MILLINOCKET, Maine — The revised state budget Gov. Paul LePage signed Wednesday doesn’t end his feud with town leaders over $216,000 in withheld education aid despite its funding the item that set off the fight, officials said.
The budget includes $320,000 to fund operations of the state-owned Dolby landfill in East Millinocket — which includes enough money to cover a $50,000 payment that Millinocket pledged to pay — but doesn’t add $216,000 to the $504,000 in Sudden and Severe Impact funds the town already has, officials said. LePage signed the budget on Wednesday, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said.
An amendment to the Department of Health and Human Services budget that Rep. Herb Clark proposed during Tuesday night’s session, which would have allocated $216,000 to Millinocket, was defeated in the House by a 72-71 vote, officials said.
“The governor and the state owe Millinocket taxpayers a check. I’m just fighting to keep our schools open for the children of Millinocket,” Clark, D-Millinocket, said in a statement. “The governor of a state should never blackmail the people of one small town. But that’s exactly what [the governor] is doing to my town of Millinocket.”
“ It has become a high-stakes game of chicken that must end,” Clark said.
Clark added in an interview that the Republican support his amendment drew showed that members of the governor’s party side with Millinocket.
Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, who led the Dolby funding effort with Clark, expressed regret that the education aid controversy hasn’t been settled.
“What do we do? We have the governor and Town Council in Millinocket and nobody seems willing to give,” said Thomas, who twice arranged meetings between town and state officials to settle the dispute. “Between them they are going to have to settle it. What do any of the rest of us do?
“They planted their feet and there they are,” Thomas added. “We sat down and we talked about it and there is no middle ground.”
Bennett, who has said that state education officials have assured the governor that $504,000 would meet the town’s educational needs, said Wednesday that state officials are continuing discussions with businesses interested in running the Dolby as part of a private initiative. The business representatives toured the landfill in late March.
A successful conclusion to those talks would end the state’s need to fund Dolby at all, Bennett said. She declined to comment on the $216,000 dispute.
The fight began when LePage claimed that town leaders broke their pledge to pay $50,000 annually toward the landfill’s estimated $250,000 costs. He issued $504,000 on March 7 instead of the $720,000 the town is owed in Sudden and Severe Impact funds.
As part of the $250,000 deal state officials were engineering, East Millinocket pledged another $50,000 in cash and services to complement the $150,000 the state would have offered.
Sudden and Severe Impact funds are state monies given to municipalities to cushion against steep tax losses ― in the towns’ case, the closure of their paper mills. The LePage-engineered sale of both mills to a New Hampshire investor was crucial to the East Millinocket mill’s restart last October, restoring more than 200 jobs.
Millinocket officials angrily denied LePage’s claim. Saying LePage had connected unrelated issues and acted illegally, town leaders produced a string of correspondence that showed they never agreed to more than one $50,000 payment.
During the state’s budget deliberations, legislators upped the landfill allocation from $250,000 to $320,000 to cover Millinocket’s $50,000 and all unanticipated landfill expenses to June 30, Clark said. The budget signed Wednesday includes provisions for the state to continue funding landfill operations starting July 1.
Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said he was pleased that LePage didn’t veto the Dolby funding but saddened that the town is still short money.
Conlogue called the budget “an opportunity for the governor to put aside whatever personal feelings he had and help a small town that needs the money.”
The Town Council and school committee will meet in a special session at Stearns High School at 4 p.m. Wednesday, May 23, to discuss whether to sue the state for the withheld $216,000. LePage has professed indifference to the threat of litigation.
The schools, which receive their funding through the town as a department of municipal government, haven’t yet felt the lack of the money, Conlogue said. The town’s second-half tax payments in April are sustaining town coffers.
“We are going to be close on that. It will become an issue down the road,” Conlogue said.