MILLINOCKET, Maine — Town leaders will appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Friday a lower-court decision denying the town $216,000 in state education funding that Gov. Paul LePage ordered withheld last year.
Councilors informally agreed to pursue the appeal during a meeting on Thursday, a day before the filing deadline. No vote was taken and Councilor Michael Madore was absent, but it appeared that only Councilors Jimmy Busque and Gilda Stratton objected.
Both councilors said they feared that the appeal’s legal fees would be big enough to make winning almost pointless, while council Chairman John Davis said the risk was worth it.
“We think the facts are in our favor and that we got hit with a technicality,” Davis said after the meeting. “We feel the decision of the judge to dismiss was arbitrary and capricious and that we have good grounds for an appeal.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett did not immediately return telephone and email messages on Thursday night.
Kennebec County Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills dismissed Millinocket’s complaint on Dec. 21 because Millinocket’s request for the additional funding was filed after the 30-day deadline imposed by the Maine Administrative Procedures Act.
Under the law, she ruled, a civil court petition for review of an administrative decision would have had to be filed within about 30 days of LePage’s decision to allocate only about $504,000 of $720,000 the town was owed under the Sudden and Severe Impact law. LePage’s decision was announced March 7. The town’s lawsuit was filed June 12.
“We should not have sued,” Busque said Thursday. “The lawyers representing us have said, ‘We’re right, we can win this,’ but we haven’t won so far, it’s costing us money and the only ones who win are the lawyers.”
Busque questioned whether the town would still get the $504,000 it is owed for the 2011-12 fiscal year, which ended June 30, and the $720,000 town officials believe it is owed for the 2012-13 fiscal year. The state mailed a check to the town for $504,000 within a week of the governor’s decision, but town officials opted not to cash it. Accepting the money would have meant forgoing an appeal, town officials said.
Davis and Councilor Richard Angotti Jr. agreed that the appeal carried risks and that the situation with the severe impact funding, which comes to the town annually in compensation for the devaluation of the town’s mill, is uncertain.
The fight began between Millinocket and LePage on March 7. That’s when LePage claimed that town leaders broke their pledge to pay $50,000 annually toward the estimated $250,000 annual cost of the maintenance and operation of the Dolby landfill in East Millinocket used by the region’s two paper mills.
Millinocket officials angrily denied the claim and produced correspondence that they said made clear that their commitment was for one year only, and the Maine Municipal Association called LePage’s actions unprecedented. East Millinocket leaders said they also never agreed to multiyear payments.
The state assuming ownership of the landfill was a crucial part of the LePage administration’s enticement of a New Hampshire investor to purchase the two mills in the fall of 2011. The East Millinocket mill’s restart returned more than 250 jobs to the region.
Madore called LePage a “bully” for his actions, and other town leaders criticized the governor for connecting education funding to a landfill in another town that was crucial to new ownership of the region’s paper mills.
None of these things, they said, had anything to do with the funding of town schools.
Davis said no vote was necessary on Thursday because the town’s attorney was instructed to file the appeal on Friday unless he heard that the council majority had opposed the plan.
The appeal could always be withdrawn later, he said.