EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — The town received a first payment Tuesday of state Sudden and Severe Impact funding that is part of a dispute between Gov. Paul LePage and Millinocket town leaders, school Superintendent Quenten Clark said.
The $336,149 payment covers about nine months of this fiscal year. The next payments will be folded into the regular state education subsidy and total about $99,426 a month for the next three months, about $42,000 more than the town typically gets in state education funds, Clark said.
The School Department’s solvency never was threatened by the delay of payments, Clark said, but it could have been, and the uncertainty about whether East Millinocket would get the money wasn’t easy to live with.
“I’m just relieved that it is all over,” Clark said Tuesday. “For us it is a huge amount of money.”
The funding’s apparently late release — Clark believed it would arrive about six weeks ago — and the LePage-Millinocket dispute were among the reasons East Millinocket leaders were reticent about discussing their dealings with the LePage administration and Millinocket’s feud with the governor.
Unlike the single $504,000 payment Millinocket received in early March, East Millinocket’s money came through regular channels in the typical manner, Clark said.
For his part, Clark thinks the feud is largely a case of misunderstanding that arose from the informal negotiations between the towns and the LePage administration.
“I don’t think there are any bad people here. This is just the way business happens in Augusta,” Clark said. “When you think about the 1,800 bills in the Legislature and you constantly have people advocating for and against them, written contracts are pretty much impossible.”
“They don’t do contractual stuff. That is how government functions there,” Clark added. “I expect in Washington it is the same.”
Sudden and Severe Impact funds are state money given to municipalities that suffer severe tax valuation losses, such as those caused by the devaluation a year ago of the two towns’ paper mills.
On March 7, the LePage administration announced that East Millinocket and Millinocket each would receive about $504,000 in Sudden and Severe Impact funds. Millinocket would have received $216,000 more, but LePage claimed that Millinocket officials broke their pledge to pay $50,000 annually toward the operation of the East Millinocket-based Dolby landfill.
LePage also believed that for many years the Millinocket mill was overtaxed.
Millinocket leaders said LePage had lied and they had agreed only to a one-time contribution to Dolby operations. State officials had proposed to allocate $150,000 annually to landfill operations, with East Millinocket and Millinocket contributing $50,000 each in cash or in-kind services annually.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Clint Linscott said that he had been confident that the state funds eventually would arrive.
Former board Chairman Mark Scally and Linscott, who succeeded Scally in November, have said that they did have an agreement to offer $50,000 of in-kind services to the landfill and were committed to doing whatever they could to safeguard the future of the paper mills and landfill, but that their $50,000 arrangement never extended past July 1.
State officials “held up their part of the bargain,” Linscott said Tuesday. “Now we have to move into the future.”
“My concerns still are about protecting these towns and these mills,” he added.
East Millinocket residents will have to approve the in-kind allocation at a town meeting later this year, Linscott said.
In Millinocket, meanwhile, school Superintendent Kenneth Smith said his department still can pay the bills but that things might get tight later in the year if the LePage-Millinocket battle isn’t resolved.
Millinocket has held onto the $504,000 check because state officials have said that cashing it would mean accepting the $216,000 loss. All of that money is due to go to the schools, Smith said, although town officials have maintained that $158,000 of it belongs in town coffers.
“We need the money. It is still pinned to our budget as a revenue and you just don’t throw away $720,000,” Smith said.
Clark said he never suspected from the meetings he attended that controversy would erupt. Clark and Scally said that LePage was cordial, businesslike, even jovial as town and state leaders gathered in the most recent meeting Clark attended in Augusta six weeks ago.
“His secretary wanted the governor to leave [to keep other appointments] and he kept talking to us. He was just chatting after a while,” Clark said. “I have seen him when he was in rare form, and he wasn’t. He was businesslike. It was a relatively relaxed meeting, I thought.”
LePage wanted a partnership and all sides seemed to agree on that point. He originally wanted the state and towns to share equally in Dolby costs but agreed to the towns each contributing a quarter of the expenses, Clark said.
“I went to my car, I called [the School Department’s] business manager and I said, ‘They cut a deal. We are going to get the money,’” Clark said. “The next thing I knew, they didn’t have a deal.”