby landfill going that included town workers taking on security patrols, snowplowing and other chores state leaders wanted done at the landfill.
Linscott said he would support making it a multiyear deal, but no state officials, including the governor, have sought one.
“I don’t like a multiyear deal, but I am going to do what it takes to protect these two mills and towns,” said Linscott, who succeeded Scally as the board’s chairman in November. “The mill is our lifeline. It is the last industry we have.”
Scally’s statements prompted a rebuttal Tuesday from LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett, LePage senior economic adviser John Butera and Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley.
Butera noted that his testimony before legislators last spring, when the LePage administration was pushing the Legislature to take ownership of the landfill, made it clear that the state would seek to get rid of its Dolby commitment as soon as possible, “but we didn’t know when that might be.”
The Legislature’s vote to take ownership of Dolby was a key element of the revitalization of the East Millinocket paper mill, restoring 216 jobs to the region’s economy.
LePage and Millinocket officials have been sparring over the landfill since Bennett said earlier this month that the state would withhold from Millinocket about $216,000 in state Sudden and Severe Impact funds because the governor believed the town had broken a handshake deal to share over many years the cost of operating the landfill.
Millinocket leaders were outraged at the claim. They said they had agreed only to a one-time $50,000 payment and LePage had lied and violated state law in an attempt to bully them out of a full payment of $720,000 in state aid, which is legally due to them as compensation for the massive devaluation of the Millinocket mill, which remains closed.
LePage authorized Sudden and Severe Impact payments of $504,000 to each of the towns for the devaluation, which Millinocket officials said was an illegal intervention into the state chain of command that governs the release of those funds.
LePage believes that Millinocket officials had overvalued their town’s paper mill for several years, calling it “highly unrealistic.” Millinocket leaders responded that the valuation was a legal agreement several years old that LePage had no business attempting to recast.
Millinocket and East Millinocket agreed to pay $50,000 each in cash or in-kind service donations, and the state $150,000, to Dolby operations, but never had a written contract outlining the deal or its duration.
On Tuesday, Linscott said that as far as he knew, state officials had last discussed the Dolby landfill with East Millinocket officials in December.
“They haven’t accepted or denied what we have offered,” Linscott said. “Negotiations are incomplete.”
East Millinocket’s selectmen cannot make a multiyear agreement unless residents vote to support it at the annual town meeting, Scally said. The next meeting is in June.
State officials had met several times with the towns’ leaders since September, the month a new investor agreed to purchase both mills, to discuss how to share operational costs of the Dolby landfill, which is in East Millinocket.
Liabilities with the landfill had scared off many prospective buyers of the mills until the Legislature agreed to assume ownership of Dolby last spring, but the bill authorizing the ownership failed to address how landfill operations would be funded.
“I don’t remember any discussion of this being a multiyear deal or a single-year deal,” Scally said.
Thomas said he recalled LePage assuring East Millinocket and Millinocket officials during a meeting several months ago that the state would get rid of the landfill as soon as possible.
Bennett pointed to language in a Sept. 20 letter from the Maine State Planning Office to the towns’ leaders praising the “partnership” they and the state had formed and thanking them for “their stated support in assisting the state” with landfill costs.
“What appears to have changed is the attitude of Millinocket officials,” Bennett said. “It went from all parties agreeing to deal with the costs associated with the landfill to an approach that seemed to be less willing to deal with the landfill expenses.”
When reached Tuesday, Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said he found Scally’s account most credible and said the town had good reasons to change its attitude.
Conlogue produced a copy of a Oct. 4 letter he wrote in response to the Sept. 20 missive in which he said state officials were assuming, incorrectly, that the towns’ pledge to work with the state on Dolby meant that town officials agreed to share Dolby costs.
“In reading your letter, I detect an assumption that the towns are ready to go with this arrangement. We are not as yet at that point,” Conlogue wrote to the state planning office. Town leaders later agreed to a one-year, $50,000 payment for Dolby.
On Tuesday, Conlogue said in a written statement that “I respectfully suggest that the governor admits that he misunderstood what has been discussed with him and his staff and that he immediately release the additional $216,000” the state owes the town.
He said that Butera’s statements on the Dolby landfill before the Legislature came well before state leaders suggested they share Dolby’s costs, which the town is willing to do — but only for a year.
Later suggestions from LePage that the towns share Dolby profits while agreeing to assume the dump’s costs indefinitely were untenable, Conlogue said.
“The concern I have is that we have to be accountable to taxpayers and we cannot be gambling local taxpayer money for unknown and potentially huge [landfill] liabilities in the future,” Conlogue said.
“I’m not sure what to make of it,” Conlogue said of LePage’s position on Dolby. “Clearly he is disappointed, but he is disappointed about something that has never been in play.”
These “are really not negotiations,” he added. “We cannot take the risks associated with this” beyond a year.
Millinocket’s Town Council will meet Thursday to determine whether to hire counsel to sue the state. That day the legislative council is due to review a bill by Rep. Herb Clark, D-Millinocket, that seeks the Legislature’s approval of any Millinocket attempt to sue the state, which state law requires.
The Senate passed a bill Monday to appropriate $250,000 to landfill operations starting July 1 if the Appropriations Committee can find the funding in the state budget. Thomas, the bill’s co-sponsor, said LePage or someone from his administration likely would have to support the bill to guarantee its passage.
The House passed the bill on Thursday.
Millinocket leaders also will discuss rescinding their Dec. 20 vote to make a one-time $50,000 payment for landfill operations. Clark has asked the Maine Attorney General’s Office to rule on whether LePage can legally withhold the tax relief funding from Millinocket.
East Millinocket officials, meanwhile, will wait to see how the situation develops.
“We want to make this work. It is for everybody’s benefit,” Scally said.
“I think the governor did his job up here,” Linscott said in reference to the mill’s restart and the Dolby dealings. “We’re going to sit back and watch, make sure we live up to our part of the bargain.”